Pearls of Japanese contemporary theater
About a year ago I interpreted a lecture entitled Japanese contemporary theater today, in a program organized by the Japan Foundation. To be honest it was not a subject I found interesting. Although I like the theater, the word “contemporary” still made me nervous. Nonetheless, I spent the weekend before the lecture carefully studying theater terminology and trying to learn something about the specifics of contemporary Japanese theater.
The speaker was Hiroshi Takahagi deputy director of the Tokyo Metropolitan Theater, a nationally recognized theater professional. He often travels abroad and speaks extensively. I had the chance to meet him in person an hour before the presentation, in the Foundation’s office. I found him to be an exceptionally pleasant middle-aged gentleman who can spend hours talking enthusiastically about the theater and the special features of the Japanese theatrical world.
To briefly sum up his presentation: Japanese contemporary theater is the term used to describe a new western theater imported from Europe, primarily from Russia and Germany, and its development in Japan. Now, it has broken completely away from its European ancestors. To boot, there is no “orthodoxy”, meaning a generally accepted trend, and instead there are many fledgling efforts testing the waters. This is why there are more theater premieres in Tokyo than anywhere else in the world. And most plays have an ephemeral existence. The actors spend a month or two learning their roles and a few weeks performing the play, and then they start all over again learning new roles. It is very tough trying to make a living just from the theater in Japan too, so most actors work in television, films and other creative professions to make ends meet. Thus, the question really is whether Japanese contemporary theater has any future at all.
At the end of his presentation Mr. Takahagi showed videos of a number of Japanese initiatives. I found two particularly interesting, and would like to review them briefly.
- Chelfitsch (Website: http://chelfitsch.net/en/index.html)
The first has a strange mystique that deeply affected me. The company is called Chelfitsch, and it is headed by playwright and director Toshiki Okada. The name of the group is a play on the English word “selfish,” using the Japanese or childlike pronunciation of the word. The pieces they perform characteristically involve incomprehensible body language and movement that has absolutely nothing to do with the dialogue between the players.
5 days in March takes place in a “love hotel” during the war, where the two protagonists spend their days amidst the bombing. They use the time to wonder about whether the bombing will stop by the time they leave for home. Here’s an excerpt:
In the play called Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner and the Farewell Speech, the two protagonists discuss the cold, while moving their bodies in random ways. Here’s an excerpt:
- Company Derashinera(Website: http://www.onoderan.jp/website/?cat=7)
The other interesting item that I’d like to highlight is the theater of Shuji Onodera, which is halfway between theater and dance. The choreography is precise and the actors’ body movement is exceptionally coordinated, which makes the play enjoyable and at times humorous.
A scene from the play “A woman’s house”:
Quite a number of Japanese cultural events have been and are being brought to Hungary by the Japan Foundation, so I have high hopes that it will soon be possible to see performances by the above ensembles here in Budapest.
The photos come from the following websites: