The dangerous art of living quietly

by Nobuko Tanaka

Oriza Hirata’s 1995 Kishida Drama Award-winning “Tokyo Notes” opened in Japan for the first time in four years Sunday, after touring overseas to critical acclaim. Now being staged at the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Kinshicho by Seinendan, the company Hirata founded in 1983, this portrait of Japanese life seen through encounters in an art gallery seating area could hardly have a more magnificent or appropriate “theater” to play in.

Hirata first presented this calm, superficially mundane play in 1994 at his home base, the Komaba Agora Theater in Tokyo’s suburban Komaba Todaimae. The 40-year-old exponent of a unique drama style he terms “contemporary colloquial theater theory,” Hirata often has several actors speaking about different things at the same time, or speaking so softly they are hard to hear. They enact what he terms the “quiet and uneventful moments in life.”

But here, as with so much in the arts, it’s what is left out and what goes unsaid that, as much as the uneventful moments themselves, is the essence of the work.

Applying his theory to productions he staged in the ’90s, Hirata ushered in a period of what critics labeled “quiet drama” — a striking contrast to the intensities of the shogekijo (small-scale theater) movement that represented the enthusiastic youth culture of the bubble-fueled years.

Don’t be misled, though, into thinking “Tokyo Notes” is some kind of homey, self-absorbed bit of Japanese navel-gazing. Such a work would hardly have received the international acclaim that “Tokyo Notes” has enjoyed. It played in South Korea in 1999, and the United States and Canada in 2000, prior to a collaboration the same year with the young French director Frederic Fisbach that took it, in French and with a French cast, to theaters around that country, too.

The play comes to Tokyo this time fresh from a European tour, with a Japanese cast, that took in Ireland, Italy, Switzerland and France again. Here, as well as marrying form and content perfectly by being staged in a real art gallery, the cast has swelled from 20 to 40. Not all have speaking roles, though; some simply stroll around as “gallery-goers,” their presence creating a quiet tension as the audience wonders who among them will join in the action, when, and with what contribution.

This staging also features excellent subtitles in English. The script, though, is little changed from the original. Indeed, the plot’s continuing social relevance highlights something very disturbing at the heart of this play — a Japan quite adrift. Constructed through mundane conversations between strangers, families, friends, or curator and visitor, the play’s setting is the opening of a Vermeer exhibition titled “The Master of Light.” From the players’ conversations, we pick up hints of their inner troubles, whether a collapsing marriage, family strife, fears for the future or some dawning self-discovery.

Hirata set his play in 2004 in Tokyo and, at the time of writing, he imagined with some prescience events resembling those happening now. As we learn from the fragmented, eclectic and sometimes absurd (but always naturalistic) dialogue, a major war is raging distantly — in Europe — to which Japanese troops have been sent. There’s a serious economic recession and divorces are rising fast.

As well as uncannily sensing the future, though, Hirata is clinical in his depiction of the nature of Japan and its people. What we see here are exchanges (of a sort) between characters who never make the point; who shy away and stymie any discussion of “offensive” matters; and who attempt to reveal only the highlights of their lives — just as Vermeer’s portraits (one observes and then others repeatedly parrot) always have the light from a window shining on their subject.

When one of the main characters — a middle-aged spinster visiting from the countryside — meets her siblings and sister-in-law — their conversation nearly turns to confrontation, only for them to veer away and find sanctuary in the social niceties of bowing and formalized phraseology. Interestingly, in France, the critic of “Le Monde” termed these insubstantial, formal verbal exchanges “monologue” — though undoubtedly foreigners living in Japan will have other ways of describing this characteristic form of interaction devoid of content.

With all the cracks constantly papered over and all dispute avoided, everything appears peaceful among the group of gallery-goers. However, the play’s warning to Japanese society, first sounded eight years ago, is even more frightening today. It tells us, starkly and simply, that Japan has not changed at all — Japanese people are still content to perpetually waiver, more concerned about obscuring signs of trouble than dealing with the trouble itself.

Speaking briefly to Hirata after the performance, I suggested, “This is a fairly sarcastic play, isn’t it?” He answered, with a chuckle, “Iie, zenbu (It’s all sarcastic).” Certainly this beautifully staged play carries a cleverly disguised, but radical, message to society. Go — and, whether you’re foreign or Japanese, you’ll find out more than you’d like to, perhaps, about the enigma of inter-Japanese relations.