In the world of Japanese contemporary theater, the Ku Na’uka company is famed for its unique “logos & pathos” method, in which each role on stage is performed by one narrator/speaker (in the “logos” role) and one performer/mover (in the “pathos” role).
As well, since its founding in 1990, Ku Na’uka — meaning “towards science” in Russian — has been one of Japan’s foremost theatrical exports, touring abroad almost every year — sometimes more than once in a year — as far afield as Tibet and South Korea, Morocco, Egypt, Italy, Russia and the United States. From tomorrow, though, Japanese audiences will not have to dig out their passports to enjoy a new version of the company’s hallmark production of “Tenshu Monogatari (Story of the Donjon),” the 1917 romantic classic by Kyoka Izumi. It will run for six days on an open-air stage in Shiokaze Park next to Tokyo Bay in Odaiba.
Speaking between rehearsals last week — barely over jet lag from the latest five-country, two-continent tour — the founder, director and driving force behind Ku Na’uka, 42-year-old Satoshi Miyagi, took time to talk not so much about his latest production as his distinctive vision of theater.
|The hobgoblin Princess Toyohime (Mikari) on stage at Cairo Opera House last September in Ku Na’uka’s production of “Tenshu Monogatari”|
With disarming candor, Miyagi explained his initial attraction to theater, first as a rakugo performer in his teens. “I had a physical complex as a small, short man, so to express myself I turned to the stage, as a dancer and actor when I was at high school in Tokyo.”
Since then, he explains, his enthusiasm for the stage has only grown. “I have been engrossed in the theater world for nearly a quarter century, since I directed and acted in my first play. In part this is because in theater there is never any point of total completion — so I can never know the limit of my possibility.”
In 1980, during his time studying aesthetics at the University of Tokyo, Miyagi started his first performance group which he directed as well as acting in several avant-garde one-man plays in what he calls his “moratorium period” of introspection. Even then his work, often productions of contemporary novels, was being widely acclaimed in the capital’s theater circles.
At that time, too, he made the first of many foreign tours, taking a leading part in “Se-wori-chotta,” a collaborative work with Korean director Lee Yuntaek that played in both South Korea and the United States. Despite his flying start, though, Miyagi says that with that tour he felt he had reached the limit of what he could express by himself.
“I had begun to feel complacent about my solo performance; I knew then the limits of one person’s ability. In so far as I produced something from my own fountain of creativity, there was a limit of scale, I thought. So I established the Ku Na’uka theater company in 1990, and I started to concentrate on directing.”
It was only then, he says, that his real quest to explore the possibilities of theater began.
His remarkable “logos & pathos” innovation is founded on bunraku, the Japanese puppet theater that flourished in the 17th century. More than 300 years later, however, Miyagi says, “I realized that people use words and movement (action) most efficiently in this modern world because they use them separately.
“In the conventional method of theatrical realism, the words actors speak, and the plot, are directly linked with their movement. Probably, in ancient times, these two were connected more directly when people expressed themselves more simply. But life now is a lot more complex and the way of using words has become much more multilayered, so in life our words and actions have become more remote from each other.”
He also explained this point in “The Limit of Theater,” a piece he wrote in July 1993. “If you try to guide the audience with actors’ speech lines, the imagination of the audience is restricted.
“Accordingly, it makes it clearer for the audience’s understanding of the play to give verbal information and acting information separately. So I separated what I call the ‘logos’ role and the ‘pathos’ role to convey the rip-current intention clearly.”
Through this approach, a particular synergism applies to performances overseas. In 1994, for instance, the Ku Na’uka company performed “Turandot” in English in the United States, with American actors in the logos roles (as storytellers). It also performed “Salome” in the same way in Spain and France in 1996, and then collaborated with American and French actors in a reverse way in Japan, with non-Japanese actors in the pathos roles as performers, not narrators.
None of this is accidental. “I included foreign audiences in our target from the start. I always believed Japanese theater should be welcomed more on the world stage. Our in some ways borderless, mixed-culture performances — such as Western plays performed by Japanese actors with local native-speaking narrators — have been well received wherever we have gone. “However, for me there would be no meaning if our work was only welcomed abroad as a curious guest. I have wanted the Western theater world to be influenced directly by Ku Na’uka, and for our productions to be accepted and discussed on the same level as local productions.”
Now, just back from a five-country tour where his company’s performances of “Medea” were widely acclaimed, Miyagi has a new version of the fantastical love story “Tenshu Monogatari” ready for Tokyo audiences to share in his driving quest for the nature of theater. Or, as his company’s brochure puts it: “A search for a principal of humanity . . . an exploration of the fundamentals of Life and Death, Love and Hate.”
Those joining in Miyagi’s latest experiment in Odaiba will be transported back to a warlike period in the past where, on the fifth story of Shirasagi castle, hobgoblins live and people believe no one who strays there will ever return. One day, however, Princess Toyohime, head of the hobgoblins, is visited by Zushonosuke, a liege of Lord Takeda who is looking for a fine falcon she has stolen from his master. Toyohime is moved by his bravery and integrity, and sends him back to the human world. But Zushonosuke comes back again, and she falls in love with him. Though she forgave him once, it seems the fates cannot forgive pure romance between a man and a woman who live in different worlds. Things go wrong, and love turns to tragedy. The quest goes on.