Acclaimed in Japan for the last quarter of a century as a drama director, writer and actor, Hideki Noda is set to become a major player on the world stage from Jan. 31, when his “Red Demon” opens for a near-monthlong run at the famed Young Vic in London’s West End.
Now 46, Noda has been at the forefront of Japanese contemporary theater since he was a student at the University of Tokyo in the 1970s. He was one of a small group of experimental directors who formed small theater companies of their own and were instrumental in triggering off a great flowering of drama, especially among young people, in what is popularly known as the shogekijo (small-scale theater) movement of the ’80s. Not content to rest on the laurels of this cultural reform to which he has contributed so much, though, Noda has constantly striven to broaden his, and Japan’s, theatrical horizons.
In 1992-93, he studied drama in London on a Monbusho (Culture Ministry) scholarship, and last summer he directed his first kabuki, “Togitatsu no Utare (Togitatsu’s Revenge)” (see Aug. 22, 2001 review). This spring, he will rise to yet another challenge when, at the New National Theater in Tokyo, he will direct his first opera, Verdi’s “Macbeth.”
During a short and hectic return home to Japan ahead of heading to London for the Young Vic’s publicity launch of its 2003 program, Noda last week talked to The Japan Times about his current project and the contemporary drama scene in both Japan and Britain.
He began by explaining that his imminent London debut was preceded by a visit to his drama workshop this year from 50-year-old former anthropologist David Lan. Lan, the artistic director of the Young Vic for the last three years, urged Noda to take “Red Demon” there. Noda, however, was apprehensive: “I didn’t want to do this production as a ‘made in Japan’ play, like a novelty guest from the Far East. Especially, I did not want to appeal to Western audiences on the basis of ‘Japaneseness’ or ‘Oriental mysteriousness,’ which is how Japanese arts are conventionally received in the West.”
Noda speaks from experience. His Tokyo-based theater company Yumeno Yuminsha went to the Edinburgh Theatre Festival twice, first in 1987 to stage “The Descent of the Brutes” and then in 1990 with “Half Gods.” However, he believes things have moved on since then. “I don’t think it is worth repeating that form of presentation, as that style of cultural exchange has already been done enough,” he said. “So now I would like to take a more advanced approach, in which I myself mix with English culture and create something together with English dramatists.
“In fact, some young Japanese artists and dramatists have already embarked on this kind of cultural exchange. In Japan, too, we have already absorbed a lot of Western culture and at this stage we have set about creating our generation’s own culture, mixing Western and traditional Japanese culture naturally. It’s time to show this current kind of Japanese culture abroad.”
On a smaller scale, in fact, Noda has already been active in this way, having for four years conducted workshops with British actors in London. This time, though, his challenge is to fill one of London’s premier venues for almost a month with his 1996 play, titled “Aka Oni” in Japanese. It was a sellout when he staged it in Tokyo with three Japanese actors and an English actor (Angus Burnett) in the title role of the Red Demon, an outsider from some other country who speaks in an incomprehensible language. This time, at the Young Vic, Noda himself takes the title role, acting with seven British actors and a British crew.
Reflecting on his previous cross-cultural collaborations, he said: “There were no difficulties creating something with British people through the workshops. Surprisingly, I felt with some British dramatists and actors that their thoughts were often near to mine — even more so than some Japanese actors with whom I have had a long-term relationship. That was a great surprise.
“On the other hand, of course, once I started to see more of the actual drama scene in Britain, and more plays there, I could see faults more clearly as well. For example, they sometimes think too much and make more of drama theory than actual practice on the stage.
“In the end, I believe that whether what happens on the stage is able to entertain and/or inspire the audiences, or whether it bores them, is the most important thing about theater.”
From his experience, Noda also pointed to what he called the risk of “English text doctrine.”
“When I went to England 10 years ago,” he explained, “the drama scene was more vibrant. At that time, though, I think it wasn’t just the drama scene, but also the whole of Britain that was more vibrant. The country had then just recovered from long-term recession, so it had gained a lively power, including in the arts, and it was so interesting. Now, Britain has recovered from the recession entirely, and people have perfect confidence in their culture again. Unfortunately, that confidence has seen them start taking their language too seriously, with a kind of English text doctrine developing in theater. I think there are plenty of possibilities for amusement and interest on the stage besides the text.”
About the cultural scene in Japan, however, Noda was more critical, observing that “exciting culture appears at times when influences mingle. Many cultures have been enriched by mixing with others, and this is a weakness of our almost unitary Japanese people.”
It is these kinds of issues that Noda addresses in “Red Demon,” whose title hints at as much, since in its Japanese form, oni not only means demon or devil, but also “outsider.” The play opens with a foreigner (many Japanese regard “white” people as having red faces) being found washed up on a beach near a very insular village somewhere in Japan. As the man looks so different from the villagers and speaks a language they don’t understand, the villagers name him Aka Oni (Red Demon). The play then develops through numerous episodes depicting the villagers’ reactions to, and against, the outsider.
Staged in Japan, with its Japanese villagers and English outsider, the play was an imaginative and clever way of expressing the closed nature of Japanese society to its mostly Japanese audience. From Jan. 31 at the Young Vic, though, the roles will be reversed, with Noda the outsider among seven British actors in front of a mostly British audience. As insularity is no longer one of British society’s biggest problems — its people have become accustomed to mixing with foreigners — it will be interesting to see not just what London’s considerable resident Japanese population makes of the production, but also how critics and audiences there receive Noda’s outsider.
Meanwhile, for Noda’s many followers in Japan who can’t make the trip to London, his next production, “Oil,” will open in April at the Theater Cocoon in Tokyo. This new work is, he said, “a sort of sequel to 1999′s ‘Pandora’s Bell,’ ” which generated a considerable response in the way it dealt with issues such as the Imperial system, nuclear weapons and the Americanization of Japan.
Though he declared that the most important thing about theater is whether it “entertains and/or inspires the audiences,” perhaps to that the word “challenges” should be added. It’s a definition of good theater that Noda’s productions exemplify.