Theatrical experiences don’t get much more intimate than at the Umegaoka Box in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward. The room-size home of the Rinko Gun theater company is barely four meters from front to back (including the floor-level acting area) and 15 meters across, meaning there’s no place for either the 40 audience members or the actors to hide.
In a leaflet handed out at the door, Yoji Sakate, the leader of Rinko Gun, described this space now hosting “Zou (Elephant)” as being like “a modern shelter.” The description is appropriate, not only for the look of the place but also for this play, whose central characters are survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bombing.
“Zou” is an early masterpiece by one of the country’s leading contemporary dramatists, 66-year-old Minoru Betsuyaku, whose 120-odd works are generally categorized as “theater of the absurd.” Sakate’s decision to stage this play — written in the year he was born, 1962 — was surely informed by its relevance to the current Japanese political situation, specifically the widely regretted but apparently imminent dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces of this constitutionally war-renouncing nation to an area of conflict.
As a dim light begins to penetrate the theater’s total blackness, we see on stage a young man (Gentaro Shimofusa) squatting by a wall and questioning aloud the value of his existence. Then his uncle (Tsunekazu Inokuma) enters and the young man’s universal inquiries are addressed in a seemingly quite different way by this strong-minded, eccentric atomic-bomb victim.
Long hospitalized, the old man is wheeled on stage in a metal bed. We listen as his thoughts turn to his past, when he was called a “keloid man” and earned small change exhibiting his radiated body with its burned, elephantlike skin to passersby on the street. Now, all he longs to do before he dies is put on his show again in Hiroshima — just as, Betsuyaku explained in a recently published book of interviews titled “Theater Now” — one man actually did in the stricken city shortly after the war.
But then, confoundingly, we discover that the young man, too, is an atomic-bomb victim. In fact, his introspection and withdrawal, we realize, are far more typical of Japan’s tens of thousands of hibakusha (atomic-bomb victims) than is the extrovert behavior of his barbecued and unashamed uncle. From these two poles, which are at the same time two sides of the same coin, the play develops its exploration of human reactions to tragedy — here in the still-familiar form of a weapon of instantaneous mass destruction.
The set offers no distraction, being simplified to the point of minimalism. The black-painted walls and background and black acrylic floor create a kind of black hole of the imagination, with only two beds and a stool by way of props.
The acting, too, is intentionally stylized and almost robotic, as the play develops through absurdist but cutting dialogue between the two male characters, the bed-bound victim’s wife (Mari Nakayama) and various doctors and nurses. There are, too, six black-clad actors who appear from the darkness like shadowy messengers from the subconscious to give voice to the uncle’s inner self: his suppressed rage, frustration, self-doubt and despair.
Throughout, though, it all comes back to the young man’s search for self and for life’s meaning in the wake of his shattering experience. And it’s to Sakate’s credit that, while framing this grotesque event in human history in an absurdist vehicle, he does so with cool, focused observation and a great stage sense that lets the drama speak directly to the audience.
It is with good reason that absurdist plays are often described as confusing and difficult. It is rare that they are well made or well staged — few are more than mere stunts or nonsense. Here, though, Sakate demonstrates masterfully that there are times when only the absurd can clearly express the truth — absurd as it often is — of the human experience.