SHIKI THEATRE COMPANY

’50s cannibal masterpiece offers plenty to chew on

by Nobuko Tanaka

Down by Tokyo Bay, most people think of the industrial wasteland of Hamamatsucho merely as a convenient stop on the Yamanote Line, a station for changing onto the Haneda-bound monorail en route to faraway places. Theatergoers, though, and especially lovers of big, slick, Western-style productions, know that a mere eight-minute walk from the station takes them to the mecca of musicals in Japan — the Shiki Theatre.

This huge edifice amid a blighted landscape stands as a gleaming symbol of the success of the Shiki (Four Seasons) Theatre Company, founded in 1953 by now 70-year-old Keita Asari. Inside, it houses two, 1,000-seater auditoriums — one called Spring, which stages long-running, contemporary foreign musicals; the other called Autumn, for original musicals and plays, as well as retro musicals.

And to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year, last month the company opened Theatre Freedom right next door. The eighth of its theaters around Japan, this smaller, 500-seat house has an atmosphere quite unlike its neighbors. Entering by way of a cobbled path, inside the audience encounters a ruby-red color scheme, relieved here and there by the company’s motif — an Art Nouveau-style bunch of grapes. Though everything is new, it all feels velvety and warm, and reminded this visitor of one of the small traditional theaters in London’s West End.

Writing in the program, Asari, both founder and artistic director of the company, said he opened Theatre Freedom to serve as a venue principally for unembellished stagings of plays, rather than the glitzy musicals that have become the trademark of this company. Enhancing that direct approach to presentation is the intimacy of the auditorium, whose back doors are only 15 meters from the stage. Even those sitting in the back row on the second floor can get a clear view of the actors’ faces and hear every word.

In many ways, all this represents a return to Shiki’s origins when, without its own premises, it staged Shingeki (a term covering Western-style drama presented straight) in whichever small house would accommodate it.

Then, in the 1980s, the company changed tack and began acquiring the rights to major Western musicals, which it produced in line with the original staging but in Japanese with Japanese casts. In so doing, Shiki became the leader of a boom that saw the appeal of musicals spread beyond regular theatergoers to a wider population. The buoyant mood of these large shows perfectly matched the excesses of the then-rampant bubble economy. The result, for Shiki, was huge, huge profits.

Though Japan’s bubble burst at the beginning of the ’90s, Shiki’s bubble never has, and now — 20 years after it staged its first foreign musical — “Cats” — the company has become a pillar of the Japanese stage, mounting (according to its Web site) an astonishing 2,300 performances every year.

Despite this, Asari has never forgotten his roots. As he said in a recent interview: “This is called Theatre Freedom because I would like to open its doors to many different people. I also have an idea to let talented young dramatists or local drama groups use this theater for free.”

For its opening playlist through to next July, Theatre Freedom planned eight productions, of which the current “Hikarigoke (Shining Moss),” written by Taijun Takeda in 1954, is its second after “Ondine” by Jean Giraudoux. The others to come — reflecting the company’s Shingeki origins — include five foreign plays, among them “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare and “Equus” by Peter Shaffer.

“Hikarigoke,” first performed in 1957 by the Shiki Theatre Company, is based on an incident in World War II when a small Japanese warship sinks in a storm off Hokkaido in 1943. Only the captain (Takeshi Kusaka) and three others make it to a small island and find shelter in a cave. It’s here we meet them, starving to death, as the first act opens.

After the oldest sailor, Gosuke (Ikuro Takahashi), dies, the remaining trio face the awful dilemma of whether to eat him or die themselves. At this point, two of them decide they have no choice but to break the taboo on cannibalism. However, the other refuses because he had promised his dead shipmate he would never eat him. Soon he, too, is dead — and is eaten. Down to just two, both survivors are wracked by fears of who will kill the other first. The remaining young sailor — so the captain says — goes mad and disappears, probably drowned, shortly before he himself — the sole survivor — is rescued. The second act then unfolds in a courtroom, where the captain is on trial for cannibalism.

When it was first staged, the striking, avant-garde set by Koaru Kanamori won huge acclaim. This time, Shiki has faithfully reproduced that original set. In the first act we see the castaways’ cave as the interior of a white box, with perspective lines and many holes in the walls through which light enters.

In the second act the captain, dressed all in white, stands alone and accused in the center of the “box.” Filling the holes, though, are caricatured masks representing public opinion, with different faces picked out by lights as they “speak.” So, while the captain conducts his defense and self-analysis in a calm and logical way, the masks challenge and attack his concept of morality. Asari wonderfully emphasizes the polarity of these two opposing positions by juxtaposing Kusaka’s rich elocution and the masks’ electronic speech.

Acutely relevant back in the 1950s, and chronically so now as Japan continues to wrestle with its past, we see here the captain arguing that there was no difference between him and the then-divine Emperor — since both had to shelve moral scruples in order to survive. What happened was therefore an individual decision that even His Imperial Highness may have made in the circumstances, he maintains — not a matter of right or wrong to be judged by others never put in that position. Human history, he argues, is full of actions that throw into question the notion of absolute values — and, by implication, the position of the Emperor during the war, no less.

Fascinatingly, at the end of this superbly staged drama, though the masks appear to condemn the captain, the ending is ambiguous — so ensuring this play remains as relevant in today’s Japan as it ever was.

In reality, after a long trial the captain was sentenced to just one year’s imprisonment. Meanwhile, during the trial, the Imperial Japanese Armed Forces’ orders were changed — making it a capital offense to resort to cannibalism involving a comrade . . . but acceptable if you dined on foreign flesh.

“Hikarigoke” runs till Dec. 23 at Theatre Freedom, an 8-minute walk from JR Hamamatsucho Station; tickets 3,000 yen to 7,500 yen. For more details of this and the upcoming program, call Shiki Theatre Company at (0120) 489-444 or visit www.shiki.gr.jp

A Tokyo festival dedicated to the work of Heiner Muller, the (originally East) German dramatist who is one of the giants of the contemporary theater world, has been running since October, offering audiences a fascinating chance to see how the current generation tackles his often heretical material. Although the festival will finish soon, there’s still time to catch the visiting Beijing Paper Tiger Studio Company performing Muller’s powerful “Murder Hamlet/Virus” Dec. 17-19, and to attend a special symposium on Dec. 23.

“Heiner Muller Theatre Festival” runs till Dec. 23 at several venues in Tokyo. Tickets 2,500 yen to 3,300 yen. For more details call the organizers at (03) 3235-7990 or (03) 5545-1385, or visit www.at-net.biz/hmw/