Mizu to Abura mix mime and the surreal

by Nobuko Tanaka

Formed in 1995 by Jun Takahashi, Shuji Onodera and Momoko Fujita, who graduated that year from the Nihon Mime Kenkyujo (Japan Mime Institute), Mizu to Abura (Water and Oil) became a foursome three years later when Reina Suga, another institute graduate, joined them.

In 1996, Mizu to Abura became the only Japanese company to win the prestigious Herald Angel Award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and then embarked on a sell-out world tour, including shows in Europe, the United States, Australia and Thailand. After that, it wasn’t long before this small troupe, moving on the margins of theater and contemporary dance, began to make its mark in Europe, where their performance at the Avignon Theatre Festival in 2000 drew critical acclaim.

With their international reputation assured, last year Mizu to Abura finally made it in Japan, scooping two major accolades in the shape of both the Asahi Performing Arts Award and the Kirin Dance Support Award. Their popularity is such that last week’s short run of their production “Schedule” at Setagaya Public Theatre’s cozy Theatre Tram saw the place packed, with young fans lining up for standing tickets.

Less is more for Mizu to Abura. The stage is bare at the start, with three male performers dressed in neat business suits and Fujita in a smart black dress. Using only simple props that they bring onstage themselves, the quartet act with restrained elegance when miming simple actions like standing at a bus stop or typing a letter. Likewise, the soundtracks of each sketch — be it the sound of typing, the doleful romantic strains of “Carmen” or contemporary British pop — are simple and to the point.

Yet at times sketches can take an unexpectedly absurd, and often humorous, turn. For instance, two actors competing for the same seat on a bench becomes a surreal round of musical chairs and personality clashes. In a similar vein, two people bumping into each other in the street as one looks at his watch become a human pinball machine, as the two hilariously collide, recoil and rebound.

Another sketch comments on gender roles, when a woman comes up behind a typing male mime, takes out the paper, then, eventually, after a slapsticky pas de deux, takes his place at the machine.

Poker-face expressions, speedy changes and the fluidity of movement make Mizu to Abura totally absorbing. At times some sketches play off one another in ways that make it feel as if Alice’s wonderland has been ushered onto the stage.

Altogether, this is oil and water that makes for a surprisingly fine mix. It’s not to be missed by any fan of theater, dance or performance art.