Addressing social issues with drama


The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) is often dubbed “the father of modern drama” for being one of the first to place ordinary people squarely center stage. Forty-four-year-old Yoji Sakate, founder of the Rinkogun theater company, has now created not just an homage to this Scandinavian icon, but a modern Japanese reworking of Ibsen’s 114-year-old drama “An Enemy of the People,” which is playing at the Haiyu-za theater in Roppongi till June 4.

Sakate — the current president of the National Playwrights’ Association — has changed Ibsen’s male hero, Dr. Stockman, into a heroine, Tomoko Sudo (Mizuki Oura). Like Stockman, Sudo discovers that when she tries to report the outbreak of a deadly bacteria in her town’s water, no one — not her sister the mayor (Mari Nakayama), the editor of the local paper (Atsuko Eguchi) nor any other important citizens want the story to get out. Sakate adds references to the Ashio-Dozan copper-mine pollution scandal in 1890s and the simmering BSE beef crisis, to show how big money all too often has the last word in matters of social welfare. After a well-received debut last week, Sakate spoke to The Japan Times, explaining why he decided to present his version of this play now.

Why did you choose to rework this play and stage it at this time?

When I read the newly translated version by Mitsuya Mouri eight years ago, I strongly felt it was a comedy, because the hero [Mr. Stockman in that version] is so silly. Actually, Ibsen said that the play had a comedic sense, but previous versions have always focused on its serious side, about a “victim of society” who is socially isolated despite their pursuit of justice and the common good.

The script by Arthur Miller for the 1976 movie starring Steve McQueen and for several Broadway stagings took that angle. In fact, just last week I saw a DVD of Miller’s 1966 TV drama, and it was so serious, heavy and pessimistic — it seemed to herald the end of the world like some 1950s or ’60s sci-fi movie.

I thought it should be done in a lighter and more witty way, though. For example, in the fourth act Sudo addresses a public meeting to tell the people the truth, but her speech becomes a criticism of the idiocy of mass hysteria, and, as a result, she becomes more isolated. Even though I cut some of the heroine’s silly lines from my script, there is still plenty of stupidity left in her well-meaning stance. This aspect of humanity — the basic stupidity of human beings — is the key point of this play, and I think Ibsen was trying to expose that fundamental folly in people’s character.

So, how do you think your play fits with today’s Japan?

Well, if you look at current society in Japan, for example the scandal over forged documents regarding the earthquake resistance of new buildings, or the scandals over financial corruption that happen every day and everywhere, these lies routinely pass by with hardly any fuss. The people who have the social power and/or money control the police, and the police don’t want to arrest such people. The public accept this and close their eyes to such an unfair situation as if it were a Japanese tradition. They have given up trying to change the rules because it has been going on so long. I thought it was exactly the same as the story in “An Enemy of the People.”

The other reason I am doing this play now is that when I started in drama, it was in the middle of the underground movement in the 1970s and early ’80s, and we hardly ever wanted to revisit established works by playwrights such as Ibsen, Chekov or Shakespeare.

Recently I have been looking at these works again, and I realize how hard it is to determine what is just, or what is a fair opinion in general — such as with the recent argument about singing the traditional national anthem of Japan, Kimigayo, and raising the Hinomaru, the traditional national flag, at school events. I desperately wanted to do this play as it is about people who can’t face the truth.

Why did you change the hero into a woman?

When I read the play, I thought I could only do it with a woman — not a man. Nowadays, in Japan, many of the leaders of citizens’ campaigns are women, and also the leader of the Social Democratic Party has been a woman for a while. So it was necessary to change it to a heroine to be in tune with the modern day.

You are regarded as the leading social dramatist in Japanese theater. Do you think you are in the minority in the Japanese drama world?

Actually, many people tend to only talk very indirectly about social issues. If they want to make a direct comment, they must have the ability to express themselves correctly and cleverly.

Both Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” (1879) and ‘Hedda Gabler” (1890) are social dramas, but there are few people who can stage them and address the social issues within them in the correct way. Even the long-running TV soap by Sugako Hashida, “Wataru seken wa oni bakari (There are so many devils in society),” can be seen as a social drama, but people might not like to think so because they have a prejudice against so-called social drama — they believe it is agitating, and too highbrow.

You are actively working in other countries. What theatrical ideas do you want to bring to Japan from other countries?

Nothing special. Honestly, there are too many to take in. The biggest problem in Japan is the lack of money in the theater world, anyway. But we can’t just copy a system from abroad. I just want to urge people in the theater world in Japan to be more firm and strong individually. We can’t just envy other countries because the national context of the arts in Japan is fundamentally so different from Western countries.

People talk too much about having a better infrastructure or developing a way of changing the Japanese theater world, but I believe the basic point — wherever you are — is to consistently provide high-quality plays. Providing good plays, and cultivating quality audiences — of course I know that the idea of “cultivating the audience” is quite an arrogant idea — is the first thing we should do, and I believe that is something we can do at the moment, whatever other problems we have.

What do you think you will be doing in 10 years time?

I just want to continue finding new challenges that I am interested in. They are normally connected to some social issue. Because of that, I don’t just want to hold fast to theater, I want to find challenges in something else if it’s interesting for me.