In 2002, the FIFA World Cup of soccer hosted by Japan and South Korea boosted already flourishing cultural exchanges between the two countries in areas such as pop music, shopping and television dramas. The same year, the scriptwriter and director Oriza Hirata, who founded the Tokyo-based Seinendan Theater Company, put together a coproduction with a Korean theater group at the New National Theatre in Tokyo. Their play, “Across the River in May,” won prizes in both countries and became a trigger for international collaborations throughout East Asia.
Now, the 44-year-old Hirata is coproducing a play at the New National Theatre with the 45-year-old Chinese director Li Liuyi and eight Chinese actors. Titled “Kashuson (Lost Village),” the production explores the question, “What is history?”
Why was your collaboration with the Korean group such a success?
I’ve been working in theater for a long time, and the “theater god” sometimes gives me nice presents (laughs). “Across the River in May” was one.
How did the “Lost Village” project begin?
Seinendan took one of our most successful works, “Tokyo Note,” to the Hong Kong Arts Festival in 2004 where it was very well received. The Hong Kong side asked me to do something there with a Hong Kong production team and myself and a director from Beijing working together. The whole project just got bigger and bigger and it became difficult to handle by a private theater company like Seinendan. So then I met the Artistic Director of the New National Theatre (NNT), Tamiya Kuriyama, and they decided to take it over.
How is it doing such collaborations?
It’s so hard. In each case — in Korea and China — there were different kinds of difficulties. Each country has its own way of working.
When I worked with Koreans in 2002 at the NNT, I asked the staff not to give out a daily work schedule — which NNT staff normally minutely prepare — to the Korean team. That was because I know Korean people hate those kinds of schedules. Then, even though the Korean team worked at their own pace, it looked a bit lazy from the Japanese side.
But in the end, it is important to build up a relationship of trust, before anything else. This time, working with Chinese colleagues has been the most difficult collaboration so far because I don’t know as much about Chinese culture as I do about Korean. They work even slower than Koreans. Also, Koreans and Japanese have a group mentality — not wanting to let down the Korean or Japanese side — but Chinese are more Westernized and individualistic. So, a director who wants to advise a Chinese actor has to whisper so as not to wound their pride. This all takes extra time and it’s so tiresome for me.
Still, it’s important to understand other cultures when we do collaborations. I am not sure whether it’s the best way of producing a play from an artistic point of view, as it results in many compromises. However, theater is always a group enterprise, and it requires compromises, so it’s good to tackle this complicated process positively.
How is “Lost Village” going?
“Lost Village” was cowritten and codirected with Li Liuyi. I wrote 80 percent of the text and Li wrote the rest; he directed 80 percent and I did the rest. Last time, it was a 50/50 collaboration with the Korean team.
Either way, there’s a clear division of roles, because you can’t just give equal authority to several people in international collaborations. This time we were playing in Beijing, too, and Li knew the taboos there, because, even though they produce plays under quite severe political conditions, the economy is in the middle of a big bubble and Chinese actors are much richer than Japanese ones (laughs).
Yes. They have 10 times more national TV stations than Japan, and most stage actors work on TV as well. Every local broadcaster also makes TV dramas, so actors have no problem getting work. However, only people who have graduated from the national drama school can be actors, so that puts them in high demand. Many of them own several cars, for instance. There are only a few contemporary dramatists among the majority of traditional theater people, so Li — as a leading contemporary dramatist — is quite outstanding.
Tell me a bit about the play.
When I met Li in 2005, we decided not to ignore the “history issue” in the play, as our countries were just then in the middle of the Yasukuni shrine argument. Nonetheless, we didn’t want to focus on conventional wartime history issues between the two countries, as so many topical dramas had already done that.
Instead, we wanted to ask “what is history?” in a more general manner to engage audiences. So I set the drama in a village called Kashuson in China, which has been living off fake ancient remains that they have been making there for 300 years. I wanted to ask whether, for example, those 300-year-old fake remains had themselves become antiques. I think history changes depending on the viewpoint, so that even widely agreed historical fact can be denied in the future.
How was your work received in Hong Kong and Beijing?
There was a huge response in Hong Kong, as people there understood both sides of the characters in the play, the Japanese and the Chinese. They enjoyed the sarcasm as third-party observers, I think. They laughed at the scenes when a Chinese villager exaggerated wildly about his country’s history and philosophy — but they also laughed at Japanese characters such as tourists, experts and businessman who only talked about their families and close friends and colleagues.
In Beijing, it was very well received by theater people and the younger generation, but some audiences were confused with this new type of play that’s without a certain theme or conclusion.
Hasn’t the situation between China and Japan changed since 2005?
Yes, and this play makes a bit of fun of the current situation. Chinese people always raise the “history issue” as an important matter, but the Chinese have always changed their way of understanding history throughout time — with the thinking of the masses largely controlled by a few people at the top.
So the play has a bit of irony. First and foremost each person has their own history that also has a big influence on each person — at least as much as international relations and “history”. I mainly let the Japanese characters address that issue in the play.