Originality and flair hits 2008

New plays helped the Japanese theater world recover from an uninspiring 2007

by Nobuko Tanaka

A year ago, I was sad to report on the sluggish condition of the Japanese contemporary theater world. Now, I am delighted to have had to struggle to select just five of the best of plays of 2008 from so many worthy contenders — many of them new and original works concerned with the current social situation of Japan.

First of all, I have to cheat by mentioning not just Keralino Sandorovich’s “Sharp-san Flat-san (Sharps and Flats),” — the director’s best piece from 2008 — but all of his original work this year. After a three-year stretch in which he reworked his own older plays and directed others’, this master of black humor came back with “Waga Yami (We Wish There Was Not Light),” followed by a superbly adapted version of “The Lower Depths (Donzoko)” by the 19th-century Russian writer Maxim Gorky, a depiction of the downtrodden working classes that featured original live music, a few laughs and a hint of optimism.

The title of Sandorovich’s outstanding new play by his own company Nylon 100°C, “Sharps and Flats,” refers to people who may look and sound like others but are not quite in tune with what is generally accepted. Set in the early 1990s, the play takes us to a gorgeous bubble-era sanitarium where comedy playwright Kemuri Tsuji (who is played by both Koji Okura and Hiroki Miyake) is taking a break among a cast of normal-looking weirdos. Upon leaving, Tsuji is caught up in the dilemma of whether to conform to public expectations or to live with a clear conscience as an artistic black sheep. But then the bubble bursts, the sanitarium goes under and the real meaning of life becomes clear to the playwright.

Sandorovich presented the play with two completely different casts every day, with fascinating results. The two teams would arrive at different outcomes in the same tale due to directorial differences, cast members’ different takes on the characters and their forms of expression. In short, “Sharps and Flats” was a multifaceted celebration of theater’s incalculable, diverse possibilities. (Now running at Setagaya Public Theatre is another, Sandorovich’s newest play, “Arekara [And Then],” which explores two middle-aged couples’ secrets and lies, and the discord between them due to their clumsiness.)

Korean-Japanese playwright and director Wishing Chong deserves a silver medal for his works “Yakiniku Dragon (Korean Barbecue Dragon)” and “Kodoku Kara Ichiban Toi Basho (The Furthest Place from Solitude).” The former is the New National Theatre’s second collaboration with the Seoul Arts Center after the success of Oriza Hirata’s “Sono Kawa wo Koete, Go-gatsu (Across the River in May)” in 2002. In “Yakiniku Dragon,” the 51-year-old Chong tells an autobiographical tale of his childhood in Kansai in the early ’70s, where many Korean-Japanese stayed after the war.

Codirected with South Korean Jung Ung Yang, and featuring actors from both countries, this was as tasty a production as they come — especially with the NNT’s pit stage filled with the smells of barbecue as a lower-class family’s daily dramas were energetically played out in a mixture of both languages. Though there was no great knockout moment, the raw but compassionate reality it portrayed made this one of the most unforgettable works of the year.

Chong also left another indelible dramatic mark with “The Furthest Place from Solitude” for the En Theater Company. The play dealt with cornered, helpless people — some from World War II and others from the bubble era — who missed out while all around them seemed to be succeeding. Chong was addressing two different situations in quite abstract ways but elegantly sent an alarming message of solitude to any in today’s audience deluded enough to think their security is assured.

Three small-scale experimental productions this year will certainly be important in charting the course of Japanese theater. “Coffee Nyumon (Commencement of Coffee)” by Tokyo Kandenchi was another awesome, absurdist work from the group. “Commencement of Coffee” was penned by rising directing star Kazuhiro Kato, and not, as usual, by the company’s leader Akira Emoto, who this time confined himself to the director’s chair.

Second, superstar Jo Kanamori created “Nameless Hands — Doll’s House,” for his Niigata-based dance troupe Noism08. In a series of narratives performed without words, Noism08 explored the relationship between dolls and the people controlling their motions. As events progressed, roles became reversed until finally the doll’s house collapsed.

Lastly, “Sunshine 62″ by Port B, heralded something completely new that may have a sensational impact on Japanese contemporary theater. Typically audiences sit in the dark, afraid of making a noise or even moving, but in “Sunshine 62,” audiences had to participate. The program was a walking tour in which groups of five audience members were handed a paper with their route and points of interest marked. At points along the way, Port B actors would be up to something or other as the “drama” unfolded on the streets of Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district. Though carefully and cleverly planned, in practice the tour allowed so much freedom — and so many possibilities for each audience-cast member — that everyone ended up starring in their own interactive show with each other. Truly, for those lucky enough to experience it, there was something miraculous about this revolutionary production.

If Japan’s creators continue to bring as much challenging originality and flair to the nation’s stages, large and small, as they have over the last 12 months, then there’s grounds for hope in 2009.