In February this year, 35-year-old Tomohiro Maekawa’s reputation was given a boost when he was nominated in both the best-playwright and best-director categories of the prestigious Yomiuri Theater Awards. Although Maekawa didn’t walk away with an award; the nominations, coming just six years after he founded his Tokyo-based Ikiume (Buried Alive) company, illustrate how this Niigata native’s imaginative plays — commonly featuring aliens, the future, parallel realities and occult powers — are causing a stir in Japan’s contemporary theater scene. Since April, he has had at least one play running in Tokyo.
Maekawa’s latest play, “‘Semaki Mon Yori Haire (Enter Through the Narrow Gate),” a title derived from a passage in the Gospel of St. Matthew of the New Testament (“the wide gate leads to destruction”) opens next week at the Parco Theater in Shibuya, Tokyo. It was written for the Tokyo-based theater group Team Saru (Team Monkey), headed by leading stage and screen actor Kuranosuke Sasaki.
The play stars Michihiko Amano (Sasaki), a 30-something office worker who, having grown tired of his job, returns to live with his parents who run a konbini (convenience store) somewhere in the sticks. The story spirals out of the ordinary when Sasaki and four friends are joined by a strange man who proclaims that Judgment Day is near. He gives them a choice: stay in this world or follow him to another, better place.
I caught up with Maekawa at a rehearsal studio in Shinjuku.
What brought you to the theater world? At university I spent my free time making short films, which sometimes starred a friend of mine who was a member of a drama group. After we graduated, that friend founded a theater company. I went to work at an online bookselling company, but I sometimes went to see my friend’s performances. Later I started to write for his company and gradually got more involved with theater — especially after I realized it costs a lot less to stage a play than it does to make a film.
In 2003, I quit my job and founded my own theater company, Ikiume. My parents were pretty angry about that (laughs) . . . but I didn’t hesitate because I somehow felt it would work out fine.
What has inspired you to create such unusual work? By nature, I am interested in the spiritual world and religions. I wanted to study such concepts, and Toyo University (in Tokyo) was famous for philosophy. In particular, I studied French philosophy, and I suppose all that stuff has strongly influenced my theatrical imagination.
“Semaki Mon Yori Haire,” has been described as a play about the Apocalypse. Why choose such a dark subject? I’ve been interested in the Apocalypse idea for ages — most of my life, really. When I was growing up, everyone talked about the end-of-the-world predictions of Nostradamus. Now some say the Apocalypse is near because the Mayan calendar ends on Dec. 21, 2012.
With 2012 just round the corner, I wanted to do a play about the subject now.
I am not that worried about the end of the world. Actually, if the population suddenly decreased enormously, it would probably be better for the Earth. But generally most people think about such things from their own perspective, and usually that means they like to imagine a future that offers them comfort .
In my new play, a prophet predicts global disaster and then offers to save some people from the catastrophe. The question is: Will it be those who stay, or those who go with him who will survive?
The hero, played by Amano, used to do the hiring and firing at his company, so having experienced being a selector, he now finds himself in the passive position. The play takes the idea of the Apocalypse and relates it to our daily lives. It gives audiences a chance to see things from a different and opposite perspective. For this play you appear to have moved away from the simple stage sets that you are famous for.
This is the first time in a long time that I have decided to use a realistic set: the interior of a Japanese konbini. My aim is to extend that mundane setting to encompass a global theme. So, for example, if someone goes to a real konbini after seeing my play, and feels that there’s something uncanny about the store they are in, I’ll be very happy.
After your nominations for the Yomiuri Theater Awards, you must have received all kinds of offers. Have you ever thought about changing direction? If I was offered a completely new project that I’m interested in, I wouldn’t be afraid of the challenge — like directing Kabuki or Noh, for example. But if it’s a role that could be done just as well by somebody else with similar theater experience, I doubt I would be interested.
At the moment I’m directing and writing for other theater companies as well as for Ikiume. But I want to keep Ikiume as my artistic base, even though it’s not really very large scale.
What do you regard as “good theater?” I always think people see the world as they want to see it — the same way lovers are blind to their loved one’s faults. If something goes missing in a room that is familiar to people, those people can easily overlook the fact it has gone simply because they are living according to their own expectations. There cannot be one definitive “real” thing in the world. Everyone has a different idea of the “real” — just as everyone’s definition of the color blue may be different. My plays are based on such individual ambiguities.
What is important to me is the creation of realistic yet incredible stories for the stage.
“Semaki Mon Yori Haire” runs from Aug. 17 to Sept. 6 at the Parco Theater, an 8-minute walk from JR Shibuya Station. It tours Kurashiki, Osaka, Hiroshima and Fukuoka from Sept. 9-17. For more details, call the Parco Theater on (03) 3477-5858, or visit www.parco-play.com