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Tokyo theater scene gets kiss of life

Festival/Tokyo boasts 16 main programs (seven from abroad) and runs for two months

by Nobuko Tanaka

The Edinburgh theater and street-performance festival in Scotland annually sends a buzz round the arts world; France’s Avignon invariably features a cordon bleu international menu; and Adelaide and Singapore vie for the Asia-Pacific spotlight.

Way back in 1988, Tokyo also aimed to be in such illustrious company, when the Tokyo International Arts Festival (TIF) was launched with great fanfare. Then, as Japan led the booming “Asian tiger” nations, the aim was to turn the Ikebukuro district into a drama mecca in the same way that Shibuya was for movies thanks to its annual international film festival. With generous financial support from the Tokyo metropolitan government, all went well at first — but then Japan’s economic bubble burst at the start of the ’90s and it was downhill from there.

As 30-year veteran theater administrator Hiroshi Takahagi put it recently, as TIF was progressively starved of funding: “It developed what’s known as a ‘Galapagos Syndrome’ — meaning that, like Japan’s cell-phone market, for which the term was coined, it became isolated from the rest of the world and just fed off itself, while Seoul, Shanghai and Taipei took the role of East Asia’s theater hubs.”

Now, though, Tokyo is back and — with will and healthy funding — is determined to stamp its mark on the global theater scene with its new, relaunched Festival/Tokyo (F/T). With financial backing from the national Agency for Cultural Affairs, the Tokyo metropolitan government and Toshima Ward, where Ikebukuro is situated, the new F/T made its debut in a special “spring rebirth” in Ikebukuro in March.

The one-off spring festival was widely regarded as a booster for Tokyo’s bid for the 2016 Olympic Games. Although that bid failed, with Rio de Janeiro selected, the government has already promised to support 2010 F/T, and F/T is hopefully anticipating “continuing support from them afterward,” according to the festival’s organizers.

The March event took off like TIF never had, with indoor and outdoor performances breathing fresh life into Japan’s contemporary theater world, attracting a total audience of 60,000 and involving more than 500 artists and staff.

But now, after that “spring rebirth,” comes Festival/Tokyo proper, opening this week in what will be an annual autumn slot on the calendar.

Beaming with anticipation, Takahagi — recently appointed vice director of Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in Ikebukuro, following periods spent heading up the city’s Globe Theatre and Setagaya Public Theatre — explained: “As TIF ran out of steam over the years, Tokyo almost ceased to be a destination for visiting foreign theater companies. In the meantime, Seoul, Shanghai and Taipei gained strong footholds in the Asian theater market.

“Now, though, the aim of the new F/T international theater festival is not just to invite individual foreign theater companies but also to collaborate with other international theater festivals and foreign artists and be able to dispatch works from Tokyo to other countries around the world.”

The first F/T proper will run for two months and features a lineup of 16 main programs, including seven from abroad. Among the latter are “Trilogy of The Divine Comedy” by the kinetic and imaginative Italian dramatist Romeo Castellucci; Boston-born, German-resident video artist Chris Kondek’s “Dead Cat Bounce” — a drama centered on stock trading; and “Photo-Romance, ” a collaboration between F/T and Lebanese directors Ravin Mroue and Lina Saneh that drew huge acclaim when it premiered at July’s Avignon Festival with its portrayal of life in the days after Israel’s bombing of Lebanon in 2006.

Among the homegrown talents is Akira Takayama, founder and director of the uniquely experimental Tokyo-based Port B theater company. However, to say Takayama is “homegrown” is to ignore that he first dipped his feet into the theater world while living in Germany for five years up until 2000. ” I came back because I felt I’d done enough ordinary theater-making there,” Takayama explained. “Then here in Japan I saw there were no rules or union restrictions in the theater world, so I had a great sense of freedom and wanted to start something new and go in new directions here. At the same time, though, I realized it is impossible to make a living from theater in Japan, so I had to work as a full-time salaryman for a while (laughs).”

For F/T, Takayama will have a 24-hour video booth in Ikebukuro’s West Gate Park opposite the station’s Metropolitan exit. Titled “Koshitsu Toshi Tokyo” (“Compartment City — Tokyo”), this participation-style theater allows the “audiences” to stop by anytime, pay an hourly rate of ¥500, and use one of several tiny booths for whatever they want. “Ideally, however,” Takayama said, “participants will get into the West Gate swing by watching one of the 300 DVDs made about people connected with the park — including homeless people, regular passersby and foreigners. And if they want to chat with real people, we will have a lounge there too.”

Port B’s F/T “drama” will also feature short walking tours stopping at a specially set up deai cafe (dating cafe), where they will be able to meet people who were interviewed on the DVDs.

“I would like to present an admittedly distorted, but still real enough, chance for audiences to experience the sex business in edgy Ikebukuro, which is a very mixed district that can be dodgy,” Takayama said. “Actually, it’s quite a vulgar project, but to express something and to communicate with someone sometimes requires such vulgar behavior. This ‘tour performance’ sets out the question of how I, and each participant, draw a border between others in the wider society and their own world. I hope to create some dramatic experiences and encounters through this happening theater.”

Meanwhile, in another space in the F/T headquarters building, 48-year-old theater director and artist Norimizu Ameya was just in the middle of creating his interpretation of English chronic-depressive playwright Sarah Kane’s autobiographical work, “4.48 Psychosis,” published posthumously in 1999.

“I am making this play through carefully carrying out an observation of the various cast members in this rehearsal room. I don’t make a performance from a text; I make it from actual workshops.”

Having started in underground contemporary theater in 1970s, Ameya then founded his own, quite decadent, companies, named Tokyo Grand-Guinol and M.M.M., which earned him a large and devoted following. Next he turned to art creation, with his work “Public Semen — Exhibit Freezing Semen” being accepted for the Venice Biennale in 1995. After that he quit the arts scene to run a pet shop, before moving to the countryside to live with an owl that — before it was killed by a hawk — did its own thing by night and returned to be with him during the day.

Now Ameya is back, and his “4.48 Psychosis,” with its multinational cast, looks set to be a highlight of F/T, since, as he put it, “If people are living and speaking in a nonmother tongue, I think it’s quite a big mind conversion that’s going to have a similar impact as a sex change, for example.”

Stage writer Rieko Suzuki, former chief editor of the monthly “Theater Guide,” said she felt “a new magnetism” coming from F/T that “fills me with great expectation.”

“In contrast to the old TIF, F/T is particularly focused on quite radical, sometimes disturbing material, rather than so-called conventional text-based Western theater. As a consequence it is already beginning to attract creators from other art sectors, and I expect this to go on developing and involving an ever wider range of people in the contemporary performing arts both from Japan and around the world.”

Indeed, the artistic wind appears to be set for the new F/T to transcend that “Galapagos Syndrome” of old — and hopefully start to put Tokyo on the same arts map of the world as the likes of Edinburgh, Avignon and Adelaide.

“Compartment City — Tokyo” runs from Nov. 15 to Nov. 22 at a special booth in West Gate Park, a two-minute walk from JR Ikebukuro Station. “4.48 Psychosis” runs from Nov. 16 to Nov. 23 at Owl Spot, a 2-minute walk from Higashi Ikebukuro Station on the Yurakucho Subway Line. For more details of other programs in Festival/Tokyo 2009, call (03) 5961-5202 or visit www.festival-tokyo.jp Nobuko Tanaka’s theater blog (in Japanese) is at thestage.cocolog-nifty.com