Cuts fear clouds a year of diversity and innovation in Japan theater

by Nobuko Tanaka

Following the landmark change of government in August, meetings of its Budget Screening Committee have for the first time been opened to the public. Sadly, though, when that committee got round to arts financing in November, many members harshly criticized the amount awarded to the public theater sector. Politicians now seem set on savagely slashing that budget, with the New National Theatre, Tokyo (NNTT), for example, facing the loss of half the ¥4.8 billion grant it received earlier this year.

Not only this, but the 150 arts trainees annually awarded government grants to work and study abroad looks sure to be drastically reduced — if, indeed, the program is not suspended altogether. As supposed justification for the cuts, the committee members’ rationale came down to them being unable to see clear public benefit from theater activities — along with monetarist “reasoning” that theater should operate in the private sector and stand or fall without subsidies in a free market.

As these budget shenanigans were unfolding, I was working on the 2009 theater roundup — and what should happen but my pick for the top four programs of 2009 exclusively features works by public theaters and subsidized arts sectors.

So let’s begin with “4.48 Psychosis,” directed by Norimizu Ameya and staged during one of the capital’s biggest arts events in recent years, Festival/Tokyo (F/T), held at venues around Ikebukuro in March and November. Chiefly funded by Tokyo Metropolitan Government and Toshima Ward, F/T — including lots of avant-garde theater and dance from Japan and around the world — was a richly rewarding reminder of the artistic power of live drama.

Presented in F/T in November, “4.48 Psychosis” was completed by the English chronic-depressive playwright Sarah Kane (1971-99), just before she took her own life. It takes its title from the time of day — 4.48 a.m. — when Kane felt she was often at her most lucid. Comprising fragmentary, abstruse lines and repeated refrains that are like cries from the heart or soul, this arresting work — as strangely inspiring as it is dark — was staged by its director, Ameya, using a mostly nonprofessional, multinational cast and the khoomei (throat singer) Fuyuki Yamakawa. The audience were seated on the stage at the Owl Spot theater as actors performed in the auditorium and declaimed powerfully in their various versions of Japanese.

Widely acclaimed by audiences and critics alike, the result was a feast of life-affirming theatrical dynamism. Ameya and his team were only able to realize such a complex work through demanding near-daily rehearsals over two months — rehearsals made possible by F/T funding for the studio they used.

Another fruit of a publicly funded international cultural project staged at F/T, and my second pick of the year, is “Photo Romance.” Lebanese directors Ravin Mroue and Lina Saneh first came to Tokyo in 2004 to take part in F/T’s forerunner, the Tokyo International Arts Festival, and “Photo Romance,” staged in November, was their fourth production in Japan. In it the directors double as stage actors as well as screen actors, as they present a dialogue drama between a government inspector (Mroue) and a film director (Saneh) on the stage. As the dialogue is performed, a black-and-white version of the Italian film classic “A Special Day,” made by Saneh’s character (and acted by Mroue and Saneh), is projected in the background.

Through these double visions, “Photo Romance” applied biting but witty cynicism to today’s international social conflicts as seen through the prism of the Lebanese experience and the idea of an “invisible power” that exists everywhere.

Altogether, F/T showcased around 20 programs in each of its installments in spring and autumn (in 2010, sadly, it will only be held in autumn). As the festival began receiving good reviews and word spread, it drew in more theatergoers and truly became the focus of this year’s performing arts scene in Tokyo. It was only due to its public funding, however, that it was able to introduce such a wealth of contemporary works and attract many newcomers to see stage productions. Thanks to cheaper ticket prices, such newcomers will hopefully support theater for years to come. Also, in November, the festival attracted some foreign buyers for productions at F/T — surely another good return on the public’s support.

Meanwhile, north of Tokyo, the Saitama Arts Center’s unique Gold Theater, a long-term public project, made little short of a miracle this year.

Founded in 2006 at the instigation of world-famous director Yukio Ninagawa, all of Gold Theater’s actors and actresses were aged over 55 when selected through open auditions. Since then, he has been training and directing those actors and they have staged five major productions, this year’s triumph being “Ando-ke no Ichiya” (“A Night of the Ando Family”), a new, three-hour work written for Gold Theater by the outstanding playwright, Keralino Sandorovich.

Following a group of elderly former school-friends who meet at the Portugal home of their beloved but now very ill teacher, Ando, the play is rich in dramatic tension where intertwined gossip, rivalries, love interests and arguments make it a wonderful vehicle for this energetic cast so rich in life experiences.

Sandorovich was still working on the script right up to curtain-up and, inevitably, there were prompters beside the stage. Yet this rule-breaking tour de force still drew nonstop applause from amazed full houses after every performance.

Finally, though, I have no hesitation in nominating the NNTT’s staging of Shakespeare’s “Henry VI, Trilogy” as this year’s leading production.

Sadly, with the NNTT seemingly a main target of the government’s budget crackdown, productions such as this epic are less likely to be staged in the future. Extending over nine hours in its three parts — laying bare betrayals, loyalties and vendettas in two noble families’ unscrupulous quest for the throne — this is a work that only an institution with such extensive facilities could have so magnificently brought to fruition. To accommodate the staging of the director, Hitoshi Uyama, for example, the state-subsidized theater was able to extend the stage forward into the auditorium at the cost of lost audience revenue. Such prioritizing of art over profit — to the enormous artistic benefit of the production — would be unlikely in the private sector, especially during a recession.

All in all, it has been a diverse year for Japan’s stages, from the cutting-edge multinational vitality of F/T, to the silver generation’s triumphs at Gold Theater and the NNTT’s blockbuster success.

But, just as these subsidized stagings have begun leading the way, the seeds of decay in Japan’s theater culture may already have been planted on the political stage. It is to be hoped that a bleak scenario can somehow be averted and our children, and their children, will not miss out on what we have been so fortunate to enjoy.