Theater star brings new tricks to the stage

by Nobuko Tanaka

In the summer of 2008, a shockwave hit the world of Japanese theater when Keishi Nagatsuka announced he was taking a yearlong break from the stage to take a government-sponsored sabbatical in London.

After launching into his stage career while still in high school, Nagatsuka, influenced by his renowned actor father Kyozo, founded the Asagaya Spiders theater company as a Waseda University student during the mid 1990s. Since then, he has taken the company to the very forefront of contemporary Japanese drama as a playwright, actor and director. He has won numerous awards, both for his individual work and for his work with the Spiders.

In the autumn of 2008, however, Nagatsuka suddenly chose to take the sabbatical, leaving Japan to spend several months working with the National Theatre of London and enjoying the rest of his break making British friends and discovering more about British theater.

Now aged 34, Nagatsuka is staging his first production since his London sojourn. “Anticlockwise Wonderland” was written by Nagatsuka after his return to Japan and will star his Asagaya Spiders troupe and some guest actors.

Set in today’s Tokyo, the play’s principal character is a novelist named Riichi Kuzukawa (Ken Mitsuishi), who has been the butt of bitter criticism for his latest book. One night, when he goes for a drink with his editor, Noguchi (Tetsuhiro Ikeda), he meets a mysterious woman — Machiko (Hijiri Kojima) — who also has harsh words to say about his work. Consequently, they have an argument outside the bar and in a drunken state, Riichi pushes the woman down some stairs. The next thing we know, Riichi is in a police station, unable to remember what happened.

Is Machiko dead? Who is she anyway? When we discover that Riichi’s wife, Etsuyo (Nozomi Muraoka), Noguchi and even the policemen who came to the scene are being investigated, it’s clear this is a very strange mystery indeed.

When did the idea of “Anticlockwise Wonderland” first come to you?

I wrote it after I came back from England in September, as I wanted to write a fresh, vivid play that refers as much as possible to what I was thinking about there and then. Before I left Japan, I had a plan to write a play involving European history, but I changed my mind and made the main character a Japanese author — someone who obviously speaks for me. I got into a mood to write about today’s Japan, not about other countries.

How is this play different to your previous works?

Originally, I used to think of myself as a conventional storyteller, so my plots were very linear. This time, however, I’m adopting a different style — something you might call non-systematic. The story goes backwards and forwards and is consciously not cohesive and organized. As a result, it can be seen from many viewpoints, especially as the key narrators are always changing. Each audience member has to work out the truth from the different stories themselves. It’s like the real world where people don’t know what is true and what isn’t and it’s impossible to know a person’s thoughts — Everyone is left guessing.

For this play, I will also use, for the first time in my theater career, a preview system. This involves staging the work before its official opening, which allows us to still make changes. This is very rare in Japan.

We will offer 20 seats each time (which we are calling R-20 seats) at the ticket price of ¥3,000 instead of the normal ¥5,000. I hope this will encourage people who are not normally theatergoers to come along; and, because it allows us to compete better with upcoming theater companies whose tickets are already cheaper than our regular ones, I am hoping it will attract their audiences, too, to our production.

Did you discover many differences between Japanese and British theater? Most programs at commercial theaters in Japan are basically very kind to audiences; in other words, the stuff they stage and the way they do it is too simple. Sometimes I feel they don’t credit their audiences with much ability to understand complexities.

In England, though, ordinary people go to theaters to see productions such as Tom Stoppard’s intellectual and abstruse plays. They go to the theater to experience a different level of culture, a change from their hectic daily lives. Theater is deep-rooted as a shared intellectual culture there, and that common awareness is the basis of a rich theater culture.

Theater in Japan, in contrast, is fast becoming merely an entertainment trend, and considering the prices of tickets, it is increasingly becoming a luxury leisure pursuit.

On the creative side, theater people in England definitely take more than ample time to work on a play. An English playwright friend of mine invited me to his drama reading one day. After that reading, he went back and revised his work several times before he finally staged it a few months later. In fact, it took almost three years from him starting to write it to reach its first actual performance. That would never happen in Japan.

I studied at the National Theatre in London, so I had the chance to observe from up-close Nicholas Hytner, the artistic director, at work. He is so clear about what he does that he can be a bit stubborn sometimes, but generally he gives people some leeway in what they do and accepts good advice from others without hesitation. Everyone respects him and he makes the actors think about the play continually.

Learning from Hytner’s approach at the N.T. was very beneficial to me. Even though they take lots of time researching and preparing, whereas in Japan the time cycle is much quicker, I am going to try to incorporate some of the N.T. approaches to my work in a suitable way.

Has anything else from Britain stayed with you or had a profound effect on the way you view your work? My experience in England convinced me of the really huge possibilities of theater and that has given me a new confidence in my work.

I think it’s because I realized that audiences went to the theater in order to have a good time, and that they are perfectly happy to soak up the experience and use their imagination. Nobody over there in Europe goes to a theater just to pass the time, which is what too many people seem to be doing in Tokyo these days. I now believe that my duty is to continue to ask questions, to offer a theater of variety, and to trust in the audience’s power of imagination. If we do all that, I believe we can explore the unlimited possibilities of theater.

“Anticlockwise Wonderland” runs till Feb. 14 at the Honda Theater, a 3-min. walk from Shimokitazawa Station on the Odakyu and Keio-Inogashira lines. It then tours to Osaka, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Sapporo, Niigata and Nagoya from Feb. 23 till Mar. 6. For more details, call Gorch Brothers Company on (03) 3466-0944, or visit www.spiders.jp