Tokyo-based Hi-bye, whose name means “crawling-death” (from the Japanese hi-hi, meaning “to crawl,” and the English farewell, “bye-bye”) was founded in 2003 by playwright, director and actor Hideto Iwai, 35, and has built a reputation for its keen observations of the darker and weaker aspects of humans nature — normally leavened with plenty of cynical humor.
The company grabbed the attention of the new artistic director of Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space (TMAS) in Ikebukuro, Hideki Noda, who chose it to kick off his new, open-ended program, “Geigeki Eyes” (“TMAS Eyes”), which aims to showcase the nation’s best rising theatrical talents. As an audience member for the preview staging of Iwai’s play “Te” (“Hand”) last September, Noda was one of many whose delighted laughter repeatedly filled a cozy studio. Later, another giant of Japanese contemporary theater, Oriza Hirata — leader of the Seinendan theater company and currently a special adviser to Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s Cabinet — also heaped praise on Hi-bye’s performance.
Oddly, Hi-bye’s wide audience appeal has been enhanced by Iwai’s personal experience as a hikikomori, a social recluse. As a teen, he confined himself to his room for four years — an experience that has influenced some of his work.
Why did you choose the well-known “Yotsuya Kaidan” ghost story as a theme for your new production?
I aim to develop a series of classic plays in colloquial language. An actress told me the Yotsuya ghost story one day, but I’ve not read the classic kabuki play. My play has become something completely different. In the original, a woman named Oiwa dies and becomes a ghost, haunting her unfaithful husband Iemon. In my story (“Higashi Koganei Yotsuya Kaidan”) Oiwa is a weird, paranoid woman who doesn’t actually die and is unpleasant rather than pitiful. Basically, I’m more interested in showing socially inept people in a living hell rather than making a drama from a death.
Next month you will be restaging your very popular maiden play, “Hikky Cancun Tornado,” a story about a hikikomori, who dreams of being a prowrestler. Have you made any changes this time around?
No, basically it’s the same as before, though this will be the sixth rerun since it premiered in 2003. There’s still only a few of Japan’s 120 million citizens who’ve seen it, so I want to continue performing it to give others a chance to see it. Theater is only theater when it has an audience, and it’s the live exchange between the stage and the audience that gives it its dynamism. So if I have a good repertoire, I am happy to repeat those programs and tour to many new places.
You are famous as a dramatist — but also as a former hikikomori.
As I wrote in my play “Te” (Iwai’s autobiographical play about family discord), I was brought up in a family in which my father, who was a doctor at a university hospital, was the absolute ruler. He used violence to keep everyone, especially my elder brother, under control. My brother was also violent toward me, so there was an absolute power hierarchy at home that formed the basic social code in my childhood. At school I would bash other children to get something I wanted, and I never even noticed that that was abnormal behavior. In fact I didn’t care what others felt about me because they were only in the background in my world.
But eventually, a friend hit me back, and from that moment my self-righteous world collapsed with a bang and I started to worry about people looking at me — and that took over my world. I couldn’t go to school and so stayed at home for four years between the age of 16 and 20. I stayed in my room and played computer games and watched movies every day. Eventually, I developed a desire to be a film actor and so I went to a preparatory school to get university entrance qualifications. All sorts of people went to that school — genius young students jumping ahead of their grade, retired people, delinquents and people on welfare. It was a chaotic situation, but the teachers treated everyone as individuals — unlike normal school teachers, who I hated because they would scold students illogically and one-sidedly. So that prep school suited me well and I was able to return naturally to society and get on a drama course at Toho Gakuen College.
Did your hikikomori period benefit you in any way?
That four-year experience is now brilliant material for my plays. I was terrified to see real people and the real world then, but now I understand that the real world is not so scary and that it is much more terrifying to live in a room with your delusions, because there the delusions are limitless and you can fall into a kind of fantasy forever. I learned the power of terror from my experience of such fantasies, and now I am making theater using and playing to humans’ fantastical imagination. It’s quite interesting.
What’s the next step for Hi-bye?
I have a firm policy of trying to present my plays where the audience can see from their seats the actors’ slightest of expressions. So I don’t have any ambition to perform at big venues, and neither do I want celebrity casts just to attract new audiences. I want to progress at a snail’s pace and not lose our purpose of creating good theater that we believe in. I believe that if an artist just follows the sound of clapping, they will probably find themselves alone in an empty field in the end.
Do you have any other plans?
I would like to use theater as a means of teaching communication in schools. In Europe, many countries have drama curricula in their schools, and pupils exchange their opinions and give their performances in drama classes. In Japan, though, most education is one way — from a teacher to students. It’s never the other way round or student to student. I also think it’s very effective for children to learn and absorb knowledge and information through games and play. They can learn how to communicate with others through making drama. I want to help to develop that kind of drama education system.
“Higashi Koganei Yotsuya Kaidan” runs from April 17 till 29 at the Komaba Agora Theater, a 3-minute walk from Komaba Todaimae Station on the Keio Inogashira Line. “Hikky Cancun Tornado” runs from May 16 till 23 at the Atelier Helicopter, a 7-minute walk from JR Osaki Station. It then tours to Fukuoka. For more details, call Hi-bye at (090) 8059-6479 or visit hi-bye.net