From ‘Dawn of the Dead’ to the live-and-kicking golden ‘oldies’

by Nobuko Tanaka

Shu Matsui’s innocent smile is familiar. He’s always beaming on TV ads, whether he’s plugging a washing softener, playing a gentle new father or promoting mobile phones in the guise of a young doctor. But if you were to see any production by Sample, the theater company Matsui founded in 2007, you’d be amazed to find a huge gap between the 37-year-old playwright, actor and director’s heartwarming small-screen personality and the disturbing scripts, bizarre story lines and abstract sets that are his company’s trademark.

Matsui’s theater work is making quite an impact: In May, he was named by the New York Times as “one of (Japan’s) most important young directors.” As if pre-empt any stereotyping of his work as offbeat, however, he will stage two completely different plays in Tokyo this month.

“Seichi” (“Holy Place”), the first to open and last to close, follows an uprising in an old-people’s home and is set in a near-future Japan in which euthanasia is legal. Matsui wrote the play for veteran dramatist Yukio Ninagawa, who will stage it with a cast including 42 members of his over-60s Gold Theater group (some of whom had no previous acting experience before joining) at Saitama Arts Theater, where Ninagawa is the artistic director.

Meanwhile, Matsui’s second play opening this month sees him directing Sample in “Jiman no Musuko” (“Proud Son”), a story about a man who hides himself away in his own apartment, declaring it his own kingdom, while his mother, fearing for his well-being, desperately searches for him. This looks set to be a classic of Matsui’s pathological world.

Why did you take up the Gold Theater offer from among several others?

Well, I was a grandmother’s boy, so I love the “oldies,” and it’s like a dream to be having that generation of actors perform my play and say my lines on stage. However, because there are so many older actors at Gold Theater, I was under pressure to write something involving many characters, and I’d never done that before.

Have you always been interested in graying-society issues?

Back when I’d hear my grandmother being spiteful about others, I didn’t understand why she needed to say such things — and especially to me, a small child. Looking back, though, I guess she wanted to create a lasting identity within the family, and perhaps that was the only way she felt she could do so. Probably, too, she was afraid of being a nobody in society. Now, when we hear the news of deceased people who are still on official family registers years later, it makes me think how easily old people can just vanish from society. So, I wanted to write about forgotten old people living in homes — except in my play the oldies rise up in revolt.

What do you want this play to convey?

I want to show why the men and women of Gold Theater chose to rise to the major challenge of acting in public. I mean, it must be hard for them to understand young writers’ plays and scripts, but they never give up. And to see their delight and watch them change through their theater experience with Ninagawa is amazing. I will be satisfied if I can help to show audiences such magical moments.

How did you get the idea for “Jiman no Musuko?”

I started to think about independence. My first daughter was born a few months ago, and I felt that when we gave her a name we we also gave her a certain story by expressing our own wishes and giving her a kanji from our ancestors. I thought it seemed quite forceful and one-way, as if putting a label on a baby, because he or she has no choice in the matter, and yet it could have a strong influence on his or her destiny.

In this play, the son and the mother keep forcing their own labels and prejudices upon each other, and yet they also depend on each other, while still striving to be independent.

I’m always aiming to make audiences question way beyond their received social beliefs. After all, everyone has their own story and bias, and how we judge things or other people is based on our preconceptions.

Perhaps audiences will be able to discover something more about people’s relationships in general through this depiction of mother and son.

What do you think about how the way people relate to each other in Japan?

I’m not sure that Japanese would be happy, really, if we lived the kind of independent life that Europeans do. While people generally coexist as separate individuals in Europe, Japanese naturally blend together like a viscous liquid. Japanese people don’t make themselves the central subject, and they understand and judge things by assessing the surrounding situation and trying to understand what that situation says about them. I always want to include this Japanese sense of character in my plays.

A New York Times writer described one of your plays as stemming from your “view of Japan as a zombie nation.” How do you feel about that?

The (George A. Romero) 1978 movie “Dawn of the Dead” shows hundreds of zombies in a shopping mall doing the same things over and over again — they go up and down escalators nonstop and keep shopping with blank expressions. When I saw the movie, I thought that humans actually do live like those zombies: We are swept along by our daily lives, act habitually and only rarely take forceful action.

People today, especially Japanese, are very similar to zombies; they have a lack of independence and go through their days living so passively. I wondered what would it be like if the zombies were only pretending to behave in a robotic manner — and what if they were to stand up together one time . . . . This kind of thinking helps me come up with plays about today’s complex society.

What are your future theater plans?

I would like to take my plays to foreign countries. I am interested in seeing how non-Japanese react to my works, and I want to know whether other nationalities can share my so-called so-called zombielike theater world or not.

Also, I’d like to make my theater company Sample into a “theater laboratory.” It might take a bit of time, but I want to create a transparent and artistic community that any dramatists from any generation, and theater-lovers, can be part of. Theater companies here used to be exclusive and insular, but I believe it is better for everyone to be more open, to share and exchange different opinions.

“Seichi” runs Sept. 14 till 26 at Saitama Arts Theater, an 8-minute walk from Yonohonmachi Station (Saikyo Line). For more details, call Saitama Arts Foundation on (0570) 064-939 or visit www.saf.or.jp
“Jiman no Musuko” runs Sept. 15 till 21 at the Atelier Helicopter, a 7-minute walk from Osaki Station (Saikyo, Shonan Shinjuku and Yamanote lines). It then tours to Osaka. For more details, call Sample on (080) 5440-8275 or visit www.samplenet.org