Playwright Noda asks, ‘What is a Japanese?’

New play 'To the South' continues aim to question national identity

by Nobuko Tanaka

In the early 1980s, when he was a student at the University of Tokyo, Hideki Noda began to emerge as a standard bearer of something new in Japan: Contemporary theater by — and for — young people seeking to change their country.

To drop out of an elite university, as Noda did, to devote yourself to a career in the theater was quite a radical statement at the time (indeed, it still is).

Now at the age of 55, Noda continues to make radical statements as artistic director at the municipally funded Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space (TMAS) in the capital’s Ikebukuro district. His latest is a piece titled “Minami e” (“To the South”), which focuses on the origin of the Japanese people and — controversially — of the Imperial Family.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m working with junior clerks in a big company,” Noda tells The Japan Times. “It’s so peculiar. Japanese bureaucrats, even in the arts, are in ecstasy at being in official positions.”

But if that’s how the playwright feels toward the institution, then why jump straight into the belly of the beast and accept the position at TMAS in the first place?

“I had started to wonder if it was possible to keep up the quality of my creativity if I was always just doing what I’d been doing for so long — writing, directing and acting out my own works,” Noda says. “Because if you’re established in the arts here, even if a new piece doesn’t work well, people will still praise it out of respect. That’s an awful thing, but it’s common in Japan. It never happens in other countries, so the work is evaluated fairly — if it isn’t good it will be panned.”

Luckily, Noda’s efforts have been lauded outside his homeland as well as within. “To the South” opened Feb. 10 and runs until March 31, after which the TMAS will close for 18 months to undergo renovations. The seven-week run is far longer than contemporary theater works usually get. Most pieces are saddled with trivializing runs of just a few days that leave directors seeking novelty factors to bring audiences in. Noda, instead, pursues works of substance that can attract audiences for longer periods of time.

In “To the South” Noda takes us to a seismological observatory near an active volcano called Mount Buji. There, new staff member Norihei Minami (Satoshi Tsumabuki) meets a mysterious woman named Amane (Yu Aoi). Amane has just been rescued from high up the mountain and is throwing those at the observatory into confusion by lying about everything from her real name to her whereabouts while she was missing. Meanwhile, Norihei starts warning that Mount Buji is about to erupt.

Before long chaos spills out of the observatory and disorients the locals as the media start publicizing rumors that some higher being — perhaps, even, the nation’s godlike founder — is about to reappear.

“To the South” is the third in a series of three new plays. It follows last summer’s staging of “The Character,” which won the prestigious Yomiuri Theater Award for the way it explored the “Japaneseness” of the cult religious group Aum Shinrikyo, whose real-life devotees — led by Shoko Asahara — staged murderous nerve-gas attacks on the Tokyo subway in 1995. After “The Character,” Noda presented “Omote ni Deroi!” (“Step Outside!”), which was a black comedy about domestic life.

Explaining that he hadn’t set out to create these three plays about Japanese people’s identity, Noda almost defensively says that he normally starts writing without deciding on any particular theme or message. “But these three,” he says as though mystified by his own work, “just naturally seemed to turn to issues such as ‘Who are we Japanese?’ and ‘Why are we the way we are?’ “

After Aum Shinrikyo’s gas attacks, Noda points out, most Japanese lost interest in such cults gradually and just drifted away from them. However, some remained fervent believers and some turned strongly against their very notion.

“This response fits exactly with Japanese people’s reactions after their defeat in World War II,” he says. “And when I see this phenomenon repeated, I realize how Japanese still don’t bother to question the object of their absolute beliefs — for example, we as a society have never discussed openly why we called the emperor a ‘living god.’ In Germany, the society has thoroughly confronted its Nazi past.”

Noda began to look deep in thought at this point. It was interesting that he was going down this road, it was like being able to watch up close how his thought process works.

“In real life people often have to face questions that have no definite answer,” he continues. “But in this country, people always demand ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for an answer — so much so that they never ask questions they can’t easily answer with ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Or if they rarely do, such questions just get ignored and passed over.

“So, before all those events just become something on a chronological record, I wanted to show my views on that period when so many thousands of people died in vain for a living god. That, though, is war — that is its reality.”

Unlike many dramatists who also dabble in filmmaking or do work for television, Noda has devoted all his energies exclusively to creating live theater.

After his major debut in 1981 with “Shonengari (Hunting Young Boys),” which was set in Tokyo’s then mecca of youth culture in Shinjuku, Noda’s elevation to hero status in the youth-theater movement proceeded alongside the growth of Japan’s bubble economy.

When the bubble burst, Noda had a year’s break in 1993 and went to London. There, he pioneered many connections between Japan and the thriving British theater scene. He now seems almost to have a foot in each camp. Though it hasn’t been confirmed yet, Noda is in the final stages of plans to present his internationally acclaimed play “The Bee” in London again next year. It portrays ordinary people’s underlying paranoid psychology with four actors and minimal sets. The piece won favorable reviews when it was staged in London in 2006.

Noda also says he really wants to draw more young people to the theater. He talks about the need to cut ticket prices (as he has done at TMAS) to attract younger audiences. He also appreciates the challenge of creating interesting plays for a demographic that is ensconced in electronic media.

Noda first stood out as a champion of young artists’ power, so it is only fitting that he is still a main force in trying to encourage such fresh talent to again build solid foundations for Japan’s theater world. And he may be exactly what public theater in Japan needs right now to haul it out of decades of being run by career bureaucrats, who frequently have next to no interest in the arts.

“I often end up asking someone who I should speak to to solve a problem because they have just told me that a request of mine has been turned down,” he offers up as an example. “Then everything suddenly becomes vague about who exactly made that decision and why and when. So there is nobody for me to go to. This means, I think, that someone guessed the thinking of ‘the people above’ and decided to tell me a kind of ‘considerate lie.’ “

Comparing this to his experiences in London, Noda says there is more artistic openness overseas.

“Rehearsals there have an atmosphere of open discussion so that anyone can suggest ideas to me directly, whether they are veterans or young members of the ensemble. The point is whether a director can listen to the voices of others, or not. It’s simple, but it’s very important.”

But rather than being depressed by the bureaucratic realities his new position has brought him, Noda understands the need for him to continue to challenge the norm.

“Sure, there are middle-aged people who are satisfied with the status quo and try to maintain it. But I think the younger generations are realizing some of the crises facing Japan and are considering what can be done. So in that way, I am optimistic.”

“Minami e” (“To the South”) runs till March 31 at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space. Standby tickets are available every day. For more information, call Noda Map at (03) 6802-6681, visit www.nodamap.com or www.geigeki.jp.