For playwright and director Ryuta Horai, the last two years have been a nonstop whirl of activity since “Mahoroba” (“A splendid location”) — his drama about four generations of women in a traditional rural family meeting up and feuding — won the highly prestigious Kishida Kunio Award for best play in 2009.
At that time, Horai, now 35, was already one of the country’s most sought-after stage writers and directors, but since then offers of work — for the stage, television and movies — have been flooding in. And that’s all on top of his writing and directing for Modern Swimmers, the company he co-founded with fellow student Yoshimasa Nishijo when they graduated from the Butai Geijutsu Gakuin (Performing Arts Academy) in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, in 1999.
To date, that’s a pretty good resume for the Hyogo Prefecture native who says he only joined his high school’s theater club because it seemed an easier way to get a few credits than joining a sports club — but he was then bitten by the stage bug.
However, it’s a resume about to be further enhanced by “Sabishii no wa omae dake ja nai” (“It’s not only you who’s feeling lonely”), Horai’s latest work that opens this week in Tokyo and then goes on tour. Based on an award-winning 1982 TBS TV drama of the same name, and with 51-year-old veteran dramatist Nozomi Makino directing, the play tells the story of hard-boiled debt-collector Kaoru Numata (leading kabuki actor Shido Nakamura) who becomes the guarantor with a loan shark for a hard-up family he has a soft spot for — and then has to start a traveling vaudeville troupe to pay off their debt.
How does it feel to be one of the most in-demand young playwrights in Japan today?
Lucky. I’ve had some great chances and some valuable human encounters. Now, I think my supply and the demand from the theater are balanced. However, I predict that one day my artistic sense about a piece may not be what producers want — in which case I have to be ready to stand on my own feet as an artist, not a commercial writer, and even do side jobs, if need be, to present my vision.
Since your collaboration with the New National Theatre Tokyo (NNTT) on “Mahoroba” in 2008, more and more of your work has been outside of your own company, Modern Swimming. How was it that you first embarked on this outside production?
I was excited to get unexpected ideas from the production side. I wouldn’t have even considered writing “Mahoroba” — an all-female cast play about women’s familial duties and responsibilities — if the NNTT’s then artistic director, Tamiya Kuriyama, had not suggested that I write about women’s topics.
Obviously, I don’t know much about the specifics of women’s experiences, like pregnancy, morning sickness or periods, but I think (the play’s) core themes such as sarcasm, bullying, heartbreak, irritation, anger, disappointment and pleasure at being praised are the same for everyone.
Your current project, “Sabishii no wa omae dake ja nai,” is based on a famous 1982 TV series. How did you approach that challenge?
Well, first I had to create a two-hour play from a series of 13 episodes.
Then, though the TV series is normally remembered as a heart-warming tale, I was in fact really impressed by the way it kept a delicate balance between cold-heartedness and tenderness. That kind of balance is pretty rare in today’s Japanese TV dramas, which mostly have a simple structure, whether it’s serious or melodramatic. I aimed to keep that fine balance, even though my creation is not a summary of the former TV drama, but a new play for today’s audiences.
What do you want your play to say to today’s audiences?
The title suggests that everybody is lonely and everybody has a hard time — at least sometimes. It’s a simple message, but one that points out something a lot of people don’t seem to realize, or have maybe forgotten.
Also, even though emails, text-messages and tweets make some people feel as though they are very “connected,” I think there are many others that feel much more lonely these days because they are communicating more through digital tools rather than making real human contact.
What I want to say is that today, even the loan-shark business has largely gone online and become impersonal — in the same way we now use ATMs instead of talking to bank staff — and I think that we have lost something important in our digital lives, and that that loss even includes human conflict, arguing and cheating, as is shown in this play.
What are your thoughts following the events of March 11?
I think Japanese people are starting to think about the way they now live, and are realizing that we have to make decisions for our future by ourselves.
Also, I am so surprised at how much those of us outside the Tohoku region are receiving something from the people there who are suffering. You’d think it would be the other way around, but I believe they are an inspiration to us all and are having a huge influence throughout the country. I want my works to reflect that.
How do you see the future of contemporary theater in Japan?
With these ongoing disasters and changes in society, now is a good time for Japanese theater people to rethink the meaning of what they do. Although some may lose interest in their work, others may become even more committed.
Myself, I think dramatists should have faith in theater and not try to blend it into the digital media. We should stick to the theater’s unique principle of live performance, and in doing so, I’m sure the stage world will become much stronger for the long term.
“Sabishii no wa omae dake ja nai” runs from June 17-26 at Akasaka Act Theater, a 3-minute walk from Akasaka Station on the Chiyoda Subway Line. It then tours to Aichi, Hyogo and Niigata. For more details, call Sunrise Promotion at (0570) 00-3337 or visit www.sabioma.jp (Japanese only).