Japan and America share their acting skills

by Graig Russell

Special To The Japan Times

Next year will mark the New York premiere performances of a new collaborative project whose organizers hope will spur a revolution in the film and theater industries of Japan.

Hikobae, meaning, in Japanese, the new shoots that sprout from a felled tree, is the working title of the project and it consists of two performances that will explore Japan’s relationship with nuclear power — from the World War II attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 to the ongoing nuclear crisis at the Fukushima power station.

The project is the realization of a 30-year-old dream of the actor, filmmaker, and founder of the Tokyo and Osaka based Actor’s Clinic acting school, Toshi Shioya. Shioya has not only achieved significant success in international films and TV series and as the director of the critically acclaimed 2007 film “Winds from Zero,” but he has also trained some of Japan’s biggest actors, including Osamu Mukai, Saki Aibu, Kenta Kiritani and Kyoko Hasegawa.

Since his formative years as an undergraduate at Keio University, Shioya had an ambitious goal in sight. He recalls training alongside American and European actors at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, and observing a big disparity between Western performers and their Japanese counterparts. “We (Japanese) can do this” he thought, “why aren’t we?”

The reasons for such a gap in performance quality, however, didn’t come to him until later, after he decided to make a move from acting to directing. Like many other independent filmmakers, he found fault in the large corporations that dominate the film industry.

“The content (of Japanese films) is getting shallower and shallower,” he lamented in a recent interview. “We had great masters like (Akira) Kurosawa in the past, but that heritage hasn’t been maintained, and the problem lies in who is mostly making the films now: TV stations. They won’t consider a project unless they think it can make money.”

That stagnation in the industry, Shioya believes, has also stunted much of Japan’s acting talent, producing actors who, in his words, are “missing the point.”

And so, for the past 30 years, Shioya has been dreaming of cracking open the industry and exposing it, at a deeper level, to the influence of Western methods of actor training, specifically through the collaboration with a Western school.

The opportunity to realize this dream finally presented itself in 2010, when a former student of Shioya’s graduated from the world-renowned Stella Adler’s Studio of Actors in New York, which has an impressive alumni list that includes, to name a few, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Salma Hayek and Elaine Stritch. Shioya’s student suggested that he meet with the SASA’s current artistic director, Tom Oppenheim.

In recent years, under the tutelage of Oppenheim, the SASA has fostered a number of international projects, though Oppenheim says, “Our partnership with Japan is by far the most important, rewarding, exciting and creative.”

With plans for regular Web-based video lessons and international exchange programs, Shioya is now close to achieving his goal of bringing a high-quality, long-term dialogue between a major international school and emerging talent in Japan.

“I still can’t believe we’re joining with the Stella Adler Studio and exchanging curricula like this,” said Shioya. “But I said to Tom ‘there’s something else. We need to do a show.’”

While arranging the finer details of the exchange, Shioya was also working on the production of his next film, centered on the Namaoi horse festival in Soma City, Fukushima. During filming, Shioya developed a connection with the city after its mayor, Hidekiyo Tachiya took a liking to Shioya’s films and transformed the city hall twice into a cinema to screen “Winds from Zero” and Shioya’s more recent film “Swing Me Again.”

It was during this time that the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11 and the subsequent nuclear crisis at the nearby Fukushima reactor occurred.

Shioya, who once had “the biggest role of (his) life” snatched away when ABC canceled their ill-fated TV drama “Gaijin” after the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, was determined not to allow the natural disaster to stand in the way of his intentions, and he quickly contacted Oppenheim to set in motion plans for the schools’ collaborative performances.

As a result, Hikobae’s first performance will be of a fictionalized story, co-written by an American and Japanese writer and based on Shioya’s recorded interviews with doctors and nurses at Soma City Hospital, which was in the evacuation zone when the Fukushima crisis began to unfold.

The second half of the project, “Is It Already Dusk?” will be a movement piece directed by SASA teacher, Joan Evans, and is based on the life of Hiroshima survivor and author of “Bridge to Forgiveness,” Takashi Tanemori. Both performances will be cast from students and graduates of the two schools.

After their spring premieres in New York, the shows will tour Japan, with plans for performances in Soma City, Tokyo and Hiroshima.

“This project should be a new guiding light for Japanese actors to work overseas, ” said Shioya. “But there are also people in a weak position, like those in Soma. They didn’t choose it, they were chosen, by nature, and the wrong usage of nuclear energy.

“Our mission is to support and encourage those people.”

For more information on Actors Clinic and Stella Adler’s Studio, visit www.actors-clinic.com and www.stellaadler.com