Japan’s performing arts world is massively centered on Tokyo, yet one of its leading lights is based in Aomori City in the country’s deeply unchic far north — and he’s a school teacher.
Each morning during term time, Seigo Hatasawa, a 47-year-old playwright, director and actor, bids an early goodbye to his wife and two teenage daughters as he embarks on another day’s jam-packed schedule that starts with his job as an art teacher at Aomori Chuo High School.
After school hours, he leads its drama club — which has won several all-Japan high-school competitions — before heading off to the cozy studio base of Watanabe Genshiro Shoten (Nabegen), the theater company he founded in 2005. Hatasawa also runs popular theater workshops for local young people, and is invariably writing plays and scenarios for other companies — many of which have staged his works to huge acclaim in Tokyo and elsewhere.
At present, though, as winter’s chill descends, the heat is really on for Hatasawa, as his school drama club starts a season with a new play he has written, and another new work, “The Exorcists,” is currently running at Nabegan’s studio, before playing in Tokyo.
Set in a small town in Aomori Prefecture, the play, which may well be one of the year’s finest works, begins with its young heroine, Chizuru (Sakiko Otokita), behaving oddly and leading her mother and young boyfriend to call in exorcists to cure her. But is she really possessed? And if so, who might be the devil? Through clever dialogue, spoken in strong local dialect, the audience gradually learns that dark family secrets are being laid bare before it.
During a recent visit to snowy Aomori City, I watched Hatasawa at work over two hectic days and asked him what drives his relatively unsung devotion to theater activities
First, could you tell me how you used theater to help victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11?
On that day, this city was fortunately almost undamaged, though there was a power outage for a few days and a gasoline shortage, which meant that I had to close the studio. Ironically, it had one positive effect: I was able to be with my family a lot then, and I am usually too busy to do that.
At that time, I was writing two new plays. One was about the death-penalty system in Japan, and the other, which was for the Mingei theater company in Tokyo, was about an itako (necromancer) in this Tohoku region. That is a tale of tiny joys and tiny miseries in a small, closed society. But after March 11, I wondered what was the real point of the play, so I stopped writing it for some time.
Meanwhile, even though some theater people visited the disaster-stricken areas of Tohoku as volunteers, I thought my duty was to support the victims through theater. I decided to do performances in those areas with my high school theater group, and I posted on my blog an offer to visit any disaster-stricken place.
I wrote and directed the play “Moshi Ita” (whose subtitle translates as “What if a high-school baseball team’s woman assistant were to call in an itako?”) specially for this, so it didn’t need any stage sets, props or sound and lighting effects — or even a theater. The cast express everything with their bodies and voices. It’s a very simple, ridiculous play, and though it’s hilariously funny, it’s also deeply related to the current situation in Tohoku.
What is your new play, “Exorcists,” about?
It stems from my 2002 play, “Tsuki no Nikai no Shita” (“Under the Second Floor of the Moon”), which was about child abuse. Now, as we have more than enough tragedy in Japan, I have lightened it and made the references to abuse vaguer, because this is not a time I want to be too dark.
How do you approach plays for your high-school group?
Primarily I have to entertain young people, many of whom will have never seen a play before. But I also aim to impress the judges of school-play competitions, who are normally senior dramatists.
In 2005, my school won the best performance and original play awards in a national high school competition with my “Shugakuryoko” (“A School Excursion”). In that play, five girls have a pillow fight in a hotel room in Okinawa, and viewers enjoy watching them playing and chatting.
But the audience comes to realize that the girls represent countries involved in the Iraq War, which is played out through their caricatures. For example, there is a bossy girl representing the United States and an irresolute one representing Japan.
When people watch the play, they can enjoy it in their own way.
Generally speaking, what do you think are the particular merits of theater as a performance art?
I think live theater has more power to let audiences actually experience something, unlike when passively viewing a final, polished work like a film.
From my experience as a drama teacher, I know how being involved with theater can really quickly affect young people. If a student tries hard at their performance, then that immediately shows on stage and it gets an instant evaluation through the audience’s applause. Also, in theater success never comes without other people’s cooperation — so everyone bears a huge responsibility for other group members.
I think such experiences are rare and valuable in helping young students mature, and I believe it’s an important duty of teachers to give students many chances to experience such success.
What plans do you have from here on?
Well, just as we now have genbaku bungaku (A-bomb literature), there will probably be a hisai gikyoku (3/11 literature) genre of plays wrestling with the essence of the March 11 disaster, and its universality, 65 years from now.
So, I am planning to write a not unfeasible, near-future story for Nabegen to stage next spring. It will imagine little rural Aomori being the world’s only remaining atomic site — because of its recently built facility to store high-level nuclear waste at Rokkasho-mura. I would like to develop that storyline into an absurd and nonsensical comedy.
As that planned play goes to show, I think that from now on, the sensibilities of a lot of creators will be influenced in many ways by how they are affected by the disasters going on up here in the north. So, even more than before, I think one of regional people’s roles is to write plays Tokyo people never could.
“The Exorcists” runs till Nov. 26 at Atelier Green Park in Aomori City, and Dec. 2-4 at Komaba Agora Theater in Tokyo, a 3-min. walk from Komaba Todaimae Station on the Keio Inogashira Line. “Moshi Ita” runs Nov. 26, 27 and Dec. 14 in Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture, Oofunato, Kamaishi and Kuji in Iwate Prefecture. For more details, call Watanabe Genshiro Shoten at (080) 1269-6158 or visit www.nabegen.com (Japanese only).