Japan has been on a bit of a losing streak for a while now. In 2010, it was overtaken as the world’s second-largest economy by China, and in 2011 the nation was rocked by the Great East Japan Earthquake and the ensuing tsunami and nuclear crisis.
Now, Japan has become embroiled in territorial disputes with China and Taiwan, and South Korea, that have both escalated dramatically with consumer boycotts and riots.
It is against this backdrop that Japan’s biggest annual theater event, Festival/Tokyo (F/T), is being held and organizers are turning their spotlight specifically on Asian drama and dramatists. They aim to build a communal platform across the region, especially for cutting-edge creators.
Up until now, F/T has, since its 1988 inception as Tokyo International Arts Festival (TIF), mainly introduced and invited overseas programs from Europe and the Americas (and once from the Middle East) — with its East Asia neighbors getting short shrift.
So what has shifted F/T’s attention toward Asia — and what are its organizers hoping for through this re-direction?
Chiaki Soma, F/T’s 37-year-old program director, believes it has been a long time coming.
“How to connect with other Asian theaters and how to foster Japan’s presence in the Asian theater world has been my long-term theme,” she tells The Japan Times. “However, due to the region’s economic, cultural and geographic disparities, it has taken 10 years to realize this year’s Asia-focused programming.”
Soma adds that fewer people in Japan buy tickets to see Asian theater compared with Western productions. This, she supposes, is because contemporary Asian theater is still a largely unknown quantity here.
To counter this situation, Soma explains that F/T has set an age limit of 39 on applicants for its Emerging Artists Program (EAP), which focuses on unconventional dramatists. “This is because such creators hardly get a chance to show overseas compared with their countries’ established companies. And at F/T we want to introduce the fresh faces of Asian theater.”
Consequently, this year’s EAP category comprises 11 companies — five are Japanese, two are Taiwanese, and there is one each from South Korea, China, Singapore and Indonesia. These were selected from a remarkable 180 applicants, of whom 94 were from Japan and the rest from elsewhere in Asia.
Meanwhile, among the 12 pieces in F/T’s Main Program this year, Korean director Hansol Yoon, who founded the Greenpig theater company in 2006, is bringing the troupe’s 2010 production, “Step-Memories — Return of the Oppressed.” It will feature a special cast of both Korean and Japanese actors for the F/T staging.
“The play is about the 1950-53 Korean War and Korean people’s memories of it,” Yoon says. “Memories related to that war have been manipulated by the governments involved, conservative historians and world politics. In fact there were many massacres by Korean and American troops, but that’s all been covered up for a long time. So, with this play we want to talk about how we remember things, what makes people remember, and how people pass on their memories.”
Due to that same reason (how he believes those in power manipulate history), Yoon stands apart from many of his countrymen on the current territorial dispute between Japan and South Korea. “Though many people ask my opinion about Takeshima/Dokdo Islands these days, I actually don’t care about it,” he says. “It’s just politics and it has nothing to do with the common people like us. Politicians are just getting citizens to take their eyes off real, major domestic problems.”
Yoon’s company is widely known for its experimental works dealing with social and political issues, but he says there aren’t many such theaters in South Korea. “Most of the commercial theaters there stage fantasy works that disguise all the problems we are facing.”
Hyunsuk Seo, a theater director and researcher in performing arts at Yonsei University in Seoul, who will be one of the judges deciding this year’s EAP Award winner, agrees with Yoon’s analysis.
“In Korea,” he says, “there are a number of new voices among experimental theaters that are questioning or reworking the mechanism of theater nowadays, but there are hardly any mid-range companies between them and the mainstream.”
So, how about Japan’s other neighbor, China? One EAP participant, the director of Beijing-based New Youth Group, Li Jianjun, says that since around 2002 a growing number of theatergoers in China have been mainly patronizing light slapstick-comedy shows, whereas experimental independent companies such as his troupe find it difficult to survive.
“In China, day by day, all forms of culture are getting more commercialized,” Li says. “Now, some people worry that culture in China will become entirely market-oriented.”
In a reflection of such concerns, New Youth Group will present a play at F/T that is based on the book “A Madman’s Diary” by the father of modern Chinese literature, Lu Xun (1881-1936).
Although that short delusional story in the form of a cannibal’s diary was written about 100 years ago, Li sees the world it portrays also applying to China’s current situation.
“China is now at a turning point,” he says. “The old values have gone, but new values haven’t yet developed and there are inconsistencies everywhere. Simply, lots of Chinese today just don’t know what they can believe in — and that’s exactly the same as in Lu Xun’s time.”
And in a comment that truly validates the aim of the F/T organizers, he adds: “I want Japanese audiences to see the latest view of the state of today’s China through our performance.”
Meanwhile, Taiwanese EAP participant Huang Sze-nung, founder of the Against Again Troupe, will bring “American Dream Factory” to F/T. It’s a play he wrote, directed and premiered to great acclaim in Taipei in 2010.
“Many young people stepped into a theater for their first time to see this play,” Huang says. “Also, some came to see it again and again … because this show poses questions concerning the situation of the new generation born after 1980. It encapsulates how the dreams of a whole generation of youth are being simplified and co-opted by homogeneous materialist values.
“I suppose it resonates with the life experience of many of them, so it achieved a rare feat in Taiwan by selling out 13 performances in two weeks.”
And again reflecting F/T’s bridge-building aim, Huang (who was born in Hong Kong but raised in Taiwan) says he believes the questions raised in the play, which includes an underlying theme of antiglobalization, will be as relevant in Japan as in many other parts of Asia.
Indeed it is remarkable how many of F/T’s programs from other Asian countries deal with daily social issues related to the economically prosperous, yet still troubled, new generation referenced by Huang.
Interestingly, too, the questions posed by Li from Beijing echo the ones concerning fabricated memory that Yoon explores in the context of the Korean War — while Huang’s alarm about Taiwanese youth also relates to Li’s question about the future of his country.
Korean researcher Seo emphasizes that this kind of Asian collaboration and interaction is needed so much now.
“I strongly believe that one of the most important roles for the arts is to question the very foundations of reality, private or political, banal or historical,” he says. “Then changes can start in the private arena and individual discontents can overturn grand narratives.”
To foster and share such questions, Seo hopes F/T will step up its effort to generate critical discourse and open dialogue both inside and outside of Japan.
“Theater is not a set of isolated staged events that vanish right after the curtain falls,” he says. “It’s really about building collective knowledge about history, political reality, art and so on.”
In line with Seo’s sentiments, F/T breaks new ground this year with the launch of F/T Dialogue.
“In Japan, there are still few chances and places to talk and communicate with other young Asians,” program director Soma explains. “So, in F/T Dialogue we have invited several theater experts from Japan and elsewhere in Asia to organize interactive situations. They select the guests and determine the style, whether it’s a live forum setting, an Internet chatroom, a blog or whatever.
“Also from this year, to attract new patrons there will be some dance-centered, flash-mob events that we’ll announce on our website — and I hope many foreigners will turn up, take part and enjoy themselves.”
Despite this year’s array of fresh initiatives at F/T, researcher Seo is still passionately urging it to move forward.
“One of F/T’s great strengths is its openness to new approaches despite all the pressure to serve ‘mainstream’ audiences,” he says. “However, I’d like to see it supporting more avant-garde spirits with courageous visions. I’d always rather see failed pioneers than self-empowering conformists.”
As further testament to the notion that this year’s event has tuned into an Asian zeitgeist, Greenpig’s Yoon notes of the F/T lineup: “Let’s do this kind of theater. Let’s deal with political issues in theater, then afterward we can talk about it all.”
In addition to the Asian programs, F/T 2012 will present three works by author Elfriede Jelinek, the 2004 Nobel laureate from Austria. These pieces are Munchner Kammerspiele’s production “Rechnitz (Der Wurgeengel)” helmed by hotly tipped Swiss director Jossi Wieler; “Kein Licht” (“No Light”) directed by Motoi Miura; and a version of the same work titled “Kein Licht II” directed by F/T regular Akira Takayama.
Festival Tokyo 2012 runs Oct. 27-Nov. 25 at venues in Toshima-ku, Tokyo. For more information, call (03) 5961-5202 or visit www.festival-tokyo.jp.