Redefining conventions of the play

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

Without doubt, Takahiro Fujita is the most prominent newcomer in the world of Japanese contemporary theater. To a considerable extent that’s because the 27-year-old playwright/director has an unusual trademark style — to create works that often have the same lyrical phrases and series of movements repeated over and over again.

In fact, almost as soon as he founded his Mum and Gypsy company in 2007, critics began touting his prominent role in Japan’s current trend toward “postdramatic theater” — drama with a focus on the interaction between text and the audience. As such, Fujita was (and is) credited with holistic works combining, rather than just featuring, elements such as music and video images along with nonrealistic sets, acting and rhythmic dialogue and actions.

In 2012, Fujita’s trilogy of intrafamily issues of belonging and alienation — “Kaeri no Aizu, (Signal of Heading Home),” “Matteta Shokutaku, (Waiting Dining Table)” and “Kitto Shiofuru Sekai (A World of Falling Salt)” — won the Kishida Kunio Drama Award, the nation’s most famous theater accolade.

Since then, job offers from home and abroad have been constant. Last year, he spent two months in the city of Kitakyushu auditioning local actors and creating a new play titled “Land→Scape/ Viewing Sea→Surveying Town,” which seeks to tease out the character and spirit of the former steel-making hub of Japan , which currently sits in a postindustrial limbo. Following its exalted premiere at Kitakyushu Performing Arts Center in November, Tokyo audiences will now get a chance to see the play at Owl Spot in Ikebukuro next month.

Ahead of that opening, Fujita set aside time last week to talk to The Japan Times.

What did you think when you got the Kishida Award at the tender age of 26?

That had never been a goal of mine — it was something that just came along the way. So, nothing much has changed — certainly not my writing stance. I’m happy to get it at an early stage, though, because I believed I’d receive it someday.

With four new plays last year and more than 10 productions in all — both with Mum and Gypsy and in collaborations — do you not worry that you are keeping too busy?

Many young theater companies want to stage works at bigger and bigger theaters and get larger and larger audiences, but that’s never interested me. My policy is to make the best plays I can in interesting styles one after the other — always trying to improve the quality. So if I restage a play I check every minute detail to update it and I adjust it for a new audience.

Last year, I also worked with artists in other fields — the contemporary jazz musician Yoshio Otani, experimental artist and director Norimizu Ameya and Machiko Kyo, a girly-style manga artist. With each of them separately, over a period of three months I created three new hour-long performances that explore genre-crossing possibilities and also helped inspire me for the future.

This summer I’m creating a new play based on Kyo’s masterpiece “Cocoon,” which is about a unit of young student nurses in Okinawa in World War II. I’ve never tackled big social issues such as this before, so how could I worry or complain about being busy? (Laughs)

You have said that one of your 2012 highlights was collaborating with a cast of high-school girls in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture on a reworking of “Hello School, Bye-bye,” which centers on junior high school girls who discuss their lives and hopes as they play their last game of volleyball together. What was it like working with kids who were still recovering from the March 11, 2011, disasters?

When I went to Iwaki in January the students were still traumatized, and many were still in temporary housing. I actually felt guilty and uncomfortable about my fortunate circumstances in Tokyo.

When the Great East Japan Earthquake happened I was writing a play titled “A, Stranger,” which was based on Albert Camus’ 1942 existential novel “The Stranger.” I had changed the central character to an ordinary young Japanese women temp worker who goes to the seaside after her mother dies and meets a young man she hasn’t seen for a long time. So obviously, I was influenced by 3/11, but I didn’t want to simply say how terrible it all was because I thought I couldn’t truly understand the reality unless I lived in the stricken area.

Yet as we worked day by day, I realized that the girls in Iwaki were still ordinary high-school students — though trauma had changed them. For example, one day a girl told me she never wanted to see the sea again. I was really shocked, because I grew up by the ocean in Hokkaido, and for me it was always a symbol of bright new horizons.

What do you think about the current theater scene in Japan?

The most discouraging thing right now is that I am labeled as an impertinent person (laughs). But I think young theater people should be impertinent. They should be complaining more about the current theater situation, and they should be more professional, too.

For example, many theater companies pay venues to stage their performances — so anyone with the cash can be an actor or director. Me, I only work on projects commissioned by a theater, and I think that’s a much better approach to ensure quality.

So what are the prospects for theater?

I strongly believe that theater is the most interesting and free of art forms. It has so much possibility for expression, and it has the potential to develop new methods and push the creative envelope. It hasn’t got bogged down yet like most of the arts.

As for myself, I’m always looking for something new and I suppose I will carry on doing that.

“Land→Scape/ Viewing Sea→Surveying Town,” runs March 8-10 at Owl Spot, a 2-min. walk from Higashi-Ikebukuro Station on the Yurakucho subway line. For more details, call Owl Spot at (03) 5391-0751 or visit www.owlspot.jp. For more information on Mum and Gypsy, visit www.mum-gypsy.com