Festival/Tokyo pushes a return to storytelling

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

In 2009, when Festival/Tokyo took over from the annual Tokyo International Arts Festival, it burst forth with the slogan “Towards a New Real” and the resolve to stamp the city’s name on the global arts map.

Back then the aim was to refresh the event, with Tokyo trying hard to land the 2016 Summer Olympics — “(the metropolitan government) offered tremendous financial and practical support in the hope of boosting the city’s cultural appeal,” Chiaki Soma, the program director since 2009, said at F/T 2013′s press launch in early September.

Of course that Olympic quest failed in 2009, but as Soma spoke in September, with Tokyo the favorite to be awarded the 2020 games, she declared: “This is the time to ask ourselves again what the true value of F/T is, and where it should go from here.”

Sure, the soon-to-be-realized prospect of the Olympics had the potential to push F/T to even greater heights, but when Soma said “Travels in Narratives” was the event’s new slogan — meaning it “aimed to get back to stories and finding ones out there to tell” — many were surprised.

After all the impact of F/T’s pioneering “Towards a New Real” theme on contemporary Japanese theater has been considerable, as has its influence in fostering Tokyo’s image as an artistically modern and advanced city.

In recent years, in fact, F/T has attracted some of the world’s finest cutting-edge artists in the ever-widening realm of theater, including the leading German experimental drama company Rimini Protokoll, the post-dramatic Swiss director Christoph Marthaler, and Italian avant-garde artist Romeo Castellucci, an F/T regular with his fantastical works.

Among F/T’s other standout successes has been its groundbreaking support for stagings at nontheater venues and its encouragement of city-strolling programs (mainly led by the Port B company) in which the “audience” are also participants. On top of that, last year F/T led the way in Japan by conjuring up large-scale (and hilarious) flash-mob dances hosted by choreographers who’d shown the moves in advance online.

So, if F/T has been doing so well, why rebrand it as “Travels in Narratives”?

Soma explained that the change was rooted in the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and ongoing nuclear crisis — that rocked the Tohoku region of northeastern Honshu in March 2011, and in the artistic responses the disaster has triggered to date.

“In signaling a shift, I don’t want to say that we’re turning away from documentary theater, which we’ve been involved in a lot,” she said. “But I do feel it carries with it a certain limit to expression. So that set me thinking about what role theater founded on narrative fiction could play in Japan facing its new reality after 3/11.”

Soma also set another new goal for the festival, saying, “While many people who’ve actually experienced F/T rate it very highly, many still don’t know what it is. So we must try very hard to reach out to more people.”

With the variety and quality of programs scheduled for F/T 2013, Soma may find her goals on the way to being realized this year.

In terms of creative fiction, for instance, Back to Back Theatre from Australia will present its acclaimed “Ganesh Versus the Third Reich” for the first time in Asia. Set in a theater company beset by disputes over its staging of an absurdist play about the Hindu god Ganesh trying to reclaim his stolen swastika symbol of peace from Adolf Hitler, the play examines the difficulty of telling imaginative stories.

Another troupe with grand designs is the Theatre of Studio company from Indonesia, who last year won F/T’s promising young artist award but this month suffered the loss of its founder and director, Nandang Aradea, who died of a stroke at 42. Despite the loss, though, the troupe has decided its F/T show, “Overdose: Psycho-Catastrophe” in Ikebukuro West Gate Park — which involves erecting a huge set made of bamboo and a dynamic enactment of the 1883 explosion of Krakatoa — must go on.

In contrast, two young Japanese companies — Kyoto-based Kinoshita Kabuki and Tokyo’s Shigeki Nakano & Kaku Nagashima — will each tackle the classic kabuki ghost play “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (Ghost Story of Yotsuya)” — the former in a way faithful to the story but with a cast of both men and women in modern dress performing over six hours with two intervals, the latter through a strolling program in which the audience visits Tokyo sites linked to the tale.

Asked why he chose to bring this play to such a cutting-edge festival, Kinoshita Kabuki’s founder, Yuichi Kinoshita, explained that in Osaka, where he lives, “bureaucrats want to ‘liven up the place’ by making a swimming pool in the city center’s Dotonbori River and a motocross course in the castle grounds. But these places have a long history that we can never reclaim again,” he fumed. “Treating our history and culture like that just weakens Japan in the world’s eyes. That’s why I wanted F/T audiences to appreciate an uncut slice of our traditional culture.”

Also addressing present concerns through classical means is the rising dramatist Shu Matsui, whose adaptation of the ancient Greek tragedy “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles reworks its episodes of parricide and incest to question emerging ethical issues at the cutting edge of modern medicine.

As for the question Soma posed above of how to get beyond documentary theater regarding the catastrophes of March 2011, last year’s F/T actually moved quickly by staging two works based on “Kein Licht (No Light),” then a new 3-11-related play by Austrian Nobel laureate, Elfriede Jelinek.

Akira Takayama of Port B designed a brilliant city-center strolling program to expose audiences to the reality of living with the ongoing Fukushima nuclear crisis even in distant Tokyo, while Motoi Miura’s “Kein Licht” by his Kyoto-based Chiten company built on the text to critique — with comic absurdity — individual identity and so-called democracy in Japan.

This year, Jerinek’s most recent Fukushima-related work, “Prolog?” has again inspired contrasting pieces by two artists at F/T. From director Akio Miyazawa, audiences are set to witness a modern noh-style drama in which the living and dead converse, while contemporary visual artist Tsuyoshi Ozawa will present an exhibition-style performance featuring many of his paintings, installations and videos.

Meanwhile, program director Soma may well get pointers on expanding F/T’s audience base from overseas guests Forced Entertainment. An experimental theater performance group from Sheffield, England, (since 1984) this remarkable outfit led by founder Tim Etchells has been attracting a growing worldwide following by blazing new trails through conventional ideas of theater and daring live performances.

Chatting with this writer in a cafe in north London a month ago, Etchells, 51, said, “We don’t really have any connection to literary theater or classical or traditional forms of acting.” He did admit, however, that few experimental theaters in Britain would survive unless foreign festivals paid them to appear. Interestingly, too, he said he thinks his audiences “are more open than 20 years ago, when our performances sparked endless conversations about ‘What is acting?’ ‘Is what they’re doing acting?’ ‘Is it theater?’ Now that doesn’t happen so much.”

At F/T 2013, the company will present “The Coming Storm,” which, since its premiere last year in Germany, has been a big hit on the international festival circuit. Constructed in collage form, the production is loaded with characteristic English black humor as various players compete to use a single microphone.

As Etchells explained, though, it was never meant to be like that. “We intended to tell a single story, which we’ve rarely done. Then, in rehearsals, we quickly abandoned that and returned to our territory to create many stories in the one piece. So some things remain and some fragment, and that gives audiences the job of making connections in their minds. Along the way we try to present lots of puzzles and possibilities and even a construction — so people get chance to make their own narratives and links. That way they’re very active and involved.”

Etchells then offered a tip for anyone daunted by the idea of such a show with no linear storyline: “Just enjoy it and relax and don’t worry,” he said. “Follow the energy of what’s happening and allow yourself to be surprised and confused — and cheer up!” Urging audience members not to just sit back and wait for the performance to come to them as if it were a lecture, he called for those at F/T “to be part of it and make it more exciting — and to remember that basically everything is fine.”

And in conclusion, over a cappuccino, the director declared his own “purpose in drama” — a mission statement that might well serve for Soma and F/T: “To challenge, question and provoke; these words are always in my agenda for theater or the arts.”

Festival/Tokyo 2013 runs Nov. 9 through Dec. 8 at venues in and around Ikebukuro Station in Toshima Ward. Overseas productions will include Japanese subtitles. For more information, call 03-5961-5202 or visit www.festival-tokyo.jp.