Theater of protest boosts rising new hub

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

Ikebukuro boasts Tokyo’s second-busiest rail station after Shinjuku, and until recently it was just a transport hub people passed through between their jobs in the city and homes in suburbs to the north.

Latterly, though, things have been changing in this once nondescript, somewhat seedy heart of Toshima Ward — with unusually, perhaps uniquely, theater in the vanguard.

It all started in 2009, when Japan’s biggest live-performance event, Festival/Tokyo, was launched at numerous venues there. That year, too, the renowned contemporary dramatist Hideki Noda was appointed as artistic director to run Tokyo Metropolitan Art Theatre — just across a small park outside the station — in place of career bureaucrats.

Nowadays, with more restaurants, cinemas, galleries and the like also opening up, Ikebukuro is beginning to rank with Shibuya and Shinjuku as one of the capital’s main culture hubs. But Toshima Ward isn’t resting on its laurels: Last year, it launched the three-year Toshima Terayama Project in conjunction with Tokyo’s renowned Ryuzanji Company that’s also known worldwide due to its countless overseas tours since Sho Ryuzanji founded it in 1984.

Named in honor of the internationally acclaimed avant-garde poet, dramatist and film director Shuji Terayama (1935-83), who was also an icon of Japan’s vibrant and radical underground culture scene of the 1960s and ’70s, the Project was conceived to stage one of his major works each year.

At a recent press conference to launch this year’s event, Toshima Mayor Yukio Takano hailed its contribution to the locality, saying, “Toshima has been trying to become a culture-creating city for the last 10 years, and when we had the good fortune to be able to collaborate with Ryuzanji we started the Terayama Project to forge even more links between local residents and theater and encourage people to get involved.”

And, speaking as one of those residents himself, he added, “When the first Terayama program, the musical “Chikyu Kudosetsu (Hollow Earth Theory),” was staged last autumn, I was able to act in it briefly myself — and I had a great time (laughs). That made me think that the most important thing about theater is not to see it but to take part — so I will appear this time, too.”

Then, to introduce this year’s program, Takano handed the mike to Ryuzanji. He began by saying, “After the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami [in March 2011], many public halls became evacuation centers, and that made me want to perform our plays at such places to get closer to local people.

“Overseas, I’ve seen many theater festivals that directly involve the local community. For example, in the city of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada, they have an international drama festival that’s been going for more than 30 years and relies on 8,000 local volunteers. It is staged over 10 days at 300 venues of all sorts and sizes — and it draws 500,000 people from around the world.”

After clearly hinting at a grand ambition for Ikebukuro, though, Ryuzanji went on to modestly claim that, with the current Project, he was actually only continuing Terayama’s mission of theater.

“Our great predecessor Shuji Terayama often staged performances that weren’t in theaters, and he especially liked open-air shows in towns, because originally it was in such places that people gathered,” he said. But then, he noted, “As theater has come to be presented in more stylish and splendid buildings, performances have lost human warmth — so I want to invite locals to join in this project and share a good time with them.”

Putting his idea into practice, Ryuzanji held a public workshop and open auditions for this year’s play, which led to nine seniors being invited to join the cast. Then, having opted for Terayama’s 1970 film work “Buraikan (Scoundrel),” he asked the promising playwright and director Akihito Nakatsuru, founder of the Trash Masters theater company, to adapt it for the stage. The upshot is this year’s “Narazumono” — a different kanji reading of “buraikan” that also means “scoundrel” — for which the director has enlisted the world-famous shamisen player Hiromitsu Agatsuma to compose and perform original music.

Based on “Buraikan,” a kabuki play by Kawatake Mokuami (1816-93) about ordinary people in the Edo Period (1603-1867) rising up against their feudal lord, Terayama’s film focused on another anti-establishment movement — one that that brought many of the nation’s students into often violent conflict with police in the late 1960s as they protested renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.

In rekindling, through “Narazumono,” that torch of protest from more than 40 years ago (and far beyond), it will be interesting indeed to see the reactions Ryuzanji and his 46-strong cast are able to spark among today’s generally more muted citizenry — especially with the current regime bulldozing through new secrecy laws to curtail what citizens are allowed to know.

“Narazumono” runs Nov. 21-Dec. 1 at Toshima Public Hall, a 5-min. walk from the East Exit of JR Ikebukuro Station. For details, call Ryuzanji Co. at 03-5272-1785 or visit www.www.ryuzanji.com.