Top billings of 2013

by Nobuko Tanaka

Although all Japan’s 50 reactors have been shut down since September, cleaning up in the wake of the March 2011 meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is making very slow progress and tens of thousands of people still live in temporary accommodation or are internally displaced. In addition, every day irradiated water from the site is flowing into the Pacific.

Meanwhile, as the former CIA contractor Edward Snowden continues to reveal the West’s hidden agendas targeting its own citizens, Japan’s national Diet has just passed a draconian new secrets law.

During 2013, rather than writing directly about the nuclear disaster, all this has led many dramatists in Japan to question the state of this country as a whole — and to sound alarm bells about its future.

For instance, with his Tokyo-based Ikiume (Buried Alive) company, playwright/director Tomohiro Maekawa, 39, this year presented two very imaginative new plays — “Kemono no Hashira” (“A Column of Brute”) and “Henrin” (“Glimpse”).

Though both reflected his trademark sci-fi taste, each also superbly extrapolated from the Fukushima tragedy to the ease with which people can be lured by leaders to accept the wholesale pursuit of material enrichment or cajoled into turning a blind eye to screaming injustice. In doing so, he pointed to how little humans appear to learn from experience — and yet how helpless in the face of nature’s fury.

In “Henrin,” a peaceful local society is turned into a living hell by rumors of poisoned water and sightings of a mysterious stranger. Although nothing in their real lives actually changes, the people began to dread an unseen enemy and the superficialities holding them together soon break down.

Was that community cursed; was it a supernatural phenomenon; or was it all in people’s imagination? It was interesting to see posts arguing these and other analyses on a review site straight after the play ran.

Meanwhile, audiences this month had a great chance to see, back to back, two masterpieces from the playwight/author/director Toshiki Okada’s globe-trotting Chelfitsch company on home soil.

“Genzaichi” (“Current Location”) — which premiered in 2012 at the Kanagawa Arts Theatre in Yokohama — was the main program of Japan’s biggest theater event, Festival/Tokyo; while “Jimen to Yuka” (“Ground and Floor”), which debuted at the annual Kunstenfestival des Arts in Brussels in May, has just closed its second domestic run, at the same Yokohama venue, after an eight-country European tour and performances in Kyoto.

Writing on his website, Okada, 40, the most famous Japanese contemporary dramatist in Europe today, said of those plays: “They both share a sense of the tense atmosphere I have felt in Japan since March 2011, and I see it as my job to give audiences a chance to confront that tension today.”

An allegorical work, “Genzaichi” showed the exact state of Japan in 2012 through a story of dark clouds appearing in the sky one day, and people feeling this spelled the end of their village. Everyone there then has to decide for themselves how to react; while some plod on in denial, others leave despite their families opting to stay.

In “Jimen to Yuka,” Okada pursues a similar theme — but more explicitly as his characters must resolve what to do after a nuclear disaster. In an anonymous location, a young man who has been out of work for 2½ years visits his mother’s grave to report that he’s landed a construction job (likely in the disaster area) — and so will be able to tend to the site properly from then on — whereas his elder brother’s wife declares she’s leaving the country as soon as possible for the sake of her new baby.

Here again, as ever, Okada refrains from offering solutions or guidance — while nonetheless alluding to Japan’s cobwebs of contradictions. For example, he doesn’t shrink from mentioning that, as most Japanese only speak their own language, which few others bother to learn, they are at a huge disadvantage internationally — a point probably drawn from his own experience of touring abroad. And indeed, the play’s effect is to positively stimulate audiences to open their eyes to the whole world as it is now, and to start taking steps forward to meet it.

As a case in point, truth met fiction when Tokyo Gov. Naoki Inose resigned last week over a money scandal — highligting how even top leaders sometimes can’t have everything their own way.

Such was the central theme of the 1593 English historical play “Edward II” by Christopher Marlowe at the New National Theatre, which thrillingly traced the decline and ultimate destruction of the medieval King Edward II. The director, Shintaro Mori, took an ironic and cool-headed view, posing the question to his audiences: “Why did this tragedy happen — was it because of the king, his retainers or simply some baseness in human nature?”

It is a question that resonates to the present, since in the play those around the king immerse themselves in scheming, often violent, power games — while Edward II himself devotes almost all his energies to his own pleasures (his male lover).

Speaking of sovereigns, a few days ago I saw another great play about a monarch, “Chiten no Kimi” (“Ruling Person”), a biographical work staged by the Tokyo-based Chocolate Cake company about the mysterious Emperor Taisho who reigned from 1912-26.

In writing this, Takeshi Furukawa carefully researched the premature death at age 47 of Emperor Yoshihito (Taisho is his posthumous name) and his beloved and loving wife, Sadako. Generally, the image of that emperor is of a weakly leader inconsequentially sandwiched between the Meiji and Showa eras before and after his, respectively.

However, Furukawa unearthed a hidden story behind that one that’s long served a reactionary political agenda by quashing knowledge of how modern and individualist that emperor was, and of the liberal “Taisho democracy” during his era. When his health failed completely and he died on Christmas Day 1926, that reality all but passed away, too.

Among all these highlights of 2013, though, I would like to spotlight “Stripper Monogatari” (“Story of a Stripper)” — an adaptation by playwright/director Daisuke Miura of the great human-drama novel of the same name by ’70s dramatist Kouhei Tsuka.

In pulling off his tour de force, Miura, 38 — whose Potsu-doru company has just been wowing Paris audiences with his risqué masterpiece “Ai no Uzu” (“Love’s Whirlpool”) — didn’t add to or cut the original, but simply, beautifully and powerfully refreshed its classic love story of a tolerant female stripper Akemi (Makiko Watanabe) and her inept but pure-hearted pimp, Shige (Lily Franky). Here, too, multi-talented Japanese artist Franky, who is renowned as an illustrator and for his film roles, turned in a stunning performance in what was only his second role on the live stage.

Finally, no roundup of 2013 could overlook the World Theatre Festival Shizuoka under Mt. Fuji as an early summer team triumph by Shizuoka Performing Arts Center under its Artistic Director Satoshi Miyagi.

In this annual international festival, all sorts of theater companies and other dramatists from Europe and Asia performed at several venues both outdoors and indoors.

Standouts of the monthlong event were “Fous de Bassin” (“Water Fools”), a balletic, fantastical and funny show from French director Bruno Schnebelin “staged” on the water of Shizuoka Port, and “Hate Radio,” a super-tense and chillingly lifelike drama by Swiss multi-media artist Milo Rau about the 100-day 1994 Rwanda Genocide.

It is to be hoped that the Shizuoka event, together with Festival/Tokyo and all the other great stagings nationwide, are starting to create a critical mass putting Japan well and truly on contemporary theater lovers’ map of the world — and in consequence, fueling a stage scene steadily going from strength to strength on its own increasing merits.