Until Japan was opened to the West in the mid-19th century, its theater culture mainly comprised traditional forms such as kabuki, comic kyōgen, bunraku (puppet theater) and noh.
Afterward, once European acting styles were thrown into the mix, there emerged a theater genre known as shingeki (new theater), which continues to this day.
What set shingeki apart was its reliance on original works — rather than reverential stagings of age-old ones — and the great emphasis put on the playwright’s intentions regardless of commercial temptations.
But just as shingeki was new back then, so the socially and politically tumultuous 1960s saw the rise of another new form, shōgekijo (literally “small theater,” but understood as “underground theater”), which developed in reaction to the then-established shingeki.
Shōgekijo’s arrival was a seismic event, featuring many radical, aggressive and talented playwrights, directors and actors, around whom a scene quickly grew that swept away much of Japan’s staid world of supposedly modern theater. Indeed, the form and key players in today’s contemporary-theater world almost wholly stem from that shōgekijo movement — while shingeki is now in a precarious state.
When the New National Theatre, Tokyo, opened in 1997, it was created with an opera department, a ballet and dance department and another for contemporary theater — but its main goal was to provide a showcase and an opportunity for ailing shingeki to recapture some of its vitality and establish a standard for Japan’s contemporary theater. So to this day, though the NNTT’s staff and artist rosters reflect a variety of backgrounds, there’s a shingeki spirit at its core.
It is amid this historical and evolutionary context that Satoshi Kamimura, for his directing debut at the NNTT, has chosen 1959’s “The Condemned of Altona,” one of the last plays written by the French existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.
A director affiliated with the Bungakuza Company, a shingeki theater group of long standing, Kamimura, born in 1979, is regarded as being one of the genre’s great hopes for the future — indeed, for a future.
Already with a wide range of experience behind him, including directing across a range from strongly abstract new works by his peers to commercially popular plays, he has been active both within and outside the Bungakuza company. And as for his choice of play, he said, “I figured if I was going to put on something in this theater, something with a pointed yet broad viewpoint would be appropriate — so I chose Sartre.
“For example, this work is set in a household in postwar Germany, but a Bible from the 16th century appears in one scene. Even production staff members here have made comments such as, ‘This shows that, in a Protestant family, the writer was trying to reference the Protestant Reformation.’
“That just shows how everyone involved brings a keen perspective to the work, and no one is simply here to do a routine job. This theater made me feel that, with such a cohesive and enthusiastic staff, I would be able to successfully put on this play.”
That earnest, inclusive approach to a play, with cast members also intently researching its intricacies, is in contrast to what happens in shōgekijo theater, where the playwright and director are often one and the same — in a position of absolute power. With shingeki, that’s just not possible — which is where the NNTT really shines.
At the core of “The Condemned of Altona,” which was first performed in Paris, is the story of an industrialist father who has been told he hasn’t long to live, his eldest son who has shut himself away at home for 13 years after being traumatized during the war — and their reunion. Beyond that, it is about the many ways “people are in a condition of being imprisoned,” as Kamimura put it.
Specifically, the story is said to be Sartre’s criticism of atrocities committed by the French army during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62) as he presents it in this controversial and complex work by juxtaposing pragmatic family discussions with the reflections and delusions of the war-veteran eldest son.
“I think that many of Sartre’s works are about the antics of a single character,” Kamimura said, “but this is about the ‘condemned’ plural. The son who shuts himself away from his memories of the war and the presence of his father, and the fictional world he has created for himself, is the structure of theater itself.
“Meanwhile, the father’s “father” role is a mask behind which he has shut himself, and there is a certain awkwardness and sadness about how he cannot remove it. There are conceptual expressions at every turn of course, but basically this is a dialogue within a family, and as a theater person, I want to believe in the ‘power of dialogue’ — and that makes this work easy for me to approach.”
With the New National Theatre’s staff behaving like dramaturges, and a cast full of ideas and charm, “It’s like angels carrying me along,” Kamimura says with a smile. And in that environment, his use of the latent strength of shingeki as his tool — and his naturalistic approach to Sartre’s heavy question of “how to face the past?” — are truly impressive.
“The Condemned of Altona” runs Feb. 19-March 9 at The Pit, the New National Theatre, Tokyo. For details, visit nntt.jac.go.jp. This article was written in Japanese for The Japan Times and translated by Claire Tanaka.