Chocolatecake are no sweeties

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

Its name translates as Chocolatecake Theatre Company, but there’s nothing self-indulgent about topics Gekidan Chocolatecake gets its teeth into.

For the last two years, the Tokyo-based troupe has won best-play awards from the cutting-edge CoRich Performing Arts theater-portal website. In 2012, that was for its Nazi-era double bill of “Nekkyo” (“Fanaticism”) about the rise of Adolf Hitler and “Ano Kioku no Kiroku” (“Record of the Memory”), about survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Last year, it won with “Chiten no Kimi” (“Ruling Person”), a searching examination of the 1912-26 reign of Emperor Taisho, when militarists rose to power in Japan.

In contrast, when Chocolatecake was formed in 2000 by members of the drama circle at Komazawa University in Tokyo, its staple fare was comedic takes on young people’s angsts. But that all changed eight years later — though not the name.

“Back then we had an argument about our future,” Yusuke Hisawa, the 38-year-old chairman, disclosed when we met recently at a cafe in Tokyo’s small-theater hub of Shimokitazawa. “As a result, a man who used to write and direct for us quit — leaving us with a theater booked and nothing to perform. By the next day, though, Takeshi Furukawa, who was one of the actors, had written the outline of a play that he titled ‘a day’ — so that’s what we did. (Laughs)

“It was actually four different stories happening on the same day and related to a trial, and it was surprisingly not bad. Since then, Furukawa has been our playwright instead of being an actor.”

As Furukawa joined us bang on cue just then, Hisawa explained how, after that close call, he also forsook his role as an actor — to become the company’s regular director as well as its chairman.

Furukawa, 35, added, “Soon after that I wrote ‘Tate, Uetarumono yo’ (‘Stand Up, Desperate Youth’) about the 1972 Asama-Sanso Incident, when police surrounded armed communists from the self-styled United Red Army in a mountain lodge in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, where they held the owner’s wife hostage. [After a nine-day standoff, police stormed the building, seized the terrorists and rescued the woman, but two officers and a civilian were killed].

“I was really interested in that incident, and when the play was well received it gave me confidence to carry on writing plays based on real events.”

Ever since, Chocolatecake has grown in stature, with Furukawa — unusually for any playwright — saying, “Fundamentally, I entirely trust the director, so once I hand my play to him, I don’t stick my nose into what he’s doing.”

Seemingly, the feeling’s mutual, as Hisawa explained, “We are very different types of people, but that works well. He has lots of knowledge and I’m not such an academic, so I just trust his text. That means I can concentrate on helping the actors to realistically portray historical people such as Emperor Taisho or those terrorists.”

Besides that trust thing, Hisawa put the company’s success down to its simple and straightforward approach to serious stories, explaining, “Ultimately, theater is all fiction and audiences know, for example, that an actor is not a real emperor or a 1970s terrorist. So the key thing is to make fake people’s words and actions entirely believable.

“Fortunately, Furukawa’s texts are so solid that my job is quite simple and I just have to hand the story over to audiences in more or less the form I receive it,” he added with modesty. “I also avoid using dramatic effects and try to draw attention to the lines and the actors by keeping things simple. So, though our plays’ topics may be controversial, audiences can absorb the contents without resistance. I think that’s why we’ve gained a big following among people of all ages.”

“Sarajevo no Kuroi Te” (“The Black Hand of Sarajevo”), the upcoming work from this company with a core membership of six, will surely test those tenets, as its focus is little known in Japan — being the assassination in June 1914 in Sarajevo (in present-day Bosnia-Herzegovina) of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg.

Their shooting by a member of the Black Hand, a secret Serbian nationalist society, triggered international disputes which, within a month, led to the outbreak of World War I as two blocks of countries lined up against each other through systems of treaties and alliances on both sides.

As to why he opted for this topic, Furukawa first noted that it’s 100 years this year since the outbreak of that conflict in which more than 16 million people died. But he said his key motivation was that “the majority of people don’t know about that war, even though the world has now turned back to something like it was before it started in 1914.

“So I wanted to present the historical facts and characters to sound an alarm to people not to repeat those mistakes. And I believe theater can do that more effectively than history books.”

In the future, too, Furukawa hinted that he may stick with a similar theme — but closer to home. “Since we returned from our first-ever overseas tour last month, which was to South Korea, I’ve become very interested in our countries. I’ve always thought Japan should keep good relations with its neighbors, but the situation has been getting worse and worse. So, after my contact with the country and the people there, I want to work on this subject.”

“Sarajevo no Kuroi Te” (“The Black Hand of Sarajevo”) runs June 11-15 at the Ekimae Theater in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo. For details, call 080-9080-1861 or visit www.geki-choco.com.