Fifteen months ago, when I interviewed Takahiro Fujita as the most prominent newcomer in Japan’s contemporary theater world, the playwright and director declared, “I’m always looking for something new, and I suppose I will always carry on doing that.”
True to his word, since then Fujita has been enthusiastically pursuing his quest through new works he’s written and staged with his company Mum & Gypsy both in Japan and further afield.
Last year, the company’s first-ever overseas tour, to Italy and Chile, was so well received that numerous foreign producers immediately approached it with offers. As a result, it will be heading off to France, Italy, Bosnia and Slovenia later this year.
In Japan, meanwhile, Fujita, who’s now 29, also triumphed with “Cocoon,” which was widely rated as one of last year’s best plays. Based on a popular manga of the same name by Machiko Kyo, this focused — with arresting visual effects, an original soundtrack and powerful physical acting — on a unit of naive teenage student nurses enlisted to serve in the horrific Battle of Okinawa in 1945.
Currently, Mum & Gypsy, which Fujiya founded in 2007, is revisiting “Kaerino Aizu, Matteta Shokutaku, Soko Kitto … ” (“Signal of Heading Home, Waiting Dining Table, Definitely There … ” ), the masterful work that propelled him into the national spotlight in a single bound when he won the prestigious Kishida Kunio Drama Award with it in 2011.
During our recent second interview together, Fujita explained that he started to write the play with a view to examining people’s eating habits, but — with Japan then still in shock following March 2011′s massive earthquake and tsunami — it segued into considering how life’s routines, including family dinners, had for some been irrevocably disrupted or destroyed. To express such things, he sketched the thoughts of a few people going home to have dinner together, with some scenes portraying their memories repeated again and again from different angles as happens in individuals’ inner worlds.
“But this time,” he explained, “I was reluctant to do it exactly the same as before because I didn’t think it would resonate so much after a three-year time lapse. And even though it won the Kishida award, that version wasn’t the culmination of this play. I would like to improve it more and more. So now it’s a fresh new work.
“Theater is good at presenting current concerns, and as I think it’s only worth expressing such issues, I have reworked my text in today’s context.”
In the process, Fujita got his actors and staff to cook for the others in turn and eat together because, as he said, he’d “never actually seen how they behave at meal time.”
“Everyone cooked their ‘mother’s recipe’ in our studio,” he explained, “and we all shared those and our memories. It was great fun and it taught me a great deal about the actors’ characters and helped me a lot with my direction.”
Even before his Kishida triumph at age 26, nine years previously the drama group at Fujita’s high school in Date, Hokkaido, was selected in a nationwide competition to stage a play he directed at the National Theatre in Tokyo. Soon afterward, he returned to the capital to study drama at Obirin University, where the renowned Oriza Hirata was a professor of theater.
Reflecting on that, Fujita observed, “Whether I liked it or not, I came to be viewed as a standard bearer for young dramatists. So I have been struggling with that label for the last three years.
“Also, when I got that award I was staging my plays in 60-seat studios. Now the demands on me have got bigger, and so have the theaters, and I’ve had no choice but to adapt to that change,” he said in a matter-of-fact way.
“On the other hand, since I became famous I’ve had lots of encounters with top artists, musicians and creators in other fields. That’s helped to make my work more varied and richer, I suppose, which is a good thing about getting the award early in my career.”
In particular, Fujita — who had intended to be an actor before switching to writing and directing at university — noted how his collaboration with the manga artist Machiko Kyo has been especially fruitful. In addition, he cited novelist Mieko Kawakami, who offered her short story “Maeno Hi” (“The Day Before”) for his recent one-woman work of the same name, as another creative inspiration.
But for Fujita, creativity goes hand in hand with reality. As he said, “From my experience, I believe the youth should be impertinent all the time. And I think it’s essential that theater in Japan is more open to the outside world, and not just a cozy and minor genre of its own.”
And as for Japanese theater’s position in that wider world, he observed, “There is a limit to what point there is in becoming famous or successful in the drama world as it is here now, so I think Japanese dramatists must strive to interact with other arts genres so as to take a bigger position in the nation’s cultural life.
“For that, though, they need more guts. When I was overseas, I came to feel very strongly that Japanese artists hesitate too much without any reason. In fact, I thought that the top rank of this country’s theater world were like that proverbial ‘frog in a well that knows nothing of the great ocean.’”
As for himself, Fujita said, “I’ve never changed my writing motifs — for example, ‘leaving home’ and ‘people never understand each other’ — and I will continue with those in the future.”
Nonetheless, after the current reworking of his award-winning masterpiece, he will branch out anew to direct “Koyubi no Omoide” (“Memory of a Little Finger”), an early work from the 1980s by Hideki Noda, the current artistic director of Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, at that major venue in Ikebukuro. In so doing, he will confront two new challenges: directing someone else’s play, and staging it at a large-scale venue. However, he seemed quite relaxed about everything as he chuckled to himself and declared, “I’ll simply create ‘Fujita’s Koyubi no Omoide’ for today’s audiences.”
After that, it will soon be time to head off to Europe and the great ocean beyond.
“Kaerino Aizu, Matteta Shokutaku, Soko Kitto …” (“Signal of Heading Home, Waiting Dining Table, Definitely There …”) runs till June 22 at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Theatre in Ikebukuro, then plays in Date, Hokkaido on June 28 and 29. “Koyubi no Omoide” runs from Sept. 29-Oct. 13 at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Theatre. For details, visit www.geigeki.jp and mum-gypsy.com.