“First off, we probably used to think we were too young to do ‘Waiting for Godot,’ because it’s sometimes uncomfortable talking like gnarled old men,” 27-year-old Tasuku Emoto said during a recent Japan Times interview with him and his younger brother Tokio, 24, who will play the central roles in Tokyo Kandenchi’s upcoming production of the absurdist masterpiece by Ireland’s 1968 Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett.
“But there’s actually no restriction on how to play it,” he reflected, “as it’s got such a huge capacity for everyone to see different meanings in it — though it’s a very tough play to pull off.”
Premiered in 1953 after being written in French by Beckett in 1948/49, “Waiting for Godot” — which the longtime Paris resident subtitled “a tragicomedy in two acts” — was voted “the most significant English-language play of the 20th century” in a poll of 800 playwrights, actors, directors and critics by the Royal National Theatre in London in 1998.
Its plot — if that’s the right word — entirely follows conversations between the central characters Vladimir and Estragon, two most singular types we are told nothing about who are waiting, we know not why, in a non-specific setting beside a leafless tree for “Godot,” who is never described and doesn’t arrive.
Yet in his view, Tasuku (who plays Vladimir) said, “It’s a quite simple play with a clear storyline, and I don’t want us to create something heavy, but a version that’s natural and light.”
“I also think it’s not abstruse, and it’s clear and simple,” his younger brother, Tokio (Estragon), chimed in, adding that he played the role of the Boy in a production of the same work by Shintaro Mori at the New National Theatre in 2011 — a part that simply required him to walk onstage a few times to announce, “Godot is not coming today.”
As for this time around, Tokio said, “Fortunately we — the creating team, including Shunsuke Tobe, the director — but especially me and my brother, share the same taste for fun, so we are all heading toward the same goal and we haven’t had any arguments in rehearsal so far.”
This is the fourth time the brothers have costarred in a play since their appearance in Hungarian writer Agota Kristof’s “John and Joe” in 2008. But there was never much doubt that their lives would gravitate to acting, as their father, Akira Emoto, 65 — who is acclaimed for his work in film and TV dramas — was a co-founder of Shimokitazawa-based Tokyo Kandenchi (Tokyo Battery) in 1976, and remains its lead actor and director.
However, it was the brothers’ aunt, Yoshiko Emoto, a pivot of the company’s production staff, who they said set them on the way by urging them to “do a small show together.” From that moment, they began talking about one day doing “Waiting for Godot” — but as they said in unison, they didn’t expect “one day” to come so quickly.
From the start, Tokyo Kandenchi has consistently tackled absurdist works by such as Minoru Betsuyaku, Ryo Iwamatsu and Eugene Ionesco, as well as adaptations of plays by the likes of William Shakespeare and Anton Chekhov — with its New Year’s 2014 program featuring Chekov’s “The Seagull” in a staging that brilliantly brought out its humor in a way rarely seen in Japan.
As for what it was like to grow up totally immersed in theater, with their mother, Kazue Tsunogae, also a top actress — as is Tasuku’s wife, Sakura Ando, who is from a leading film family — the older brother recalled simply, “Our parents didn’t ask us about our day at school when we got home. Instead, we always talked about movies among the family.”
Okay, but how do the brothers feel about each other on stage now?
Typically responding first, Tasuku said, “I carry out my duty as the older brother, always taking responsibility for the performance and trying to do it perfectly — while this chap Tokio sits there nodding to anything I say without thinking.”
Some may have taken exception, but the “chap” in question just sat there smiling happily — though he did say that he and his big brother “never had arguments.”
Interestingly, Tasuku went on to say how their father doesn’t usually interfere in the brothers’ work, but he thinks “Waiting for Godot” is something special to him as “he keeps coming down to the rehearsal studio from the family house above it and — as if by chance — sticking his head round the door to check what we are doing.”
Yet for all the family’s dedication to drama, and the brothers’ own nearly 10 years in the business, Tokio still retains a perspective from which he said, “I don’t think theater has a practical importance in our society and it would probably be the first thing to be weeded out if there was a great disaster in Japan. But even so, I don’t want to weed it out from our lives.”
Nodding at this comment, Tasuku observed, “Such frailty is a big charm of theater, I suppose — but I don’t think it will ever cease to exist because, after all, anyone who wants to can be an actor or even organize a performance.
“And if they wanted to stage ‘Waiting for Godot,’ they’d only need a couple of other people — and a tree with no leaves.”
“Waiting for Godot ” runs Aug. 8-11 at the Suzunari Theater in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo. For details, call 03-5728-6909 or visit www.tokyo-kandenchi.com.