“Tokyo, my brother, my protector” was the tweet posted by Belgian-born Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui — often dubbed “the busiest choreographer in the world” — straight after he arrived here two months ago.
Explaining in a recent interview with this writer what had prompted so fulsome a gush, the globe-trotting 38-year-old set off at a gallop, explaining, “I find Tokyo a very reassuring place. I also grew up with a lot of anime and manga, which, in terms of cultural influences,such as cartoons, is the same as many people here.
“So I think it’s not to be underestimated that a part of my education was Japanese culture — and in the last 15 years I’ve also been coming regularly and building up a personal relationship with this country.
A work that wonderfully expressed that cultural melange was “TeZukA,” which premiered in London in 2011 and then toured worldwide. In exploring the life and works of the great cartoonist, animator and film producer Osamu Tezuka (1928-89), Cherkaoui layered into his piece some of the new reality of Japan since the natural and nuclear disasters of March 2011 — and in so doing brought into brilliant relief the essence of that artist he loves and reveres who created Atom, the main character of his “Atom Boy” series.
After all, Atom isn’t only a hero who gets rid of bad guys, he also straddles the worlds of humans and robots, earnestly longing for the two sides to understand one another.
In this, Cherkaoui said he saw that the conflict of the protagonist is the message of its creator, as well as being “that sense of balance and avoidance of making things black and white which can be felt overall in Japan’s arts.”
Pursuing that theme in his current work, “Pluto,” Cherkaoui has this time drawn on an eponymous manga by Naoki Urasawa and Hisashi Nagasaki — a work which is itself based on the “Atom Boy” story, “The Greatest Robot on Earth.” A remarkably impactful tale, this invokes the spirit of Tezuka while taking the depiction of human-robot coexistence and conflict to an even deeper and more realistic level.
As a play, however, “Pluto” tackles a host of three-dimensional challenges on stage, with the acclaimed Mirai Moriyama and other Japanese actors and dancers to the fore.
“Ordinarily, with dance works, the characters are the dancers themselves, or the characters are based on my ideas and are created from scratch during rehearsal,” the choreographer explained. “But this time, there’s already an original work and a script, and the original work itself is a manga so we can use it as a sort of storyboard. Hence I can focus on how to interpret it and visualize it in my own way, which makes it easier.”
As for the additional challenges he faces of working with a Japanese cast, Cherkaoui appeared unfazed, saying, “There is a language barrier, but just as one’s hearing develops when one’s eyes can’t see, I feel like it helps sharpen my other senses.”
In practice, it became clear during a rehearsal how the dancers become manipulators, making movements to follow the humanoid actors like shadows — or moving seven, meter-long trapezoidal panels to combine into various arrangements that Cherkaoui termed “dance apparatus.”
Meanwhile, elaborate doll-like robots that seem to have been clipped directly from the pages of the manga — from a 60-cm-tall child robot to towering 4-meter Pluto — take the stage to create arresting and unique spectacles one after another.
Throughout, Cherkaoui was speaking to the actors, explaining the mentality and background behind the actions of their roles. In addition, the way he kept the original manga by his side, consulting it constantly, was impressive.
“Yes, I think it’s the absolute source of the play,” he said, holding up the comic book. “I think it’s a very original project and it’s very exciting to try with whatever creative means we can put on the table — but as much as possible with the original references present.”
Then, with a smile growing on his face, he added, “I just really love the manga, so I love going back into it all the time — and it’s a great excuse to read it again!”
Making his Tokyo sojourn even more pleasurable, though, Cherkaoui learned during rehearsals for “Pluto” that he had been awarded Belgium’s highest civilian honor — that of Commandeur de l’ Ordre de la Couronne (Commander of the Order of the Crown).
And with the world premiere of his new work now almost upon us, a thrilling prospect awaits Tokyo audiences and all those coming from far and wide to be there, too.
“Pluto” runs Jan. 9-Feb. 1 at Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon in Shibuya, Tokyo — with English subtitles Jan. 9-18 via iPad. It then plays Feb. 6-11 at the Morinomiya Piloti Hall in Osaka. For details, call 03-3477-999 (Tokyo) or 06-7732-8888 (Osaka) or visit www.pluto-stage.jp/2. This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.