Japan-Korea dramas shine

by

Special To The Japan Times

Festival/Tokyo, which bills itself as “Japan’s leading performing-arts event,” is notable this year for its international collaborations — especially between Japanese and Korean dramatists, whose works comprise three of the 12 main programs in its Oct. 31-Dec. 6 span.

But as its subtitle of “Border Fusion” suggests, F/T 2015’s sights are set on even wider horizons, with its brochure declaring: “Our lives are enclosed by many kinds of borders, including those of nationality, generation, values and experience. … Yet, through the performing arts, F/T aspires to join with audiences in creating dialogue across borders.”

Among those three Japan-Korea collaboration programs, which reflect a growing trend in Japan’s contemporary theater world, one is the latest of many co-creations by prominent director Junnosuke Tada, founder of the Tokyo Deathlock theater company, and playwright Kiwoong Sung from the 12th Tongue Theatre Studio in Seoul.

Following their triumph at the 2013 Dong-a Ilbo Theater Awards, when their version of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” (“Karumegi” in Korean) won the best director prize for Tada — who became the first foreigner accorded that honor in the awards’ 50-year history — the duo this time bring an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” titled “Taifu Kitan” (meaning “A Typhoon’s Tale”), to F/T 2015.

With its storyline featuring rival groups vying for control of an island, this work strikes a timely chord amid Japanese and South Korean bickering over ownership of some rocks in the sea between them.

In contrast to this, South Korean creative director Peter Lee brings his recent audience-participatory hit “Being Faust — Enter Mephisto” to F/T 2015 for what’s sure to be a fun-filled Japan premiere.

However, it’s “God Bless Baseball” that will surely steal the collaboration spotlight, being the latest work by Toshiki Okada for his globe-trotting, Yokohama-based Chelfitsch troupe — one of the most influential contemporary theater companies in Japan.

Ahead of the play’s pre-F/T 2015 world premiere at the new Asian Arts Theatre in Gwangju in South Korea in September, I visited a studio in Yokohama where Okada was deep into final rehearsals with its four-strong cast comprising actors and actresses from both Japan and South Korea who would afterward move on to F/T 2015, before undertaking a U.S. tour and then a 2016 run in Taiwan.

Okada said he had long wished to work with Korean actors and to create a play in which actors from both Japan and South Korea shared the stage. Then, he said, he realized that baseball perfectly fitted that bill as it is very popular in both countries.

“Yet although I am very pleased to be presenting ‘God Bless Baseball’ in Tokyo, I can’t ignore issues of history in creating something with Korean people,” Okada said.

“Consequently, I’ve been working on this play and doing research for it since the summer of 2014 — but I think I’ve finally succeeded in dealing with the two countries’ historical controversy without writing directly about historical incidents or subjects.

“That’s a great source of satisfaction for me, as I’d never set out to present the relationship between Japan and Korea. In fact, my aim was always to show the relationship between the United States and Japan and South Korea, because South Korea is different from any other foreign country, being a mirror for the Japanese nation, I think.

“Japanese realize things about themselves when they regard the Korean situation or Korean people that they just can’t do by looking at any other place.”

In “God Bless Baseball,” a man with a traumatic complex about baseball due to his father’s pressure on him to succeed as a player tries to explain what the game’s about to two young women with no idea about it at all. Then, in the middle of his lecture, an Ichiro Suzuki-like baseball superstar joins them and starts to sound off about the sport as being Japan’s “national game.”

“In fact I’ve always had a negative image about baseball myself, and many of the play’s plots stem from my own feelings and experiences,” Okada said — adding, “I’ve been wanting to publicly announce my negative view through my work for a long time.”

First off, the renowned dramatist cited the Koshien, the annual high-school tournament that’s held in Nishinomiya City in Hyogo Prefecture every summer — and which the national television station, NHK, unfailingly presents in its mediocre but melodramatic entirety as if it were some crucial rite of passage for all Japanese to share in.

“I don’t get it at all,” Okada said. “Why don’t they broadcast a high-school students’ theater competition — or any other sports tournament for that matter?”

It was such feelings that led him to place that Ichiro-like Japanese star of the U.S. major leagues stage center in “God Bless Baseball,” Okada said, noting that though they are both Japanese and the same age, “Ichiro became a baseball legend, while I’ve always hated the game.”

Hence, in the play the Japanese star encourages young Korean and Japanese players to turn their bodies into machines for hitting and throwing and running and catching — and to become blind to their suffering as they just follow his instructions without thinking.

One wondered if this was a metaphor for countries like Japan and Korea meekly following America, the home of baseball, without thinking?

“No. I’m not saying anything so preposterous,” Okada shot back. “I just want to urge audiences to exercise their imagination and stop being lazy about exercising their basic human rights they can imagine individually — but which they stop insisting on because they’re constantly exhausted as they’re forever being pushed to be more and more busy.

“I want people to imagine alternative possibilities in this society, or world.”

Festival/Tokyo 2015 runs Oct. 31-Dec. 6, mainly at venues around Ikebukuro. For details, call 03-5961-5209 or visit www.festival-tokyo.jp.