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NAHOKO YAMAZAKI

Off-stage woman stars in men’s theater world

by Nobuko Tanaka

Just as in the realm of politics, in the arts world — and here, particularly regarding the performing arts — different countries adopt different policies depending on their historical and economic circumstances.

The United States, for example, takes a free-market stance on the arts in a similar way to its “liberal” approach to business in general, while in several European countries, including France and Germany, a government ministry or department is closely involved in the operation and financing of the arts. In Britain, it’s halfway, with a so-called arm’s-length system channeling government subsidies through the Arts Council, while keeping a certain distance from both arts policy and funding from the private business sector.

So what is the system in Japan, I wondered? Well, on its home page the Agency of Cultural Affairs explains its role as:

“Focused support for top-level performances of stage arts and traditional performing arts; the promotion of international exchange through hosting international festivals related to music, dance, and drama; and the training of artistic groups to meet world-class standards of excellence.”

This prompted me to recall the words of theater director Hiroshi Koike, whom I recently interviewed (JT, Sept. 27), and who cast suspicion over “who will decide what is ‘top level?’ ” It also put me in mind of the many theater insiders I’ve met who have said, “I don’t expect anything from the government regarding the arts. We have to survive by ourselves.”

Clearly, Japan’s official arts policy could be called a “doughnut system” — one with no core policy and no core leadership.

In these circumstances, there’s now a growing “gap society (kakusa shakai)” in the theater world, just as there is between high- and low-earners in the wider society, with many companies — especially smaller ones — presenting “edgier” material and relying on members’ zeal and willingness to take on side jobs to stage their works.

Meanwhile, to such companies’ considerable chagrin, there is a genre in Japan called shogyo engeki (commercial theater), which is organized by big production companies who run their own theaters on U.S. business lines. To get the revenue results they seek, such companies normally cast famous star actors and idols in their productions’ main roles, or buy the rights to stage tried-and-tested, popular musicals and plays from abroad with Japanese casts.

A mecca of this commercial theater is the upscale Ginza-Hibiya area of central Tokyo, where major production companies such as Toho and Shochiku have their Teikoku and Enbujo theaters, respectively.

Just a year ago now, fresh news quite rippled this rather conservative pond when the showbiz mogul Toho revealed it was going to open a new theater this Nov. 7 in its entirely refurbished former Geijutsu-za (Art Theater), which closed in March 2005 due to its dilapidated condition.

Called Theater Creation, this new, exciting drama venue was launched at a splendid press conference in September 2006, when Toho announced that the opening program would be “The Fearless Otojiro’s Company,” a new work by the popular playwright Koki Mitani, whose “The Last Laugh” will open in the new year in London’s West End. Based on the real life of Meiji Era theater director, actor and producer Otojiro Kawakami and his wife Sada, Japan’s first professional actress, the play focuses on an amazing episode during their pioneering American tour 108 years ago.

At that press conference, Toho also made waves when it announced that all the managers it was appointing to run this new theater would be women in their 20s — a decision that positively rocked the male-dominated theater world in Japan.

At last, was it really possible that a major, established organization such as Toho was about to go radical, shake up the moribund mainstream theater world and seek a new direction?

To find the answer, The Japan Times spoke to Theater Creation’s new general manager, 29-year-old Nahoko Yamazaki, an administrator who could easily be on stage with her gorgeous looks, and asked her about her vision of Japan’s drama world in the future, and how an increasingly busy public could be induced to fill theater seats in years to come. And then more specifically, could we look to her to set in motion a new approach to arts policy in this country? Let’s hear what she has to say!

How are preparations going for Theater Creation’s opening day?

I want to believe that everything will go perfectly on the night (laughs). Anyway, I am doing everything I can.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I was born in Funabashi in Chiba Prefecture, and I am still living there with my parents, who run a restaurant and sometimes used to take me to theaters when I was small. However, my turning point came when I was at junior high school and went to see a Takarazuka (all-women’s theater company) revue at the Takarazuka Theater in Hibiya. I was fascinated by the stages and after that I went there every weekend.

In those days, I recognized Geijutsu-za — as Theater Creation was known — because it is just opposite the Takarazuka Theater. But of course I never imagined I would be working here some years later. It is such a strange destiny.

I believe you did theater at high school, didn’t you?

Yes, but I was such a bad actress (laughs) that I decided not to be one there and then. I love to imagine a completed stage, but unfortunately I don’t have the artistic talent to write plays either, so I decided to put my efforts into helping to develop works for the stage.

Is it true that after getting a degree in Japanese literature at the prestigious Gakushuin University in Tokyo, at your interview to join the Toho company you suggested making a musical of “The Tale of Genji”?

Yes, I wanted to make an entertainment musical based on the Genji story, with the cast wearing traditional 12-layered-kimono (juni hitoe) Heian Period costumes.

But then, when I was working in the planning department at Toho, I realized how difficult it is to transform such beautiful ideas into on-stage reality, although I also realized that such projects were able to be staged thanks to many people’s new ideas and encounters between various artists who had never worked together before. So, my Genji musical may sound a bit unrealistic, but it has not necessarily been ruled out from our future projects — and I still think it would be wonderful to make a play to express the fundamental themes of “The Tale of Genji” — a brilliant love story and a story about karmic retribution — and also to introduce such a great story to audiences overseas.

Though my Genji musical has not happened yet, there have been many productions based on the story, both in kabuki, the Takarazuka and other forms, but I have been most impressed by “The Tale of Genji” by the Opera Theater of St. Louis in America, which came to Japan few years ago. So that fired me up even more to export a splendid Genji production one day.

What did you learn about the show-business world when you joined Toho?

I learned the reality of show business in many ways. For example, even if I thought something was a fantastic play, I had to acknowledge that it may not attract many people to spend their money on theater tickets. So as producers, we have to coldly assess whether productions are salable or not.

I used to think that if I staged almost anything at a renowned theater such as the Geijutsu-za, then a reasonable number of people would automatically come to see it. That was a completely wrong idea. First of all, if something doesn’t have enough big selling points — like no director or actors with established reputations — it is actually very difficult to find customers willing to pay to see an unknown production, no matter how much the producers spend on PR. As theater promoters, we don’t want to have anything to do with such unsuccessful productions and we have to move on immediately.

At present, the Japanese showbiz world is quite polarized. Some productions are completely sold out before they open, usually because they feature famous actors or a popular director, but some others play to half-full houses throughout their runs. Unfortunately, there is no way to rectify this lack of a buzz once a play opens, and it is so difficult to fill the seats gradually by word of mouth. So, very sadly, it is almost impossible to foster unknown new faces in Japan’s current commercial theater environment.

So, do you have any ambition to change this stifling situation in the theater world?

To be honest, it’s too hard to change the current situation. Trends in the showbiz world depend on the audiences’ tendencies, and as promoters and producers we have to follow their lead and catch on to it.

On the other hand, we are not able to extend the planned running period even if a production is a huge success, because we don’t have company members on the payroll and just have to make contracts with actors for a certain period, so it’s impossible to do a long run like on Broadway or with the Japanese musical company Gekidan Shiki (Four Season Theater). Nonetheless, at Theater Creation we will try to enlist popular and capable dramatists for our productions, especially for the first several years, to really put us onto the map of Japan’s theater.

In the future, of course, we want to present more experimental, challenging programs, but it’s not going to happen at this stage. We are not just giving up on this, even though in our coming lineup we will mainly stage mass-appeal programs on a monthly cycle.

For example, our curtain-raiser is “The Fearless Otojiro’s Company,” a new play by Koki Mitani, followed by the acclaimed “Horoki (An Account of a Wanderer),” the autobiography of popular Showa Era novelist Fumiko Hayashi, which was staged 1,858 times at the Geijutsu-za in the past 46 years, with Mitsuko Mori in the title role every time. After that we will present a new musical based on Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Rebecca.”

Then in summer, we will start a monthlong series of new productions, and I am planning to do some experimental programs by young artists, for example in the foyer after matinee programs.

So, I would like to modernize our programming in the future, but it takes a bit of time.

It was quite a surprise to hear that women in their 20s had been appointed to run this new theater, rather than middle-aged men as usual. How will this make Theater Creation different from its competitors?

What I am going to do is develop things more on the business side, and I will mainly work on two things: One is making Theater Creation easier and more comfortable to use for women, who we are aiming for as our main customers, and the second thing is to link their theater experience — through publishing guides and organizing shopping opportunities — to the excellent range of restaurants and shops unique to this Hibiya/Yurakucho/Ginza area.

Is your target audience almost exclusively young women?

It’s not only them, but the former Geijutsu-za mainly had older audiences, and I would like to attract a younger generation such as office ladies from the nearby upscale Marunouchi area.

Why did Toho change its view of its target audience?

It’s to do with business trends. The Geijutsu-za used to sell lots of tickets to group customers, many of them organized by companies or local communities and mostly comprising older people. However, those kinds of group bookings are declining these days, and as the theater building itself was being renovated, Toho decided to completely change not only its design but its business strategy as well.

Despite the traditional reputation of the Geijutsu-za, I read that Kazuo Kikuta, a leading playwright involved in its foundation, envisioned it as an experimental theater in Japan when it opened in 1957.

Yes, I believe they did some quite amazing things, such as a play based on a famous baseball comic titled “Kyojin no Hoshi (A Star of the Giants Team).” It’s amazing to imagine how they did that baseball manga on a live stage, isn’t it?

So, our predecessors made trials and errors, and finally the Toho company [which is also Japan's leading movie- production company] concluded that we should aim to create a theater combining artistic taste and popular appeal.

But Hibiya has an adult character, and we aren’t eyeing avant-garde productions, rather high-quality entertainment productions. Mitani’s opening program exactly indicates our mission, in that sense. If the theater was in a young, trendy area such as Shibuya, like Theater Cocoon or the Parco theater, we’d have a duty to present cutting-edge plays, but we are in Hibiya so we want to make Theater Creation open to all — from theater beginners on.

So in a nutshell, I aim to create an easy-access theater open to a wide audience from young to old.

To enhance this accessibility, I have designed a spacious auditorium in which the number of seats has decreased by 139 from the 750 there were in the Geijutsu-za, and there is space for an umbrella at every seat. Also, I have created an open image with a glass exterior wall, and made sure we have user-friendly and luxurious toilets, with useful shelves for the audiences’ shopping bags, and so on. So it is specially designed for female audiences.

It sounds like a dream scenario to attract everyone and still keep quality high. However, many new theaters have opened recently, such as Owl Spot in Ikebukuro and the Kichijoji Theater, and the Akasaka ACT Theater opens soon. I wonder how many theaters will be able to survive in the long term.

That’s a real consideration as the theater world becomes so competitive. We are now working hard to make our mark but, inevitably, it turns into a software scramble. For example, if we are going to import foreign plays or acquire the rights to plays from Broadway or the West End, the speed and accuracy with which we ascertain their value is extremely important. Once we find a play that will be loved by many people for a long time — like Toho’s megahits such as “Les Miserables” or “Miss Saigon” — that is an enormous help in running our business. To find these kind of core, long-running programs is a key point in our theater business.

I believe you visited theaters in many other countries before opening Theater Creation. What did you learn from that?

Most theaters in Western countries are quite old, so I was not so impressed by the buildings or equipment — some foyers were too small, for example, so they became too crowded, and often there were not enough toilets. Nonetheless, I found that the whole community often supported a theater, and that made for a great atmosphere that also involved surrounding shops and restaurants. Also, the audiences seemed to feel so comfortable and enjoy themselves at the theater, and I got a strong feeling that theater is part of daily life in Western countries.

I regret to say that we can’t expect that kind of theater culture in Japan. Japanese commercial theaters must still depend on foreign productions, such as Broadway-born musicals and West End-born plays. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible for Japan to take the initiative in today’s theater world.

For myself, all I can do is try to let Japanese people experience the magnificence of theater and make them happy and comfortable to visit theaters. Japanese people work so hard till late, and I want to provide them with a special time to forget about their real lives and feel happy after seeing one of our plays.

I think your appointment as the manager of this landmark theater was very encouraging to many young career women. Do you feel things are changing for women in Japanese society?

That depends on each company, I think. Fortunately, I personally did not feel any barrier as a woman at Toho. Nevertheless, I don’t think all women aim for career success, and some opt to have a family or emphasize their leisure time. For myself, I am more concerned about finding a balance between being a mother and a career woman. I’ve just got married, and I am really anxious about that point.

I heard that many Western countries care more for working mothers, and they have nursery rooms at companies. But, when I attended a course for working women in Marunouchi, somebody said it is not realistic to have a day-care nursery service at companies here as most workers commute on trains and they are awfully packed. Then I realized that we have to promote our own service for working women in Japan.

Could you skip forward 10 years and tell me how you see your own life then, and that of the theater world and Japan itself?

Originally, I joined Toho because I wanted to do theater planning. So in the future, I would like to make more projects come to fruition. Regarding the future of the Japanese theater world, I don’t think theaters in Tokyo will be driven out of business, even though there are many in close proximity. In fact, I like to think this competitive situation will liven up the theater world overall, and open up new possibilities.

Then . . . ummm . . . as for Japan in 10 years, I would like to ask politicians to take a sensible attitude. I want them to not only care about their personal gain or some short-sighted result, but to have a long-term view of the future of the country and take firm leadership in that direction.

At a private company such as Toho, we try to see beyond the current situation and make decisions for the future, so I think the leaders of Japan should also be taking a wide view in politics.

“The Fearless Otojiro’s Company” runs from Nov. 7 till Dec. 30 at Theater Creation, a 3-min. walk from Hibiya Station on the Hibiya and Chiyoda lines. For more details, and information about future programs, call Theater Creation on (03) 3591-2400 or visit www.tohostage.com