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HIDEKI NODA

Acting with joy in his soul

by Nobuko Tanaka

Even in today’s theater world in Japan, which tends to venerate age, at just 52 Hideki Noda is already a towering, legendary figure.

Wherever you go and talk to dramatists or stage performers, you will find his name and achievements almost invariably come up. This is especially the case among young dramatists in Japan, who, even though their theater styles might be different from his, almost all acknowledge a huge artistic debt to Noda in their own theatrical creations.

Born on tiny Sakito-jima Island in Kyushu’s Nagasaki Prefecture, Noda was just 4 years old when his family moved to Tokyo. His origins, though, have never deserted him, and in 1999 a play he wrote and staged called “Pandora’s Bell” dealt with the U.S. atomic bombing of Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, when the grotesquely named “Fat Man” exploded over the city and took at least 80,000 human lives with it in a flash. In that work, Noda posed challenging questions about the Showa Emperor’s war responsibility, his subjects’ blind fanaticism and World War II’s ongoing scars in Japan.

To begin with, though, Noda entered the theater world in earnest when he started a company called Yume no Yuminsha (Dreaming Bohemian) when he was a 20-year-old university student. Then, in a twinkling, Noda became a theatrical hero and in 1976 his company became a theater-business sensation with their second production, titled “Hashire Melusu (Run Melusu),” at the VAN99 hall in Tokyo’s Aoyama district, thanks to the nonstop, speedy, highly physical on-stage movement and Noda’s imaginative and puzzling plots.

By reaching out so dynamically and provocatively to a younger than usual and techno-minded generation previously not really interested in theater, Noda at one fell swoop transcended contemporary theater’s previously geeky, serious, self-indulgent and academic underground image among young people. In doing so, too, he almost single-handedly kick-started a major youth-theater movement in the 1980s. Moreover, he broke new ground by successfully soliciting sponsorship from Mitsubishi Motors, and also attracting more than 26,000 people to a one-day theater event at the Yoyogi National Gymnasium in Tokyo.

Then, true to his individualistic form, he broke up his company in 1992 at the peak of its success and took a yearlong sabbatical in London. It was after he returned from that sojourn that he founded Noda Map, the company he has worked with tirelessly since to establish it as the front-runner in Japan’s contemporary theater world.

Now, in the 21st century, Noda is vigorously presenting socially provocative dramas that rely less on physical performance than many of his earlier works. In 2003′s “Oil,” for instance, he tackled the issue of chain retaliations following 9/11, while in 2006′s “Rope” he turned his spotlight onto the distorted, media-controlled lies of modern war. As well — with his original plays Red Demon” (2003) and “The Bee” (2006) — Noda, who is an excellent English-speaker, has launched himself big-time into the English market using local British casts.

Unlike others in the hot-house media world, however, Noda is not a legend because of glitzy magazine coverage of his work or private life, but purely because of what he’s done and the fact he’s never shrunk from putting his own of strong opinions into his work.

So, at the beginning of this year, when I heard that Noda was going to become artistic director at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space in Ikebukuro, and also take a university-teaching position, the news was not only exciting but also a bit perplexing. Why, in his mid-50s, had this longtime maverick decided to go so very public — and what did it mean for contemporary drama in Japan? To explore these and many more questions, I visited Noda’s Tokyo office for a JT interview. There, in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, his answers were not only illuminating, as I’d expected, but also punctuated with laughter and the lively dramatist’s sharp wit.

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What were you particularly interested in during your childhood?

Like other children, I was interested in all sorts of things and my future dreams were changing all the time. I was always the last child playing on the playground. Then, when I was between 9 and 12 years old, I had a really unique teacher who was absolutely apart from the usual school stuff. He banned his pupils from going to outside cram schools and he didn’t give us any homework or daily tests — my class was the only one like that. When it was a fine day we played baseball, or played in the school grounds instead of having lessons in the classroom, so we didn’t need to study like all the other classes’ pupils.

The teacher only took a serious view of basics such as reading, writing and calculation, and he respected the children’s autonomy regarding most things. Later, if I look back now, that was a little bit of an influence in me starting to do theater because that teacher was also hugely enthusiastic about tackling the annual school performance day. As a result, we prepared for that play full-time for two months, while the other classes only usually did so in the limited curriculum, often with ordinary lessons.

When it’s fine, children should play outside — that was the teacher’s policy. So he was called to account for himself to the board of education sometimes, but he ignored them (laughs). Then finally he quit — he probably had to quit. That was my childhood.

So was that your first encounter with theater?

Ummm — there is another interesting story.

When I was chatting with one of my best friends, Kanzaburo Nakamura (a leading kabuki actor and producer who last summer staged productions in English at the Lincoln Center in New York, and who has also twice enlisted Noda to direct kabuki plays — both to great acclaim — and who has signed up Noda to direct another of his kabuki works in August), we discovered a very funny coincidence. Both of us were born in 1955, and both of us went to Christian kindergartens — and we both played exactly the same role in the Nativity play at Christmas. It was the most inconspicuous, short role as Balthazar, one of the Three Wise Men from the East. We laughed together, saying that maybe all actors should play Balthazar in kindergarten.

Long after that coincidence, you entered the University of Tokyo (the most prestigious in Japan, commonly referred to as Todai), even though you say you didn’t really study at primary school.

First, I went to a very competitive high school, and the school (attached to Tokyo University of Education) aimed to send all its students to Todai, and actually 130 out of the 160 in my year went there. So it was a matter of course for me to do so even though there were good and bad circumstances about being at such a competitive school — such as the students pretending not to study very hard but in reality having great rivalries with others over their marks. So I did theater every day, and others did different kinds of things instead of studying for entrance exams. On the up side, there were many interesting and intellectual people there, but on the down side, many of them were already elitist and looked down on ordinary people. Afterward, many of those types become government officials and now have high positions in society (laughs), though I think many of those with a good nature and character tended to escape from such a fixed, elite track early on.

Anyway, that was my starting point doing theater for real. I experienced the audience’s applause when I presented my first original play, “Ai to Shi o Mitsumete (Gaze into Love and Death)” at that time. Back then, too, I poured my love for theater into my diary — it was absolutely more pure and hot than today (laughs).

Also, I didn’t want to make an excuse later saying “I could have gone to Todai, but I chose not to do.” So, I had an embroilment at high school between my vanity driving me to select an elite course and my longing to do my favorite thing, theater.

Then later I realized that such torment was not necessary after all, as I dropped out of the university anyway (laughs).

What was your parents’ reaction when you told them you were quitting Todai?

Well, I found I was always asked the same question after I became a professional dramatist. I guess it became interesting news for ordinary people why a Todai student should drop out to be an actor, and I got sick of it. So I refused to answer such questions regarding Todai. Of course, I don’t mind now, so I will tell you now that my father was completely against my decision. So I left home and started to live independently, as Todai’s fees were so cheap — like ¥30,000 a year — that I could easily afford it. My mother was in the middle between me and my father, and she died soon after I became independent. That’s another reason why I didn’t talk about my Todai story in those days.

Who were your main theatrical influences in those days?

Most of my theater friends at school were inevitably influenced by Juro Kara (a leading figure in the Japanese underground theater movement in the ’60s and ’70s), and some of them said my plays were similar to his style. So, I intentionally avoided seeing his plays in those early days, though I went to see all the others — such as works by Shuji Terayama, Minoru Betsuyaku, etc. — but not Kara’s plays, even though he was definitely cutting edge. Of course, a few years later I went to see Kara’s plays.

Since you started your first theater company, Yume no Yuminsha, when you were at university in 1976, has your life been all about theater?

Yes — sort of. In my case, I have not been unfaithful to theater. I only took a major role in a movie once; I have been in TV dramas very occasionally; and just once I wrote a novel for a close publisher friend — but then that novel became a play. I have not taken a break or a long vacation in my life. When I went to England on a yearlong government (Monbusho) scholarship in 1992, that was the only long break in my whole career. When I speak to foreign directors, they are shocked about my hectic schedule. For example, Kanzaburo is crazy about golf, but I don’t play it — in fact I rather made up my mind against golf. I don’t like people who are fascinated by golf and are always only talking about it. It’s not cool, I think.

Now you are also working in England. What do you think about the working conditions in theater there?

Although people over there call their free time holidays, they see and experience many things during their holiday time. So actually, creators gain many useful things for their main work through such free time. We Japanese, though, still have the idea that “no work means no dinner and no pay,” so there is a general tendency to be extremely busy all the time.

I am also a part of that way of thinking, to be honest, so basically I am a quite straight guy and I didn’t want to do unconventional things. That’s true (he added with a sarcastic grin).

So I didn’t expect at all to drop out of the university, and I believed I was not a person to get divorced or, even more so, to have a love affair. I think life is full of unanticipated things (laughs).

In England, there is a general idea that theater has a public role to enrich people’s lives, but in Japan, don’t you think that idea is lacking?

I agree with that. When I was young, I kept saying that theater should be profitable and was about making money so it could stand on its own feet of that public role, but the theater world was not mature enough then and many theater people did their things for their own private satisfaction, as their hobby, so I ventured to say as much. To begin with, if we only stress the economics, the arts would not be effective at all. If I were to ask why someone is doing theater, then I’d have to ask why am I doing it? Hmm (laughs).

All I can say is that people reach a point where they can’t live without culture and art in their daily lives. The current weak situation in the Japanese economy stems from the country’s poor culture, I think. For example, when I see a new design of something, it’s not usually so attractive. So, both the arts and the economics are stuck in today’s Japan. As a result, people tend to fall back on old traditional ways of doing things as they think they have a firm cultural background.

What is it about theater that has kept you so fascinated throughout your life so far?

Theater has all sorts of elements, as Richard Wagner said it has a language in text, in the visual arts through stage sets, and also it has music. Moreover, things don’t just fit into specific fields, and theater also includes human bodies and it connects to the process of growing old as well. So, it further enters the philosophical field, and all this links together.

Hence, everything I am interested in is involved in theater. For instance, I am now writing a new play about Mars, and once I start to write a play about something, I research and study the subject a lot. So, theater constantly fuels my curiosity and I can play with this kind of thing indefinitely. That’s a reason why I’ve never got bored with theater work, and as long as I continue to make theater, I don’t think my life will ever be boring and it will finish before my curiosity is exhausted. In that sense, it seems like theater people work too hard and never stop working — people such as Yukio Ninagawa (one of Japan’s and the world’s most famous directors. He and Noda once presented the same play, “Pandora’s Bell,” written by Noda, at the same time at different Tokyo venues). Probably theater people have plenty of things to do and they are happy that way.

If a child came to you and asked, “How can I have a theater job or be an actor?” how would you respond?

When I think about child actors, I have my doubts. Namely, to play is children’s principal work, but child actors are “playing” as their occupation. In a sense, it is unfortunate for them. Deliberately choosing to act is, in some way, an adult attitude as it’s necessary to have a cool, third-person’s view for acting. It’s mature people’s work. On the other hand, when an adult acts, they have to keep the “playing” and the “fun” fun part there. Dramatists who can’t play, and who can’t have fun are not able to make good theater, I think. In that regard, mature actors should be eternal children — but it’s impossible for very young people to be “mature” child actors.

Recently, you have stepped out from your own artistic world and onto a very public stage since you took a position as the artistic director of Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space (TMAS) and in April started to teach at Tama Art University. What brought about this change?

I started to feel that I had walked away from the front line a bit, so I wanted to make more contact with a wider range of people. I also thought that to communicate with young people would be interesting for me right now. I am not interested in being a professor as a job, but I would like to turn more students on to the theater world.

I read a newspaper article saying that high-school baseball was very significant to professional baseball in Japan, and it has also pushed up the quality of Major League Baseball. So then I realized that in a similar way, most professional theater companies here are rooted in student-theater circles at universities. and I used to think that was a negative point about Japanese theater, and I regarded it as a very small, closed world. But now — with that baseball observation in mind — I have reconsidered, and I believe it’s a great opportunity for the Japanese theater world and we should support this. So, because I wanted to stimulate student theaters more and more in general, I started to be involved more with university students. Probably it’s my character, and I prefer to work with young people rather than attending long dull meetings with old people. I always think it’s a complete waste of time having two-hour-long nodding meetings.

To put it concretely, what was your first lecture like?

At the beginning, I told the full house of students in an eerie voice that theater is very unflashy, quiet work (laughs) — but I showed just how difficult it is just to walk on the stage, and how theater is about heaps of such plain things. I also told them why Japanese movies are not quite right — because the actors are not good enough to compete in the international market — though they have got into the swing of things more these days. So why were Akira Kurosawa’s movies so successful all over the world? It was because the actors in his films were brilliant and he was famous for repeating rehearsals hundreds of times. His 1957 movie “The Lower Depths” based on a Maxim Gorky novel was absolutely excellent. I remember clearly that a play of “The Lower Depths” by a traditional theater company called Mingei was unfortunately a disaster and I couldn’t even follow the story. But Kurosawa’s movie was really amazing, and the difference was the actors’ presence, I think.

The reason I took the position at TMAS was that I saw audiences giving standing ovations last year to plays that were obvious failures. I was disgusted and I thought that theater audiences have become spoiled.

So, I felt I should stand up now in the face of such a critical condition in the contemporary theater scene in Japan. As another example of that, I honestly have doubts why my production of “The Bee” almost monopolized the theater prizes last year. Of course I have confidence in my play, that one is a kind of lesser light in my repertoire and I didn’t feel such one-sided acclaim reflected a generally healthy condition in the theater. So, I took it that those prizes were really awards for my distinguished service to Japanese theater (laughs).

What is your artistic policy for TMAS in Ikebukuro?

First of all, TMAS starts from a minus level. When I was offered the job, most of my friends and some theater people said, “Are you serious? You’d better say no to the offer.” They meant that it was a very poor appointment to be considering. However, I share the feeling of baseball’s Katsuya Nomura, who became the manager of the fledgling Rakuten Golden Eagles. And just as it’s impossible to ask Nomura to lead that new team to win the Japan Series immediately, it’s almost impossible to change TMAS dramatically to becoming a top-rank theater (laughs).

Many people said Ikebukuro is too dodgy an area in which to create an artistic atmosphere, and that it’s not suitable for a theater. However, I think theater needs some kind of a vulgar, thrilling feeling such as that, and so I am not so negative about TMAS.

Besides that, most theater directors and actors already have their schedules full for the next three to four years, while the producers have booked popular playwrights and directors without knowing what kind of plays they would present. It’s a ridiculous situation actually. It could easily happen under this current system that the writer comes up with a play that is completely unsuitable for the theater. So I would like to change this Japanese theater system at TMAS at least. Sure, TMAS is not yet at the point of saying that its priority is artistic vision, and its immediate concern has been to stage productions that pull in big audiences. After TMAS becomes a theater with a certain reputation, then I will develop our specific artistic vision. So, of course, I will present my plays there and hope to get as big audiences as possible and spread the word about TMAS.

What has been the biggest change in Japan in the last 20 years?

Before the Showa Emperor died in 1989, Japanese only cared about domestic matters and they blindly believed he would continue forever and there was no sense of crisis and they felt safe. However, when the Emperor died and the Gulf War started and the bubble economy burst, then for the first time Japanese felt some anxiety. But outside of Japan, people have always worried about their future and been anxious about their life, whereas Japanese believed in something like eternal calm with the world staying in the same position forever. But it’s obvious it’s time to open up to the outside world and mix with others in this 21st century. Also, most unmixed, full-blooded things die out anyway, and in history those who shut the door on outside influences become extinct.

Yesterday, I met some ro-kyoku (traditional Japanese narration with musical accompaniment) singers, and one of them said, sadly, that the ro-kyoku tradition is becoming extinct. However, from my third-person point of view, I think that person’s old style has probably finished, but new styles of ro-kyoku will survive. So, it’s inevitable that art forms and culture changes over time depending on the society. Nothing stays at the same point, especially regarding culture.

Finally, could you tell me a bit about “The Diver,” your latest play that will open at the Soho Theatre in London in June? Will it be in modern noh style as I think you intended?

Although the actors, who are the same ones who were in “The Bee” (which drew huge acclaim in London in 2006, with three English actors and Noda, who played a sexy housewife), at first said they wanted to do a modern noh work, once we started to do the workshop with Yukio Mishima’s 1956 modern-style noh play “Aoi no Ue” — which is an episode from “The Tale of Genji” — then they started to say they could not understand it. How ridiculous (laughs). So we went back to the original Genji story and created a new play that is actually more closely based on the Genji story than “Aoi no Ue.” Additionally, I didn’t just want to make the play purely from the Genji story, as many people have already done that before. So I added a new episode to do with possession by a ghost or somebody else’s spirit. I got a hint for this from a modern crime, as the culprit made an excuse that somebody else had taken possession of them. Meanwhile, I am also preparing a new Kabuki play for this August, when I will do “Aida” at the Kabuki-za in Tokyo.

Readers interested in theater may like to visit Nobuko Tanaka’s blog at thestage.cocolog-nifty.com