Even today in the performing arts in Japan, gaijin (lit. “aliens”), as foreigners are called, are still often presented like something to be gawped at in a Victorian freak show.
It was a bit like that when a new play called “Sayonara (Goodbye)” premiered with a special press performance in Tokyo in 2010. But the questions whispered among the audience of critics there were: “Wait a minute — which one’s the android?” and “Who is real?”
But if they thought it was strange to be watching a foreign actress playing opposite a seated robot whose expressions and skin tones made “her” barely distinguishable from a real person, they didn’t know the half of how unusual the human component of that duo was as she acted out, in flawless Japanese, the role of a dying young woman having a sensitive and philosophical discussion about death with a Geminoid F android created in 2010 by Osaka University’s pioneering Hiroshi Ishiguro.
For Bryerly Long, the human star of “Sayonara,” causing a stir abroad was nothing new, because since the age of 8 she’s lived in countries as diverse as Vietnam, Bosnia, France and England as her parents moved around with their jobs as humanitarian workers for the United Nations and non-governmental organizations.
Now 24, it was when Long was a young girl in her hometown of Washington D.C. that she first got interested in acting. But then, when the family moved to Vietnam and couldn’t find any acting classes for her, she took dance lessons instead — and got hooked. In her teens, this led to a one-year ballet course at Dance Area in Geneva before she moved to New York to train at the renowned Merce Cunningham dance studio. Academically, meanwhile, Long topped off that youthfully impressive stage resume with top marks and a first-class degree in Oriental Studies from Oxford. Oh, and along the way she’s picked up seven languages and the ability to act in German and French as well as in English and Japanese.
Though such credentials may appear so impressive as to be almost freakish, Long is nothing if not a cheerful and regular person to meet offstage.
In a recent chat with the JT, this petite Tokyo-based dancer and actress explained how it was the modern novels of Junichiro Tanizaki and Yasunari Kawabata that got her interested in Japan — as well as her father’s collection of Japanese prints.
“Then, naturally, my interests leaned toward Japanese performing arts,” she said. “So I wrote my dissertation at Oxford about Japanese contemporary theater, in particular about today’s two leading figures, Hideki Noda and Oriza Hirata.
“Then I came here in the summer before my final year at university as an assistant director on English director Nicholas Barter’s production of ‘Pericles.’ That gave me a chance to meet and interview Noda and Hirata for my dissertation, and then later, as I was finishing at Oxford, Hirata emailed me and invited me to audition for a role in a 2010 film titled ‘Kantai (Hospitality)’ by Koji Fukada, a member of his Seinendan theater company.”
So, six weeks after her last exam at Oxford, Long was already on the film’s set in Toyko playing — in halting Japanese the story called for (rather than the fluency she’s capable of) — the difficult foreign wife of the main character in what turned out to be a multi-award-winning work for the silver screen.
Immediately after that, Long was enlisted for “Sayonara,” with which she toured Japan, and she has since been kept busy acting foreigners’ roles in several languages with Seinendan. Now, too, her stature here as an actress finds her increasingly making guest appearances with other companies.
Though many foreigners are inspired to come to Japan by their love of anime or J-pop, Long neither reads manga or watches anime at all — and nor is she at all interested in clubbing in Roppongi or elsewhere.
“Actually, I know very few foreigners in Tokyo, and most of my close friends here are Japanese. I don’t have anything against foreigners in Japan, but theater work here — including being social with drama colleagues and production staff — is so busy that it’s hard to meet other people.”
But never one to rest on her considerable laurels, Long says she is hugely grateful that, with Seinendan, Hirata gives her lots of opportunities to not only act but also to learn more about theater production by working as a member of the production staff. And in her spare time (ha-ha), last year she staged a dance titled “Kawa to Deai (Come Across Rivers)” that she created, choreographed and directed in at a cozy studio in Tokyo.
As for the stranger-in-a-strange-land feeling that afflicts may foreigners in Japan, Long says that among her theater colleagues she only rarely feels foreign, probably due to her command of Japanese, though she does notice differences from Western ways in both her professional and private lives.
“For example,” she said, “if someone in Japan is successful in something, they will make a point of saying to those around them, ‘okagesamade (thank you for helping me).’ In contrast, in the entertainment world in the West, there are many self-obsessed, center-of-attention people, and it would be rare if anyone ever said that.”
Nonetheless, she points out that “there are still few foreigners in Japan compared with other, for example European, countries” — and adds: “Although Japanese are not consciously segregating them, foreigners living here may feel very stressed after a while due to always being considered as ‘guest outsiders.’ “
Though she says this hasn’t bothered her to date, Long freely admits to committing a few cultural no-nos. “One day, for instance,” she recalled, “when I was talking with some people about films, I said I really didn’t like ‘Titanic,’ and later my friend advised me not to say ‘kirai ‘ (‘dislike’) so clearly. He said Japanese people are not used to anyone betraying such a strong point of view.”
On another occasion, Long said that once, soon after arriving in Japan, she fell sick and had to skip a rehearsal — and Hirata emailed advising her to write a brief apology note to the other actors in the rehearsal. Though mystified, she complied — and found it made for a closer relationship with the team after she returned, because she’d shown her responsibility was to the group, not just herself.
“On the other hand, it’s also true that sometimes such requirements as maintaining group harmony and ku-ki o yomu (sensing the optimum behavior in a group situation) put extra stress on Japanese people. In fact I think this is one of the reasons why Japan has the highest suicide rate in the world,” she ventures.
With her having identified such pitfalls awaiting foreigners in Japan, it seemed logical enough to ask Long why she came here to become an actress after already making her mark with some well-received dance works in England.
Smiling, she said: “If there’s a simple and a more complicated career path, I always like to take the more complicated way. However, I’m really interested in developing a career as an actor in many countries, so I don’t think I’ll spend my whole career in Japan.
“Of course I’d like to continue working with Japanese directors, but the roles open to foreign actors here are quite limited, so I’d really like to work in borderless places and fields and genres.”
Specifically, it seems, Long has an eye to writing scripts for theater and film, and one play she said she’s thinking of writing seems like it may, oddly enough, draw on her experience here of being human just like everyone — but unavoidably different.
That would be a work based on Jane Austen’s 1811 masterpiece “Sense and Sensibility,” which describes the lives and romances of two very different sisters. It’s a story she’d like to adapt for today’s Tokyo — with one character coming from a Japanese cultural background and the other from an English one (and herself on stage, too).
“I can see some similarity between Austen’s England and Japanese society today — perhaps in terms of women’s position and concepts of romance and relationships,” said this outsider looking in with an uncanny ability to avoid being gawped at anywhere in her global home.
It just goes to show how Japan isn’t only opening up to android actors — but even to foreigners in straight, non-freak-show roles, too.
Bryerly Long performs in “Skiraginoeri no Chisana Jiken (A Small Accident in Skiraginoeri)” by the Shiroyagi no Kai theater company from June 6-17 at Shogekijo Rakuen-in, a 3-min. walk from Shimokitazawa Station on the Odakyu and Keio-Inogashira lines. For more on Long, visit www.seinendan.org.