‘Tis a pity she’s the leading actress


Contemporary theater in Japan existed as something akin to an underground cult in the 1960s and ’70s. In the ’80s, with bubble money swilling around everywhere, many of these youthful, looselyknit groups came in from the cultural margins and formed theater companies. Led by experimental directors such as Hideki Noda (of company Yumeno Yuminsha) and Shoji Kokami (The Third Stage), this shift blossomed into the vibrant shogekijo (small-scale theater) movement in which many new talents flourished. Slowly but surely, contemporary theater took its place in Japan’s general artistic culture.

Then, in the 1990s, this movement took a skeptical, socio-realist turn, creating a new style of drama as the bubble burst and prior assumptions — about society, about Japan itself — began to crumble in the gathering gloom of recession, unemployment and bankruptcies. In place of the life-loving catharsis that characterized shogekijo theater, and made audiences feel as if they’d experienced a part of that era’s upbeat atmosphere, the dramas of the ’90s were more somber and pessimistic. Small theater companies tried to grapple with a shockingly unpredictable future.

Still grappling is Suzuki Matsuo, one of the representative dramatists of the ’90s, whose newly written “Go On” is playing at the Sogetsu Hall in Tokyo until Oct. 26.

Since founding his Otona Keikaku (Adult Project) company in 1988, Matsuo has been at the forefront of avant-garde theater as a writer, director and actor, as well as writing novels, serial essays and columns for cultural magazines, and acting in TV dramas and with other stage companies. Renowned for his nihilistic outlook and espousal of lethargic engagement with mainstream Japanese society, Matsuo now enjoys supercool status in contemporary youth culture. The audience the day I went to see this play (staged by his spinoff company Nihon Sogo Higeki Kyokai, aka the Japan General Tragedy Association) was buzzing with the excitement of his many fashionable young fans.

Adding to the anticipation was the casting of “colorful” 38-year-old actress Keiko Oginome as the central character of this play, which Matsuo wrote for her. Oginome played a minor enka singer with huge debts called . . . Keiko Oginome. The singer lives in a fantasy world, oblivious to the hopelessness of her situation and the misfortune she brings to those around her.

The play opens with a car accident, a woman run over by Oginome lies across the hood, covered in blood. Disconnected even from this crisis, Oginome still refuses to face reality and just continues to send e-mails on her cell phone. Meanwhile, the others drawn in by the accident — the victim’s husband Matsuo, played by Suzuki Matsuo, Oginome’s manager Minagawa (Sarutoki Minagawa) and Matsuo’s weird assistant Katagiri (Hairi Katagiri) — also ignore the critically injured victim as they slide into chatter and backbiting. In a clearly social-satirical vein, this discord rambles endlessly on, punctuated with jokes, a striptease and violent arguments.

The play’s rather ironical thesis is that the misfortune of one person (or one country) can often appear rather comical to a third party or an outsider. This self-styled tragedy company’s drama of the absurd is more a paradoxical, disheartening tragi-comedy of human nature. What Matsuo displays here is humanity’s blend of egoism and powerlessness.

Given her outrageous role in all this, it’s hard not to wonder whether Oginome herself doesn’t score pretty high on the tragedy scale. Having, at the start of her career, been viewed as a particularly intelligent actress, she fell to earth a decade back when her affair with a married film director, Yoshitaka Kawai, was exposed in the media and Kawai subsequently killed himself. Further fueling her scandalous reputation, Oginome recently announced the end of a secret nine-year affair with 72-year-old Kinji Fukasaku, one of Japan’s most famous film directors.

Though such notoriety undoubtedly works wonders for ticket sales, this reviewer, for one, would rather have seen someone other than Oginome playing Oginome. As the special guest actress, she just doesn’t gel with the company’s regular ensemble; it is as if she was alone there on stage, playing a game without knowing its rules. While others excel in their roles — especially Matsuo and Katagiri — Oginome’s technique, especially her unclear and monotonal enunciation, is just not up to the requirements of her role.

As a result, Matsuo’s satirical point is blunted, and the production lacks his usual radical impetus as the disturbing “anticatharsis” he clearly aimed for lost its power. It’s such an irony that this play — which would never exist without Oginome — should be flawed in this way. What a pity.