This ‘Pilgrim’ is hardly progress

Shoji Kokami goes upscale at the New National Theater


After the bubble economy burst in 1991, disillusionment and emptiness were felt throughout Japan. When “Pilgrim” was first performed in 1989 by The Third Stage Theater Company, however, most people foresaw only continuing prosperity, fueled by rising stock and property prices and the strengthening yen.

At that time The Third Stage was one of the leading contemporary drama companies, prominent among the many which had attracted a youthful following since the shogekijo (small-scale theater) movement began in the early 1980s. The company’s playwright and director, Shoji Kokami, formed The Third Stage with friends from his theater circle at Waseda University, which was then a thriving center of such groups. That year, the new company’s debut staging was Kokami’s masterly “Asahi no Yona Yuhi o Tsurete,” a version of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” set in contemporary Japan.

From then on, Kokami enjoyed great success in luring young people from cinemas to the theater with his sophisticated and entertaining plays. These typically featured good-looking actors and actresses, flashy dance numbers, up-to-the-minute scripts and deftly comic plots.

In 2001, however, Kokami announced that he was putting Third Stage productions on hold for the next 10 years. Now, at age 44, this writer/director who was for so long an icon of youth culture is filling most of the seats at the decidedly non-fringe New National Theater.

For this upscale debut he is restaging “Pilgrim,” in which we find Saneatsu Roppongi (Ukon Ichikawa), an author whose star is waning, trying to write an adventure novel he hopes will restore his fortunes after his serial story in a popular magazine is axed. The novel’s characters are journeying in search of a utopia they call Oasis, a kind of paradise of Mercedes and Hermes. These two narratives — Roppongi’s daily life and his protagonists’s quest — unfold in parallel on stage.

We first see Roppongi at home, where he works with the assistance of a secretary, Naotaro (Koji Yamamoto), and an editor, Etsuko Asagiri (Yasuko Tomita). The only props are his writing desk and chair. The back wall then rises, the three actors exit and scenes from the novel unfold. Played out on a colorful set, these resemble a computer role-playing game complete with invisible obstacles, monsters and a mysterious black-caped man (Hiroshi Omori) who prevents any progress until his riddles are answered.

Then the wall comes down again and we’re back with Roppongi still wrestling with his fictional world. We gradually learn, however, that his utopian dreams aren’t all fantasy, as he once founded a commune dedicated to creating its own small utopia — only to leave it suddenly, without explanation.

As the play progresses, and the wall again rises and falls, the writer begins to appear in his own fictional world — at first briefly, but then the world of the novel expands gradually to fill the whole stage as the wall finally stays permanently aloft. At this point, we finally see Roppongi confronting his abandoned past.

Back during the heyday of the bubble economy, “Pilgrim” warned that there was more to life than dreams of material satisfaction. So why, with unemployment rising and the yen falling, is Kokami reviving this play?

In an interview in the New National Theater’s in-house magazine, The Atre, last September, Kokami was asked whether “Pilgrim” might seem a bit dated now. He replied merely, “Do you think people have changed so much?”

Unfortunately, though, it’s hard to come away from this play without feeling that it is indeed showing its age. That’s not to say that the intervening years have brought great change, but certainly people are now more attuned to the vacuity of seeking material satisfaction.

Certainly, too, many in the audience will have been searching for their real purpose and a new approach to their lives since well back in the “lost decade,” and what they hear the actors in “Pilgrim” talking about will be things they themselves have now largely resolved. While this may be a curious sensation, what was once prophetic but has now become commonplace doesn’t constitute inspiring theater — especially not for the over-25s who made up most of the audience.

It is also disappointing that Kokami’s method of directing doesn’t seem to have changed at all since 1989. The play’s comic sensibility, too, is fairly dated, even tasteless — as in the case of running jokes about Roppongi’s gay secretary, Naotaro.

“Pilgrim” comes across here more like a museum exhibit of the ’80s than a fresh and challenging drama. Its strong point is undoubtedly its able cast — especially Yamamoto’s outstanding Naotaro. But with Kokami having presented his timely and brilliant “Propaganda Day Dream” less than two years ago, it’s a shame to see his talents and those of the actors applied to this stale revival.