Once, people had more time to think about the meaning of life — or its meaninglessness. Poor students brooded over their ambitions in 4 1/2-tatami rooms, undistracted by computers and 3G keitai. People dreamed of a peaceful future while huddling sheltered during the war. Long, long ago, some may have wished for a good hunt on the morrow as they wrapped up warm in dark caves. In these present, hectic times, though, opportunities for solitude and reflection are few.

“Yaneura,” which won several awards when it premiered last year, is a series of sketches about people inhabiting — either voluntarily or compulsorily — a small atticlike space. Set in the near future in Japan, and performed here on a stage barely 4 meters wide, the action all takes place in a “Yaneura” — the trade name for a trapezoidal, self-assembly “room” the size of a small tent that’s now selling well to young people via the Internet.

No prizes for guessing that some of the play’s episodes are about hikikomori (meaning “withdrawn”), a label applied to people, typically in their teens and 20s, who shut themselves in their rooms and refuse to have any contact with society, sometimes for several years. (According to a report in The Japan Times on April 22, a million Japanese currently suffer from this affliction.)

Here, though, Yoji Sakate, the 41-year-old scriptwriter and director who heads the Rinko-gun theater company, doesn’t just treat the subject as a worrying social problem. Instead he explores it from the viewpoint of both sufferers and those close to them, such as their parents, siblings and Internet friends. In one thought-provoking episode, a teacher visiting a female hikikomori student is inspired by the girl’s description of seclusion to confront her own childhood memories of being bullied, so turning the expected social interaction on its head

As well, Sakate has episodes about some involuntary “hikikomori,” such as Anne Frank, Kaspar Hauser (found in a Nuremberg cellar in his late teens in 1828 after being confined there most of his life), mountaineers trapped in a blizzard in a small hut, and two policemen on a stake-out.

There are, too, realistic, newsy episodes. One parallels that of the Niigata man who kidnapped a young girl and confined her in a room for more than nine years — supposedly without the knowledge of his mother, who lived in the same house. In another, the tiny room becomes a homeless person’s cardboard-box shelter that is thrown into a river by yobs — while its resident is at home.

Though wittily scripted, “Yaneura” paints a somber picture of an ailing society — modern Japan — peopled by fragile folk atomized through a lack of “real” communication, constrained by uniform social values, and prey to hang-ups, complexes and bullying. It is a testament to Sakate that he has been able to describe such a dysfunctional social atmosphere so brilliantly and economically in Rinko-gun’s 50-seat Umegaoka Box basement studio.

For the audience in this tiny auditorium, the suffocating, claustrophobic feeling that develops on the stage gradually becomes theirs, too (though Sakate skillfully draws the play to its conclusion before acute discomfort sets in). As the dramatist remarked in a recent interview with the sponsoring newspaper after winning the Yomiuri Drama Award 2002, the play was “created for the smallest stage space in the world” — but it has a power out of all proportion to its size.

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