At last December’s press conference heralding this year’s Tokyo International Arts Festival, Artistic Director Sachio Ichimura was in a less than festive mood.

“We are facing a major turning point,” he declared.

“Because of recent changes in Cultural Affairs Agency regulations, from now on we will only receive a government subsidy for this annual event once every three years. Financially, it is now becoming too difficult to continue on this scale, even though TIF has become an important annual event in the Japanese drama world,” said Ichimura, casting into doubt the very future of the festival.

This “turning point” is no mere theatrical spat, but something that many, such as Koichi Imai, general manager of the widely read Theater Guide monthly magazine, see as hitting at the heart of the art form’s profile, both inside and outside Japan.

“Japanese authorities treat the arts coldly, but I think Japan should compete against other countries at a cultural level, not a military one. Politicians here should learn more about drama in order to act properly on the political stage,” Imai said of TIF’s current plight.

Despite the constraints, this year TIF has put together “a complex program,” according to Ichimura, that includes stagings from Japan, abroad and a Beckett Centenary Festival. This suggests that all is perhaps not yet lost for the spring highlight of Japan’s theatrical calendar, which, over nearly 20 years, has evolved from inviting Western theaters as a mainstay of its program to staging smaller — but high-quality — companies from Asia and the Middle East.

For 2007, Tokyo audiences are set to be treated to performances by four foreign theater companies — from Uzbekistan, Tunisia, Ireland and Lebanon [see the exclusive interview with Lebanese dramatist Rabih Mroue, right].

Uzbekistan’s Ilkhom Theatre has been a troupe to watch since the 1990s when roving theater experts first began to sing the praises of this remarkable company — the former Soviet Union’s only private drama group when it was formed in 1976 in Tashkent by Uzbek-born Mark Weil, now aged 54.

Since then, Ilkhom has performed in 15 countries with its multiethnic cast and crew comprising Russians, Uzbeks, Uighurs and Koreans, and it has become one of Central Asia’s leading companies.

Ilkhom Theatre, known in its homeland as “theater of dissent,” is presenting a typically provocative piece for its Japan debut at TIF this year, Weil’s “Imitations of the Koran.” Based on a poem of the same name by the Russian writer Aleksandr Pushkin, the play was attacked following its 2002 Tashkent premiere by both conservative Islamic groups and anti-Islamic groups, angry at its subject matter in the volatile post-9/11 climate.

That is perhaps not so surprising, since, on the theater’s Web site, Weil describes the play’s dialogues as “containing thoughts about women, lies and sin, about the right of one person to make others die for faith’s sake, and about ways to relate to the truth.” With live rock music, song, dance and multimedia video projections, “Imitations” promises to be genuinely intriguing.

In contrast, TIF’s showing of “Corps Otages” by the Tunisian theater company Familia Productions will give audiences here a chance to savor it before those in its North African homeland, where the work is officially banned.

Written by one of the actresses, Jalila Baccar, and directed by the company’s founder, Fadhel Jaibi, this work looks at the effect on a young woman and her family of a friend’s suicide-bomb attack. Jaibi says in the program that his aim is to address the feelings of depression and despair being felt by young Tunisians 50 years after the country gained its independence from France in 1966.

Also on this year’s TIF bill, Ireland’s Druid Theatre Company will present a rare staging of the 1907 masterpiece, “The Playboy of the Western World,” by Irish playwright John Millington Synge, who died at age 37 in 1909.

Synge only wrote six plays in his brief lifetime, and all are about people in rural Ireland. Each is also brimful of sardonic humor. The play’s complement of mean-minded but superficial characters puts this writer very much in mind of that current favorite in the contemporary theater world, the Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. It’s little surprise, then, that in 1998 the director of “Playboy,” Garry Hynes, became the first woman to win a Tony Award for her direction of McDonagh’s “The Beauty of Leenane,” a tragicomedy set in a small Irish village of that name.

“Playboy” centers on Christy, an ordinary young man who turns up in a pub in a remote village in western Ireland and reveals to his new community that he’s killed his father and run away from home.

The locals begin to fete their “hero playboy,” who before long has wooed and won the landlord’s daughter Peggy. The only problem is that on their wedding day Christy’s father turns up, wrapped almost entirely in bandages. Sure enough, the locals turn on Christy and Peggy; Christy responding by trying to kill his father to “regain his honor.”

While no such extreme reaction could be applauded with regard to the government’s funding garrote on TIF, without a high-level rethink the “turning point” that TIF’s artistic director referred to could be the final, terminal twist of fate for this annual event.

Satoshi Miyagi, founder of Tokyo-based theater company Ku Na’uka and the artistic director of Shizuoka Performing Arts Center, is among those who hopes that outcome will be averted.

“Currently the government only gives subsidies to big drama organizations, but most of them make money anyway, so it’s like handing them a bonus. I’d like this system to become more flexible — either that, or the regulations need to change to benefit future events like TIF more concretely.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.