Daisuke Tengan is an acclaimed filmmaker, but search for him on the Internet and the first thing you’ll discover is that he’s the son of director Shohei Imamura, who won the Palme d’ Or at the Cannes Film Festival for “Narayamabushiko” in 1983 and “Unagi” in 1997.
Tengan had ” no particular wish” to follow in the footsteps of his father, who died last year at age 79, and after graduating from Ryukyu University in Okinawa worked for the publisher Shincho-sha. But it was as if fate was drawing him toward film, first as a writer and then as a director — though he was determined not to use his family ties and adopted the pen name Tengan, a common family name in Okinawa that means “wishing to heaven.”
Now aged 47 and known for films that explore the lives of the disadvantaged, such as 2002’s “Aiki” about a handicapped boy’s passion for martial arts, Tengan is making his theater debut with Yasmina Reza’s 2004 “A Spanish Play.” Speaking between rehearsals, Tengan talked about the challenge of staging this French play-within-a-play, the revival of the Japanese movie industry and the social role of drama.
The Japanese film world has made a comeback after years of decline, and people are lining up to see local movies. Why do you think this is?
TV companies have gotten involved in the film world, and they spend money advertising and plugging their movies on their channels. So new filmgoers are dancing to the TV companies’ tune, rather than being attracted by quality or being culturally educated. This is good for the film business in general, so I am not entirely critical, but I doubt these new audiences really appreciate good film, because many are basically going to see TV-type dramas with special effects that feature famous TV celebrities. So, the trend appears to give more alternatives, but in reality the producers are so conservative that the film world here has not diversified, and I think the boom will fizzle out.
Why did you decide to direct a play?
Theater is the mother of movies and photography is the father. I always wanted to explore theater and to work with stage actors. In theater, the director works with all the actors from beginning to end, but in film, the director normally works with each actor in patches. I wanted to work with them over a long period.
Why did you choose “A Spanish Play”?
I could have written my own original play if I’d wished to, but as I wanted to do the real work of a theater director, I decided to take on someone else’s work and, moreover, a foreign-language play so that I couldn’t easily alter the text. If it was originally written in Japanese, I’d probably change it into my style; and if it was my own play I wouldn’t be able to clearly evaluate my ability as a director. Also, I was looking for a well-structured play that does not relate to Japan.
How have you designed the stage?
There is almost nothing on the stage, and no music, because I want to primarily display the actors’ power and presence. In films, I can always use lots of technical effects, but I believe audiences come to the theater to see the actors, not to be made aware of the director’s existence. Theater belongs to actors and film belongs to directors.
Film directors pick and choose everything to do with a work; they can edit and shuffle a plot and even cut scenes if they wish after the actors’ scenes have been filmed. But in theater, directors can’t do anything once the curtain goes up. So, even if an actor on stage does something counter to the director’s suggestions, the play must go on. This means that theater fundamentally belongs to actors.
In this play, the actors play their character’s role and also the role of an actor in the making of the play that this play is about. I read this play as a dialogue between actors and a playwright, though it could be taken as being between humans and a god figure. Sometimes, the characters talk about the (fictitious) author and his intentions, and sometimes they grumble about his plots, but in the end the play they stage follows his text.
What do you think would liven up the theater scene in Japan?
From the creators’ side, just providing an entertainment service is not the way to go about artistic creativity. If audiences just come along with a passive attitude, there is no progress in the artistic sense. In a healthy arts scene, audiences are passionate and greedy for something uncertain and to explore potentials. In general, Japanese audiences for any art form are obedient and just satisfied with whatever is served up to them. To bring life to this scene, artists and audiences need to stimulate each other more. To realize this more mature situation, we should provide more chances for everyone to encounter the arts.
For you what constitutes excellent theater or film?
In theater, if the actors shine on the stage then the production is worthwhile. In film, if I could make something groundbreaking and full of energy I would be satisfied. There is a term “roller-coaster movie” that refers to films that give audiences a thrilling experience then return them to exactly the same point where they got on. I don’t want to make movies like that, but ones where people can get off in the middle and find their way back by themselves.
“A Spanish Play” runs till Oct. 28 at the Benisan Pit Theatre in Tokyo, a 5-min. walk from Morishita Station on the Oedo and Toei Shinjuku subway lines or an 8-min. walk from JR Ryogoku Station; tickets ¥7,000 (¥3,000 for students). For more information call (03) 3635-6355 or visit www.tpt.co.jp.
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.