Although much fanfare, excited TV coverage and celebrity casts accompanied the opening of new theatrical venues in Tokyo this year, such as Akasaka Red Theater, Theater Creation in Hibiya and Owl Spot in Ikebukuro, many would be hard pressed to truly wax lyrical about Japan’s drama world over the last 12 months.

Certainly, there was no letup in the cycle of new productions, with ever more glitz and glam at larger venues as producers shunted stages through in quick succession to ensure novelty appeal. At least, they kept their box offices busy. But in sustaining this dizzying production-line bustle, quality and originality often lost out to repeat programs, rehashed old works and superficial spectaculars, rendering any serious critical appraisal largely irrelevant.

Nonetheless, there have been highlights in 2007 well worth reflecting on now, as many unflashy productions staged in the relative shadows have drawn delighted applause.

Significantly, several of the core figures in contemporary Japanese theater moved both away from their usual major venues and away from their comfort zone in new works.

In May at the small Aoyama Enkei Theatre, leader of the Nylon100ºC company, Keralino Sandroviich, who is best known for his highly original new plays, staged the brilliant “Inu wa Kusari ni Tsunagubekarazu (Don’t Chain the Dog).” Sandroviich based the play on several short pieces by the Showa Era playwright Kunio Kishida that he updated for our current times. Keishi Nagatsuka, a rising star in Japanese theater, also forsook his regular large-scale venues for the cozy Suzunari Theater in Shimokitazawa. In June, he turned the heat on today’s self-indulgent society with his cleverly satirical “A Girl and Gasoline.”

In November, writer and director Kurou Tanino also took a new turn with the acclaimed Niwa Gekidan Penino company he founded in 2000 with “The Wild Duck,” Henrik Ibsen’s searing examination of the contradictions between idealism and actual life. Staged by Tanino at the small Theater 1010 in Tokyo’s Kita-senju, this take on one of drama’s classics — set deep in a Norwegian forest — no doubt benefited from the director also being a working psychiatrist, as it delicately laid bare individuals’ inner selves that are hidden both from themselves and others.

In a completely different vein, one of this year’s least anticipated delights has been the rise to prominence of amateur senior-citizen actors. For a graduation performance in June at Saitama Gold Theater — founded in 2006 as a one-year project by Saitama Arts Center, with Yukio Ninagawa as its director — 46 “citizen actors” aged 55 and over, who were chosen through nationwide auditions, drew rapturous applause from full houses at each of their nine stagings of “Picnic on Board,” an original, quirky work written for them by big-name playwright Ryo Iwamatsu.

Not to be outdone despite their average age of 80, cast members of the Paradise Ichiza company formed in 2006 by director Sho Ryuzanji from non-acting drama professionals such as directors, theater owners and playwrights astonished all who’d seen their “Old Bunch” debut last year. Their followup at the Suzunari Theater, the gangster-style “A Second Series of Old Bunch,” drew long, loud applause and numerous curtain calls from the audiences of all ages. However businesslike the mainstream magnates may become, this production was inspiring proof of the eternal magnetism and power of theater.

Fortunately for all, both these seniors’ companies have decided to continue their activities next year.

Also set to continue is the annual Tokyo International Arts Festival (TIF), whose future had been in doubt due to government subsidy cuts — despite a great success this year when it not only introduced audiences to fascinating dramas from the Middle East and Central Asia, but also brought regional theater groups to the capital to work with some of the country’s leading directors. As well as encouraging homegrown talent, through the post-performance discussions after almost every staging, the festival’s organizers are also nourishing a broader and deeper theater culture among audiences.

And now a confession: it would be remiss to withhold glowing praise from one of the large-scale, commercial productions — Parco Theater’s memorable staging of “Les Confidents,” written and directed by Koki Mitani. Set in 1888 in a sparse attic in Paris, where the young painters Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat and Schuffnecker go to meet and paint together, Mitani added to this potent mix a charming young female model. He weaves a wonderful human drama around their friendships, jealousies and hurts; their ambitions and artistic torments. Combining Mitani’s trademark sense of humor and careful depiction of character, the play not only brought the best out of its five-strong cast, but also tellingly related those historical artists’ lives to ours in present-day Japan.

For Mitani, this has been another great year, with his 1996 play “Warai no Daigaku (Comedy University)” adapted by an English theater team and an English cast as “The Last Laugh,” a hit in London’s West End.

Such international collaborations are becoming, to the benefit of all, ever more frequent. This year, among many unforgettable ones, “The Bee” by Hideki Noda (with an English cast); English director John Caird’s “Kinshu” (with a Japanese cast); and “Chants d’ Adieu” by Oriza Hirata (with a cast of Japanese and French) were my pick of the bunch in the cross-cultural field.

In sum, I feel a growing sense of optimism for Japanese theater. Judging from conversations and theatergoers’ blogs, audiences seem to be seeking out real quality — whether at major theaters or among small-scale productions created by dedicated dramatists at far less showbiz venues. While perhaps it wasn’t a real vintage year, with appreciation of high-class drama rising steadily in 2007, it will be exciting to see how producers, writers and directors satisfy that demand in 2008.

Nobuko Tanaka has a Japanese-language blog on theater at thestage.cocolog-nifty.com/

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