“It was officially the runaway disaster of 2006. I was really glad that so many people didn’t like it at all,” laughs 34-year-old Toshiki Okada about his debut at the New National Theater, “Enjoy,” which Japan’s theater critics voted the year’s worst play. The old guards’ thumbs down was all the more reactionary coming two years after Okada and his Yokohama-based company Chelfitsch (a combination of “selfish” and “childish taste”) was the surprise winner of Japan’s most important theatrical accolade, the Kishida Kunio Gikyoku Sho (Kishida Kunio Drama Award), for “Five Days in March.”
With the company’s young cast dressed down and talking in exaggerated street lingo, slouching around bare stages and delivering long and flat but cutting monologues, it’s really no surprise that Okada’s work provokes arguments among critics and audiences in Japan. All the while (to the dismay of some), Chelfitsch is being feted in Europe and America, with international bookings crowding its diary.
Last week, in the midst of rehearsals for “Free Time,” a new Chelfitsch play that opened yesterday at Super Deluxe in Roppongi, Okada talked to The Japan Times about his vision for theater.
What first drew you to theater?
I was not interested in theater at all when I was young. I loved film, especially the radical new works of Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders. So, at Keio University I joined a film-making circle, that also had a theater section and somehow — I really don’t know why — I just fell into drama and I’ve continued to put on plays ever since. It’s been a great joy for me so far.
After I graduated, I made plays as an independent writer-director because I didn’t want to be bothered with all the hiring and administration and business necessary to run a company. It was funny and very small-scale back then, around 1997 — the audience would only be about 150 people.
How did you get to your current position after such a low-key start?
I am from Yokohama, and in my early days, I was lucky to be able to stage plays there at ST Spot (60-80 person capacity), which is staffed by volunteers and supported by Yokohama City Council with the aim of supporting upcoming new talents from the region. In 1999, ST Spot had a performing arts festival of short works, and the director and the staff liked what Chelfitsch did and started to put our name about.
ST Spot also ran excellent contemporary dance programs. I loved to see those, and I met the contemporary dancer Natsuko Tezuka there, and I realized the importance of body movement on the stage. That’s how I developed one of the strong points that critics have pointed out in my works — my unique way of getting or letting actors move. Ever since, our audiences have included dance fans too.
Then, to my amazement in 2004, Chelfitsch was invited to a major theater festival in Tokyo with “Five Days in March,” a play about a couple of drifting kids staying for five days in a Shibuya love hotel worrying about their futures, while outside in the “real” world, Iraq was being overrun. That was how we won Japan’s leading drama award, the Kishida Kunio Drama Award.
Luckily, when I staged the play again in 2006 after the award had made it well known, a director from a Belgian theater festival called the Kunstenfestival des Arts ’07 happened to see it and invited us to the festival in Brussels last year.
Why did he select that from among hundreds of Japanese plays?
We gave him a brief explanatory leaflet written in English as the play was done in Japanese. He praised our use of body movement, which has actors behaving like sulky, slovenly youths whose actions rarely connect directly to the words — unlike what actors usually do. After we staged “Five Days in March” in Belgium last year, more than 50 offers of bookings came in from all over the world — so actually, we will tour through 20 different cities, mostly in Europe and America, this year.
Many Japanese people ask me whether foreigners can understand my plays, which feature lots of current Tokyo phenomena and slang. In Europe, though, I didn’t feel any barriers. Audiences in Belgium weren’t worried so much about the language and just enjoyed the play with the help of the brilliant subtitles there.
What is “Free Time” about?
“Enjoy” was about the work situation facing young people in Japan who are not opting to immerse themselves in careers. “Free Time” is also about the theme of labor and freedom, but it is about young people who are not working.
How do your plays take shape?
I rely completely on the actors’ ability — so my cast members have really difficult jobs because I also nag them over details continuously (laughs). But this time, I am trying a new approach. I have only written lines for each actor, no stage directions or directions to the timing of saying their lines; so it’s not constructed as one whole play. Instead, we are now actually creating it, the play together with my text.
What is the most important thing you keep in mind when you are making a play?
If theater is just a re-presentation of a text, then it’s boring. I try to create something that will live on the stage. If we only expect actors to follow the script written down, we don’t need top-class professionals to do that and we don’t need rehearsals. So, I am obsessive about fostering real, original creativity on the stage during performances.
Would you ever produce somebody else’s plays?
Yes. I am going to direct “Tomodachi (Friend)” by Kobo Abe (1924-93) this autumn at Setagaya Public Theater in Tokyo, and I will also direct the contemporary German playwright Dea Loher’s “Tattoo” next year at the New National Theater.
What is your current biggest interest as a writing theme?
I would like to write about vulnerability. People have a right to be sensitive against physical or emotional attacks, but they also have the right to hurt someone in some circumstances.
“Free Time” runs till March 18 at Super Deluxe, a 5-min. walk from Tokyo’s Roppongi Station on the Hibiya or Oedo lines. For more details, call (03) 3410-1816 or visit precog-jp.net