Dramatists in their 30s have moved to the forefront of Japanese contemporary theater in recent years. Since 2004, the country’s most prestigious theater accolade, the Kishida Drama Award, has gone to thirtysomething playwright/ directors Daisuke Miura, Toshiki Okada and Shiro Maeda. Also, the New National Theatre’s current “Do-jidai Series (Same-generation Series)” gives Maeda and two other promising young playwrights, Satoshi Hayafune and Ryuta Horai, the chance to show at the prestigious Tokyo venue with the help of experienced directors Yuko Matsumoto, Akira Shirai and Kuriyama, and veteran actors (rather than the contemporaries these young directors usually employ).
Leading this youthful charge in 2004 was that year’s 31-year-old winner of the Kishida Award, Yutaka Kuramochi, with the psycho-mystery drama “One-man Show.” Since then, Kuramochi has worked seemingly almost nonstop, mainly as a playwright, but also as a director, both for his theater company, Penguin Pull Pale Piles (PenguinPPP), and others such as AGAME store and Dandan Bueno. This year, he has had new plays opening in April, May, and others to come in June and July. He made time, however, to talk about his work after a recent rehearsal of his company’s latest play, “Shinpanin wa Konakatta (A Judge Did Not Come in the End),” which opens next month.
Why did you become a playwright?
I watched Issey Ogata (a great one-man play performer renowned for his ability to express ordinary people’s humor and pathos) on TV when I was a high-school student. That was the direct trigger for me to join a theater circle at Gakushuin University. Its senior people, however, were into plays that weren’t my cup of tea — very mainstream. I was disappointed and lost interest in theater. Then, I went to see one of my favorite actors, Naoto Takenaka, in a play written and directed by Ryo Iwamatsu called “Kowareyuku Otoko (Falling-down Man)” at the Honda Theater in Shimokitazawa in 1993, and I enjoyed it so much. I found a flyer there about an audition for Iwamatsu’s new plays — especially seeking unknown young actors. So, I went to the audition and luckily I passed. That gave me a great chance to see Iwamatsu’s work close up, and I learned a lot from him. When I started to write plays myself, to be honest, at first I just copied his style.
What attracted you to Iwamatsu’s work?
Mainly, I thought it was cool. As I said, at my university’s theater circle, the seniors were making spirited, straight- expression type plays, with the actors shouting toward the audiences, for example. Me, though, I loved Ogata’s cool-headed approach. And in Iwamatsu’s play, all the actors turned their backs (to the audience) when the curtain opened. That shocked me — but I thought it was cool as well.
Having decided to go into theater when you were a student, how did it go at the start?
As a student, I founded a theater company called Priseta with two other guys, Masahiro Toda and Shoichiro Tanigawa. I was the playwright, and we did our first play in 1996. It took us three years to stage the second one because the others were busy with other things. That made me so frustrated and worried about ever getting anywhere in theater that I formed my own company, PenguinPPP, and started to run regular productions with it.
What is your new play “Shinpanin wa Konakatta” about?
It’s a story about a fictional dictatorship. It’s quite ludicrous, with lots of laughs. Usually I write about things happening in a family, a group of friends or a town — something on that sort of scale. This time, though, I wanted to write on a wider scale, about, for instance, how one person’s action can, without them realizing it, influence someone they don’t know. I am sure a dictator’s smallest actions can influence the lives of huge numbers of people, whether the dictator intended to or not. If I write a play about a family, I always have to trace cause and effect — but in a dictatorship, even nonsensical and absurd things can happen without logical reasons. So, this is a play about how human lives and relationships can unconsciously be influenced right across a state-controlled population.
When do you get your ideas for a new play?
While I am writing something, I often have new ideas for the next one. Many people say that we playwrights in our 30s are in the Japanese theater world’s spotlight at the moment. That’s fine, but on the other hand, I’d guess that most of these rising young playwrights are working and writing nonstop without time off. I’m sure it would be better for them to take a break sometimes and go on a trip to refresh themselves, but that’s just not a realistic option, and I think that this is deplorable; the main reason is that income from a play is too little nowadays, so young playwrights have to write as many plays as possible.
What do you think about the view that some young writers’ plays are self-gratifying and that yours is a self-indulgent generation?
Sure, sometimes our generation produces such plays, and some young theater people do stick to one style. Audiences are not stupid, however, and if a writer is only working for his own satisfaction, they won’t keep going back. On the other hand, unfortunately, audiences in general do still like very easy, uncomplicated plays that are resolved inside the theater and about which they don’t need to think later. I want to create plays that stick in the audience’s mind for a long time after they leave the theater. If people say about a play of mine that they can’t understand it completely, but it’s certainly interesting, I think of that as the best compliment.
How do you feel about the future of theater in Japan?
Well, I think Japan would be better if it was a more accepting country — across a wide range of differences and things, not only theater. In my plays, I would like to talk about and show how there are many uncertain and abstruse things in the world. I would like to tell people to accept even things they personally find impossible to understand.
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