Mugensha Theatre Company is based in Tokyo, but it is probably better known in Britain. The company has played three London seasons — in 2002, ’05 and ’06 — since it was founded by director and actor Soun Kotakebayashi in 1995 with the intention of taking contemporary Japanese drama to Europe.
The company made its debut this summer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with “The Feast of the Ants.” As in all Mugensha’s works, “The Feast” was created not by one writer but collectively in workshops by the company’s actors. Set long ago in Arizuka (Anthill), a fictional samurai-ruled town, the morality tale tells how the inhabitants forsake farming rape-blossom for building iron foundries in a get-rich-quick scheme. After the rape fields have disappeared, however, the iron industry collapses, leaving everyone poor, idle and desperate for a miracle. What comes instead is unrelenting rain.
Before the short Tokyo run of “The Feast of the Ants” next week, Kotakebayashi, 56, spoke at the company’s studio in Koenji about Mugensha’s work and Japanese theater.
Why did you want to stage your plays in Europe rather than Japan?
In the late 1980s, I went to London to study theater and saw several great plays. I realized that if a play is well received in London, it can easily be staged around the world. In Japan, unfortunately, theater isn’t valued in society, so it’s more difficult to keep a company going unless you cast film stars or have huge funds.
With Mugensha, I decided to aim toward Britain from the start, and that clear target encouraged young actors from my previous company (Hasha) to come along with me. If we could succeed in Britain, then even without big star names, the media in Japan would pick up our story and audiences would come along.
It can’t be easy to present your work abroad.
It took almost three years to train the young actors from Hasha and bring them up to a professional level. We didn’t do public performances, just some free shows at nursery schools, and the actors practiced every night under my instruction after their daytime work.
Our first public performances came when we did three original plays in Tokyo in 2000. After that we started to think about performing in England, but we didn’t have any connections in London. One of the actors contacted a Japanese friend of a friend who was working there, and it was her and two of her friends who laboriously knocked on lots of theater doors for us. Of course, most rejected us as we were completely unknown. Finally Theatro Technis in Camden Town, north London, booked us. The founder, George Eugeniou, is a Cypriot, so I think he was sympathetic to foreign dramatists such as us.
How did you pay for the tour?
We applied for several subsidies, but nobody gave us money after (Prime Minister) Junichiro Koizumi’s so-called structural reforms, so we paid for it all ourselves. In Japan nowadays, public money is only awarded to established, well-known companies, and it’s almost impossible to get any help for small companies such as ours.
How was your monthlong residence in Edinburgh this summer?
First off, there was a great atmosphere there, and it was wonderful that so many people had come to see all kinds of performances. On the other hand — as some of the media have also observed — I felt that the Fringe Festival has become very commercialized. It seemed as if the theater where we were performing was just trying to make as much of a profit as possible. For example, there were only a few professional technicians, and the other backstage people were nonprofessional student volunteers, so it was actually very difficult to achieve our normal standards of presentation.
During our third season at Theatro Technis, in 2006, many people urged us to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe, and the actors also relished the challenge, so we went. But, despite the great reviews, I doubt whether we will return next year, and I am thinking about going to France instead, if possible.
What is the biggest difference between Britain and Japan in terms of theater?
In Britain, people actually go out to see a play if somebody recommends it to them. I met so many audience members who had come through word of mouth, whereas in Japan people won’t generally go to see a company that’s not famous, even if a friend urges them to do so. Also, we found so many people were clamoring for seats after a good newspaper review of our London performance. It’s obvious that going to the theater is a quite common, social thing for ordinary people to do there, which is still not the case in Japan.
What do you think is the key to your company’s success overseas?
I am always annoyed to have to read subtitles when great foreign theater companies come to Japan, because you spend all the time looking at the electronic screen and miss a lot of what is happening on stage. So I try not to use those kinds of subtitles, but instead incorporate punchy story-line aids in English on placards we build into the play, and sometimes we’ll have a brief plot narration in English halfway through.
What is most crucial for developing the theater scene in Japan?
Theater education is the most important necessity. In Japan, children hardly ever have any chance to see theater through their schools. I wish schools would take them three or four times a year to see proper dramas, not just occasionally to big glitzy entertainment shows, and then give them chance to discuss it and learn to like it. That’s what we were trying to do when we staged plays for children at nursery schools.
“The Feast of the Ants” is on Nov. 8 and 9 at the Kinokuniya Southern Theater, a five-minute walk from JR Shinjuku Station, South Exit. For more information call Mugensha at (03) 3318-0756 or visit www.mugensha.net