“People compare me with Bertolt Brecht, and I am glad to hear that — but why won’t anyone call me Anton Inoue?”

According to those who knew him, this was an oft-made remark by Hisashi Inoue — Japan’s foremost contemporary dramatist and author, whose April 9 death is still a raw wound among theater lovers — in reference to Russian playwright and short-story author Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), whose influence has made a deep impact on Japanese theater.

Indeed, Inoue’s regard for the physician son of a grocer was such that he based one of the last plays he wrote, 2008’s “Romance,” on the life of Chekhov. He even fashioned that work in the vaudevillian style that Chekhov often used.

But Inoue is far from alone among Japanese dramatists in feeling affinity for this son of ailing Czarist Russia. Chekhov’s plays and writings are largely devoid of great emotional displays and are often said to have within them a “submerged life” — much like how Japanese culture is often described.

This vibrant presence of Chekhov in Japanese artistic culture is no recent turn of events. Ever since his Japan debut with short play “The Proposal” (retitled here as “Inu”), performed by the Jiyu Gekijo company in 1910, stagings of his works are regarded in the industry as being second in number only to those by William Shakespeare among foreign plays. And that despite the fact that the Bard of Avon penned 37 major works, whereas Chekhov’s comparable oeuvre amounts to a mere four: “The Seagull” (1896), “Uncle Vanya” (1899-1900), “Three Sisters” (1901) and “The Cherry Orchard” (1904).

Amazingly, in a single month in 1993, one company staged “The Cherry Orchard” and another troupe “The Seagull,” while no fewer than seven presented “Three Sisters.” The latter — a tale of the decline of a privileged class and a search for new meaning in life — seemingly struck a big chord back then, as Japan’s economy collapsed after the bubble era.

T his year marks the 150th anniversary of Chekhov’s birth (he died of tuberculosis aged 44), and several commemorative festivals are being held in the capital and elsewhere. Prominent among these is the Owlspot Chekhov Festival 2010 at Owlspot in Ikebukuro, a public theater in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward. Overseen by the theater’s chief producer, Atsuhiko Sakiyama, this began with a dramatized staging of some of Chekhov’s short novels in April and is set to resume in earnest with nine very different works being presented between August and December.

These will span the genres of kyogen, with “The Proposal” and “Kamabara” by M&O Plays; contemporary noh, with “Modern Noh Plays by Chekhov” presented by the Rinkogun company; rap, in the form of “Chotancho (Matawa Nagame, Mijikame) — from ‘The Seagull’ ” (“Major and Minor Keys [Prospect and Close View] — from ‘The Seagull’ “) by Shigeki Nakano; and cutting-edge dance, with “The Cherry Orchard — Ichigo Shimbun kara” (“The Cherry Orchard — from Strawberry Papers”) by Mikuni Yanaihara; as well as more conventional theatrical works by leading dramatists.

Reflecting on the popularity of Chekhov in Japan, Sakiyama explained, “If I compare them with Japanese culture, I’d say Shakespeare is a match for Akira Kuroaswa’s movie world, with its epic human dramas, but Chekhov is more like Yasujiro Ozu. His plays — like Ozu films such as ‘Tokyo Story’ and ‘Early Spring’ — describe, with great subtlety, ordinary people’s daily lives, merely with lines such as, ‘Today’s breakfast tastes good,’ or sometimes just an ‘Ah . . . ‘

“Also, since the 1980s, mainstream contemporary theaters here have focused a lot on the kind of depictions of characters’ inner thoughts and hidden intentions that are characteristic of Chekhov — and that are also very Japanese, as it’s part of the culture to give out and grasp silent messages.”

Sakiyama said his aim with this festival had been “to invite artists who could approach Chekhov’s works from a modern viewpoint and create new works for today’s audiences, as well as young artists — such as Nakano and Yanaihara — in order to see how they would tackle Chekhov and, with their fresh views, create completely original types of performances.”

Something fresh is indeed what actor and director Nakano, founder of the Nakano Shigeki + Frankens theater company, seems to have in store for audiences with his rap version of “The Seagull,” Chekhov’s tale of artistic and romantic conflicts between four principal characters in a country house. Having already staged works by Chekhov, Shakespeare and U.S. dramatist Thornton Wilder, and using a philosophy of “mistranslation and nonliteral broad translation,” Nakano, 36, believes that “Shakespeare has lots of rhymes and his plays are very poetic, but Chekhov is basically about ordinary conversation. So I wanted to try a difficult way of presenting this. As a result, this new play doesn’t follow the text lines, or even the story line, and the rap lyrics are drawn from my view of the characters’ essence. So what I’ve created is in the image of ‘The Seagull,’ but even though it’s made with rap music by Yoshio Otani, it doesn’t end up as a musical play.”

“The Seagull” includes a play being performed within the play; Nakano re-creates this duality by having “a cubelike booth where the performance takes place, and people can choose to sit inside, or, if they prefer, in the auditorium.” Those in the auditorium, he explained, will only see the booth from the outside and hear directly from within it only when the door is opened. Otherwise, they will be watching what’s happening on a big screen also on the stage.

He added that one of the play’s themes is about the notion that through age, circumstance or habitual apathy, people’s lives can hopelessly stagnate — with one character even killing himself as a result. “And we can see many forms of stagnation in this country,” he noted.

Coincidentally, 38-year-old director, dancer and choreographer Yanaihara described her dance version of “The Cherry Orchard” — which deals with gentry who lose their beloved land because they fail to react to changing times — as “a program depicting people who are just waiting at the same place in life.”

Also, like Nakano, she isn’t overly concerned with staging a literal rendering. “As it’s a dance program, I won’t follow the story,” she explained. “But I will extract an essence of my understanding of the text and create a program including some select lines that the two actors and eight dancers will say.

“They’ll portray three types of people: stagnating souls who’ve been left behind; ones who are leaving; and others who are — like me now, after many years of traveling all over — staying where they are and looking toward change.”

Whatever Yanaihara’s optimism, stagnation is the zeitgeist for huge numbers of people in Japan these days, as it has been since that economic bubble burst two decades ago. In particular, a steady stream of reports points to young people’s loss of direction as former norms such as lifetime employment have broken down and many are driven into the drudgery of low-wage, part-time work that stunts their opportunities and ambition.

It’s a state of affairs — after 50 years of virtual one-party rule until last August — that’s not too different from Chekhov’s era in Russia, when momentous upheaval was just around the corner, its form and magnitude as yet unknown. And so, in part, Chekhov’s remarkable ongoing popularity here may be due to social reflections that audiences perceive — and even, perhaps, because they seek in his work hints about the future course of their own lives.

In fact, at a press conference to launch the festival in April, Rinkogun Director Yoji Sakate expressed his view that “The Cherry Orchard” mirrors today’s Japan, whose national debt has grown to twice the level of its gross national product without anyone seeming to care.

“As a result,” Sakate said, “Japan may be put up for sale as the beloved cherry orchard had to be. And consequently, the anxieties Chekhov had with regard to his great country a century ago might apply to present-day Japan.”

Chekhov’s relevance is also uppermost in the thinking of Hitoshi Kadoi, the founder of TPT (Theater Project Tokyo), whose company is renowned for the foreign plays it presents at its downtown base. Though not a part of the Owlspot festival, TPT will also commemorate Chekhov with a production of “The Seagull” next month, featuring a cast of young actors performing at Suijo Ongakudo, a stage by Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Onshi Park.

During rehearsals last week, Kadoi said that he eschews stagings of Chekhov that resemble highbrow period pieces. “Actually, the main characters are often ambitious young people, and his dramas are youthful and passionate, with the characters talking about their futures and how to live their lives,” he said. “That’s what makes him so vivid and relevant to so many people. Now we are reading this 100-year-old play with young actors, and they really laugh a lot — it’s a great vaudeville, especially with the new translation we’ve had done.”

The translator of that work, Atsuro Hirota, who was also at the rehearsal, made yet another interesting link between Chekhov and Japan. “I feel strongly that Russia is not a part of Europe,” he said. “Russians always wonder how close they should be to Europe, even as they incorporate Western ways into their culture. That’s also how Japan is about the West — and that’s probably another reason why many Japanese dramatists feel Chekhov’s dramas have a special resonance.”

Owlspot Chekhov Festival 2010 runs till Dec. 18: “Chotancho (Matawa Nagame, Mijikame) — from ‘The Seagull’ ” runs Sept. 30-Oct. 3; “The Cherry Orchard — Ichigo Shimbun kara” runs Dec. 10-12; Owlspot is a 2-minute walk from Higashi-Ikebukuro Station on the Yurakucho Line. For more details, call (03) 5391-0751 or visit www.owlspot.jp “The Seagull” by TPT runs Aug. 13-19 at Suijo Ongakudo in Ueno Onshi Park, a 3-minute walk from JR Ueno Station. For more details, call TPT on (03) 3635-6355 or visit www.tpt.co.jp Nobuko Tanaka’s theater blog (in Japanese) is at thestage.cocolog-nifty.com

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