Class of 2010: Japan's playwrights head west

Young artists break isolationist habits and reap praise from their peers abroad

by Nobuko Tanaka

Japan’s young dramatists are increasingly shrugging off their medium’s long-standing, self-imposed national isolation and are setting sail in search of new audiences, and critical praise, overseas.

This year was especially successful for a handful of freshmen as theater lovers from the West picked up on the Japanese scene and traveled here as well.

The trend began in 2007, when the quirky Tokyo-based company Chelfitsch (a childlike pronunciation of “selfish”) was picked up for the Kunsten Festival des Arts (KFA) in Brussels.

Chelfitsch founder and director Toshiki Okada, 37, recalls how excited he was when KFA director Christophe Slagmuylde came to Japan and told Okada he liked his play “Sangatsu no Itsukakan (Five Days in March).” That piece focuses on a couple’s casual sexual relationship over the five days that marked the start of the Iraq war in 2003.

“I was thrilled he invited us to the Brussels festival,” says Okada. “When we were there, our producer got nonstop inquiries and offers from many other international festivals. She was fully booked with appointments to meet festival directors. Since then, we’ve been busy touring those festivals.”

In fact, Chelfitsch has now staged “Five Days,” with surtitles, in 13 countries in Europe and Asia, as well as in the United States. The company has also performed other plays by Okada while in Europe.

“If we just stay in Japan, the possible number of people who can see us is limited,” says Okada. “But once we look to the international market, possibilities expand enormously.”

Following that groundbreaking foreign foray, producers and festival organizers from the West appeared in increasing numbers at Japan’s shogekijo, small- scale contemporary-theater companies.

This presence was especially apparent at the Tokyo Performing Arts Market (TPAM) held in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district in March, where many foreign buyers and producers were seen clutching English-language handouts at several symposiums and productions.

One young playwright/director to benefit from that curiosity was Daisuke Miura, 34, founder of the Potsudo-ru company. Miura was invited to stage his company’s first overseas performance at a festival in Mulheim, Germany, in July. It was an invitation Miura said he was delighted by.

“I’d received and turned down several offers from overseas festivals before that, because they were all for my award-winning play, ‘Ai no Uzu (Maelstrom of Love),’ ” explains Miura. “I wanted to do ‘Yume no Shiro (Castle of Dreams)’ — a silent drama (with no spoken script, just sound effects) set in one room shared by young people who spend their time having sex, playing computer games and watching TV — as my debut in Europe. . . . I wanted to see how they would evaluate my work without being distracted by reading subtitles.

“I got offers from seven countries after the performance in Germany — so I suppose I gained a certain reputation,” says Miura.

As for the experience casting new light on the scene here, Miura at once points to the shortage of government and corporate support for contemporary theater — but he also notes a silver lining. “Today’s energetic shogekijo culture can’t rely on handouts,” he says. “So people aren’t making the kind of super avant-garde, or masturbatorylike performances that you find around the world but that often alienate audiences. Consequently, I think that many shogekijo works now have an exquisite balance of provocative freshness and maturity. Those are the plays Western producers are looking for.”

Echoing this awareness is 34-year-old Kuro Tanino. The founder of Niwagekidan Penino, he says audiences in Switzerland and Holland in August greeted his 2008 piece, “Iraira Suru Otona no Ehon (Adults-annoying Picture Book),” with “wild enthusiasm” and stresses that they didn’t seem to care whether or not he was from Japan.

Indeed, the former psychiatrist says one critic compared his piece to “a William Burroughs novel” in a review that lacked the typical “exotic Japan” angle. In addition to the positive feedback, Tanino feels his imaginative work must have seemed fresh compared to the gritty social realism of much of Europe’s current theater scene.

He also notes that his complex, two-story stage set was made in part by company members in Switzerland. “I believe people will get more from the whole art-creation process by being involved in the manual aspect,” says Tanino. “I would recommend those staging plays overseas to work with local staff as much as possible. It might be hard, but it’s also great fun and a very special experience.”

Tanino’s tips may not, however, come as news to the globe-trotting Faifai theater company. Founded in 2004 and comprising a wide range of creators from fields as diverse as fashion, dance and Web design, Faifai specializes in unique, event-type works that attract public and audience participation.

“We primarily aim to join festivals abroad so we can meet other participants as well as local people outside the venues,” says Chiharu Shinoda, Faifai’s director and one of its artists. “We are mainly concerned about what kind of atmosphere we can provide rather than presenting programs on stage.”

Asked to elaborate on Faifai’s “atmosphere,” 28-year-old Shinoda explains her belief that there is still a “high barrier” stopping many people from entering a theater. “So we try to get nontheatergoers into the theater world by making it easily accessible through our activities.”

These activities have included flea markets, DJ booths and dance parties in the past. In Zurich this summer, their efforts helped push Faifai’s English work “My name is I love you” to win the ZKB Festival’s Patronage Prize, which consisted of 30,000 Swiss francs (¥2.5 million).

“In the future, I think there will be more focus on reaching out to people,” says Shinoda. “That’s because in film and visual arts, the relationship is usually one way, but in theater there are always two vectors between the stage and the auditorium so it’s that much more important.”

Where once it was an almost impossible dream to be able to stage Japanese theater abroad, now it suddenly seems like everyone is getting in on the act — by invitation, too. And, as each of the dramatists here reports, their overseas experiences have contributed to helping clarify their own purpose in theater.

But in light of his overseas experiences, Chelfitsch’s Okada also warns: “If Japan’s domestic theater continues to just do a stream of ‘easy’ programs in order to survive from day to day, while being lazy about cultivating local theater culture, I may move most of my performances abroad.”

Potsudo-ru: “The Shape of Things” runs Feb. 10-24 at Aoyama Round Theatre in Tokyo. For details, visit Niwagekidan Penino: “Chekhov!?” runs Jan. 25-Feb. 13 at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space. For details, visit Chelfitsch: “A Sonic Life of Giant Tortoise” runs Feb. 2-15 at Kanagawa Arts Theatre. For details, visit Faifai: Performance news is updated at