The place to start when reviewing this year’s highlights in contemporary Japanese theater, has to be The Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11. That day led to a nation in mourning, an ongoing nuclear crisis and an awakening among dramatists, who saw the importance of their role to stimulate debate and spread ideas and information about societal issues.

Coming after decades of theater creators using their work to agonize over personal and interpersonal societal angst, this was a seismic shift of sorts — one that reflects distrust in politicians, bureaucrats, top academics, captains of industry and the media, as events surrounding the nuclear crisis brought about a stream of confusion and exposed discrepancies, untruths and incompetence.

In the immediate aftermath of March 11, many theaters shut their doors — some out of respect for the victims, others for safety or energy-saving reasons. Away from their daily treadmill, dramatists had the time to question the value of their work in such a time of need.

The upshot — fueled greatly by the suspicious, Kafkaesque events surrounding the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and a growing public awareness of the inconsistencies provided by the “nuclear village” of politicians, bureaucrats and power utilities that promote the nuclear industry — was a powerful rebirth of intelligent social and political skepticism in contemporary Japanese drama.

Among those plays was one that was actually midway through a seven-week run at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Theatre in Ikebukuro when the earthquake hit. Written and directed by Hideki Noda (42), one of Japan’s foremost dramatists, “To the South” was canceled on March 11 and over the weekend. But on the Tuesday, the theater reopened and it was back to business as usual. Except for those performing and those watching the play, it wasn’t business as usual at all.

“Amazingly, the words in the play took on different meanings after the earthquake,” Noda said, looking back on that reopening day. “The play directly connected to our current situation and some of the lines could almost have been lifted from one of the murky press briefings given by Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the Fukushima reactors).”

“To the South” revolves around a mysterious character (a fallen soldier, it turns out) who warns a group of scientists in a volcano observatory against blithely accepting historical “facts” about their situation. Warnings ignored, the volcano erupts and all those there are wiped out. It is impossible not to see parallels with the tsunami that swept away more than 15,000 people, most of whom probably never questioned what they had been told about the safety of where they lived. Or to miss allusions to the information the public were given about the safety of the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Unlike Noda, many of Japan’s younger dramatists were born in the balmy decades of rising prosperity, never knowing anything worse than a lukewarm stagnation of society. The March disasters were a visceral shock to many such dramatists, and an unprecedented questioning of politics and society — at every level — ensued. It was as if they were shocked out of apathy. They stopped creating for their own cliques and rose to the challenge of addressing the future facing their audiences — and the nation.

For example, Tokyo-based theater group Chari-T’s “Shi no Machi” (“Dead Town”), written and directed by its founder, Taku Narahara, 38, goes straight for the jugular of officialdom’s culture of complacent superiority. The play pillories Yoshio Hachiro, a former industry minister who, on Sept. 9, described the Fukushima exclusion zone (and with it the lives and dreams of so many people) as a “dead town.” This whodunit then sets out to expose the politician’s real meaning behind those words, and what he might know that others don’t. As well, this wryly cutting work targets — with clearly shocking intent — Japan’s “nuclear village,” showing a history where power utilities buy off the media with advertising spending and gaining political and bureaucratic support through favors and public works.

Similarly — but to the nth degree — playwright and director Tomohiro Maekawa, 37, sounded the alarm in his trademark sci-fi style with “Taiyo” (“The Sun”). Here, in a dark but believable Japan of the future, there are two classes: the controllers, who have evolved to be so photosensitive they are unable to withstand sunshine; and the controlled, who do the controllers’ bidding. It’s a vision, right or wrong, of the consequences of unbridled, growth-driven capitalism. And it’s certainly asking its audience to consider it about time they get involved in steering Japan’s ship of state.

In a year that has given rise to a lot of powerful new drama from a number of well-known and up-and-coming dramatists, one of the biggest hitters has been a schoolteacher in the far north of Honshu. Conjuring up superb performances from the members of his Aomori Prefecture-based Watanabe Genshiro Shoten company, Seigo Hatasawa staged his latest play, “The Exorcists,” both in his home city of Aomori and in Tokyo. In its quasi-comic story line about a naive young girl people think is possessed by evil (her behavior is actually a result of being abused by her closest carer), this work manages to evoke some of the interpersonal stress suffered by those who have had to cope with loss after March 11, while also exposing a lack of vision commonplace in small closed societies — a criticism of today’s Japan.

Though many dramatists focused on criticism of Japan’s response to the March 11 disasters, some turned to the nation’s history of survival and the lessons and wisdom that should have been learned from trying times.

Playwright and director Sou Kitamura’s masterpiece “Hogiuta” (“Ode to Joy”) was written in 1979, but its staging in May by the Tokyo Kandenchi Theater Company could never have resonated more with audiences.

An absurdist work set in a desolate, irradiated landscape after a nuclear war, the play sees its three characters — with a particularly outstanding performance from Kazue Tsunogae as the heroine — discussing the meaning of the life as they trudge across muddy fields. Sadly, though this play once made audiences bitterly reflect on the atom bombs of 1945 to reconsider the pros and cons of nuclear power, this year’s ongoing disaster suggests little may have been learned.

Akio Miyazawa’s “Total Living 1986-2011,” which premiered at the recent Festival Tokyo, asks the question: Why has so little changed in Japan, and why are its citizens unconcerned about its continued and increasing reliance on nuclear power in the 25 years since the Chernobyl disaster?

Miyazawa’s fun-looking pop-style stage reflected the materialistic superficiality of much of life in Japan, to which he then introduced real fears that the country might become uninhabitable through this and other nuclear disasters — a catastrophic scenario the people should have been aware of, but weren’t because they had left government and politics to others while they wallowed in the simple pleasures that rising affluence brought.

Even though March 11 brought about some astonishing drama, it doesn’t mean anything before was trite.

Kuro Tanino’s original work, “Chekhov?!,” which was staged before March 11, is a masterpiece of imagination.

With its lyrical script by Tanino drawn from Anton Chekhov’s novels and thesis on folklore and folk medicine, “Chekhov?!” comprises 12 superbly visualized scenes that, dusted by Tanino’s imagination, offer theatrical magic of an arresting universality.

Dreamlike sets and top-notch acting from a veteran cast puts this production above all others in this vintage year. It reminds audiences of the source of theater’s power, for whatever purpose it is can be used: the power of imagination.

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