Social awareness takes center stage

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

Japan’s calamities of March 2011 — the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, and the start of an ongoing nuclear disaster — changed not only the social awareness of the general public who make up theater audiences, but also how dramatists approached their work. Many questioned why so many mistakes have been, and continue to be made, in the steering of Japan.

None of those concerns has been allayed as political turmoils at home and abroad, and deepening economic stagnation, have continued to furnish dramatists and stage directors with social themes. This year, however, there has been a shift from grappling with the sheer enormity of Japan’s woes to imagining future scenarios in light of them.

One outstanding example was “Kein Licht (No Light) II,” a focal point of the Japan Festival/Tokyo 2012, the nation’s biggest annual theater event, which ran in October and November. For this piece performed by the Tokyo-based Port B company, Akira Takayama, its director and the company’s founder, conjured up scenes from the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant, and staged them in different areas of Tokyo’s Shimbashi. The audience, guided by maps on postcards, walked amid the noise, neon lights and crowds of the city center to each of the 12 locations, where — whether in a space in a demolition site surrounded by blue tarps, in front of a shop selling Geiger counters, or in a boxy room in a tenement building (set up to look like an evacuee’s room in Fukushima) — they would tune radios they’d been issued with to specific frequencies.

Voices of Fukushima high school students reading poignant vignettes written by the 2004 Nobel prize-winning Austrian author Elfriede Jelinek would be heard. And interwoven with the author’s thoughts on the nuclear accident were scattered lines from the ancient Greek tragedy “Antigone,” in which Antigone gives a proper burial to her brother Polynices against the king’s orders, and is then thrown into jail where she dies.

It was the stuff of the strong, undaunted everyman from Jelinek — but it was also a tour de force in more ways thank one thanks to Takayama’s clever direction in juxtaposing the horrors of disaster with the area’s seemingly carefree crowds of salarymen and young women enjoying the end of the work day.

In contrast, the audiences at Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s February stagings of “TeZukA,” a production dedicated to the late manga creator Osamu Tezuka, were invited to sit, watch and listen at the Orchard Hall in Shibuya. But that wasn’t as comfortable as it sounds, because as Cherkaoui — who was in Tokyo when the March 11 earthquake hit — explained, this dance-drama he created in 2011 is about both Tezuka and the disasters. The performances, which pitched human perplexity, regret and mendacity against the hope embodied in Cherkaoui’s acrobatic choreography, followed a storyline narrated by a character dressed as Tezuka’s famed creation — Atom Boy.

In the small-scale Suzunari Theater in Shimokitazawa, the Watanabe Genshiro Shoten company came from Aomori Prefecture in the disaster-hit Tohoku region to deliver a superbly dark, absurdist comedy titled “Tobe! Genshiryoku Robo Mutsu (Fly! Nuclear-power Robot Mutsu).”

Based on concerns surrounding the Rokkasho nuclear-waste plant, which is being planned for Aomori, the play riffs on examples of true-life nonsense and cynical jokes about the government’s untrustworthy nuclear policy. It tells the tale of a fictional village that becomes super-rich from hosting a nuclear waste-storage facility, and whose mayor intermittently goes into centuries of cryogenic sleep to check that the radiation risk will disappear in the future. Every time he wakes up, though, the risks are still there — even thousands and millions of years into the future, when Japan as we know it has been destroyed by earthquakes and political breakdown.

On a similar note and rounding up this year, the late, great master playwright and author Hisashi Inoue’s final work, “Kumikyoku Gyakusatsu” (“Suite Slaughter”) is being re-staged with its original cast at Tennozu The Galaxy Theater in the Shinagawa distric of Tokyo.

Portraying the long-term underlying disempowerment of Japanese citizens through the true story of left-leaning author Takiji Kobayashi’s suspicious death at age 29 in central Tokyo’s Tsukiji police station in 1933, “Suite Slaughter” premiered successfully in October 2009 and picked up several prestigious awards.

This month’s production, however, proves quite different — almost certainly because last time the cast only received the script four days before the play opened. Furthermore, in light of what we now know about Japan’s “nuclear village,” as well as the right-leaning consequences of last week’s general election, the play’s theme — the story of what happened to an individualistic, nonviolent protester against militarism — is now all the more pertinent.

While growing social awareness has been encouraging in this year’s stagings, continuing economic difficulties have led to more empty seats than in previous years. This means, sadly, that it is loyal fans who make up the majority of audiences for certain performance genres, and not a curious general public. This is a growing issue that needs to be addressed if stage entertainment is to prosper in Japan.

“Kumikyoku Gyakusatsu” runs till Dec. 30 at Tennozu The Galaxy Theatre, a 3-min. walk from Tenozu Isle Station on the Tokyo Monorail. It then tours from Jan. 12 to Feb. 3. For details, call Horipro at (03) 3490-4949, or visit