Yoji Sakate celebrates in style

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

To celebrate its 30th anniversary this year, the Tokyo-based Rinkogun theater company determined to present four original plays by its founder, the renowned playwright and director Yoji Sakate.

The first, staged to critical acclaim in March, was “Cowra no Hancho Kaigi (Honchos’ Meeting in Cowra),” about a doomed breakout that Japanese POWs in an Australian camp in Cowra, New South Wales, really did stage during World War II. That was followed in June by “Kikan (Return Home),” which cast a powerfully skeptical eye over dam construction — a staple of Japanese pork-barrel politics for many decades. Then in September, after a brief premiere run at home, Sakate’s award-winning masterpiece “Yaneura (Attic),” about young hikikomori (social hermits) in a near-future Tokyo, made great waves on tour to Yalta in Ukraine and Rome and Terni in Italy.

Now, as the fourth and final candle in its birthday cake, Rinkogun is presenting Sakate’s newest work, “Kokoniwa Eigakan ga Atta (There Was a Cinema Here),” in Tokyo before touring with it to Nagoya, Kobe and Okayama. The play harks back to a golden age of movies in Japan — one still within living memory — when people went once or more each week to local cinemas, which were exciting hubs of cultural, social and, for some, romantic life.

These days, Sakate, 51, is not only hard-pressed as a creator and company manager, but also in his current roles as president of the Japan Playwrights Association, a director of the Japan Directors Association and a director of the Japanese Centre of International Theatre Institute. Nonetheless, he was good enough recently to make time to talk about his work in general and his aim to foster social awareness among his entirely exhausted compatriots in particular.

Why did you set this play, which revolves around local cinemas, in the 1970s?

I am trying to describe a picture of our country by looking again at those days. I’m not trying to focus on some particular incidents or people, and I don’t want to question the responsibility of government or politicians in an accusatory way — I just want to ask more generally why people nowadays simply gossip about current affairs and suchlike without considering what it was like before.

We can’t really analyze anything if we only superficially share today’s talking points without taking into account that the same things have happened before and nothing has really changed.

Why cinemas?

First, the play is not about old movies, it’s about cinemas. Today, they’re mostly in cinema complexes, but there used to be lots of private cinemas all over Japan. Each town would have its main shopping street full of local shops and people’s social lives revolved around there — cinemas were beacons on that map of the community.

But as such features have disappeared from many places, local communities themselves have actually been destroyed.

In Europe, many regions have their own individual culture supported by both citizens and administrators. In Japan, there is no separate policy for the regional arts sector, so the same central-government lead is followed everywhere. As a result, you find that most public theaters have very similar lineups and their programs are all “well balanced” as determined at the center. It’s so boring.

In modern times, I think you have to go back to a brief period in the 1970s to find a free atmosphere in which to create art. Then, we still had a rich culture of communicating with others through artistic and theatrical expression. I don’t think today’s well-organized public art is for real because, primarily, art or theater should be more varied and free.

In recent years you have presented some political plays on various themes, including U.S. military bases in Okinawa. However, this one seems different.

For sure, I don’t specifically mention the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, or the prime minister’s name, in “There Was a Cinema Here” — but that’s because I wanted to write about conditions today without mentioning such specifics.

Of course I’m also very concerned about the new state-secrecy law, for instance, and I wonder how the government intends to enforce it. Nobody knows yet … but some people complacently make jokes, saying, “Once that law’s in place, we’ll be arrested immediately — ha-ha, ha-ha.” I can’t believe that kind of attitude. How can anyone be calm and composed about this ridiculous situation?

Meanwhile, many people made a fuss and criticized the behavior of a Diet member (Taro Yamamoto) who handed a letter (about nuclear power) to the Emperor the other day. The only thing anyone should care about is why he did it and what it was about. I don’t know why the media attacked him endlessly with no good reason, though it ensured the point of his action got lost. But the mass media always blocks people’s actions in this way.

Has it always been the same?

Today, people just blindly believe whatever rumor the media puts out, and act as if ordinary people can’t change anything in the world. So they’ve given up thinking about anything. To me this seems very strange, and it’s really dangerous because it means that a manipulator could control everything. If we accepted that scenario, it would mean we’d given up on making a better world.

If I may just continue a moment more, I’d like to say that most of the play is about local cinemas and communities once upon a time in Japan — but it finishes in Okinawa. So, it moves through a peaceful and cultural context to a political and social message.

What is special about the way theater can address social issues?

Theater is different from journalism, which presents news and information on a daily, up-to-the-minute basis. Theater is fiction that can combine different kinds of information from here and there and even go beyond space and time.

In this play, I draw on a special character of movies, because they are good tools for enabling people to communicate and chat with others. So if people were going to their local cinemas — like they still see live theater together — they’d share a common experience and have lively discussions about it afterward. However, people now watch movies on the Internet or on DVDs at home, so it has become more difficult to share their awareness. I don’t know if this is progress or a backward step for human society.

What plans have you for the future?

Well, this 30th anniversary seems to be a good point at which to change my activity a bit, and I would like to get involved across a wider range outside my company.

“Kokoniwa Eigakan ga Atta (There Was a Cinema Here)” runs from Nov. 15 till Nov. 26 at Za-Koenji, a 4-min. walk from JR Koenji Station. It then tours to Nagoya, Kobe and Okayama till Dec. 9. For more details, call Rinkogun on 03-3426-6294 or visit