“I work a lot in France, where manga and anime are enormously popular, although many theater producers think they are basically for children and are often too violent. However, they regard my robot theater as being an essentially Japanese art form,” the pioneering dramatist Oriza Hirata said recently during a break in rehearsals for his upcoming version of Franz Kafka’s absurdist gem, “The Metamorphosis.”
“But then they found out that robot theater is actually a very high-tech art form with nonchildish content,” he added with a quiet smile on his face.
Now one of the country’s leading directors and playwrights for more than 20 years, Hirata, 51, was speaking in a studio at Kinosaki International Arts Center by the Sea of Japan in Kinosaki, Hyogo Prefecture. The center, which opened in April and is funded by Toyooka City, of which Kinosaki is part, allows up to 28 people involved in the performing arts to stay there to develop new works and preview them in one of its two theaters.
When this writer visited recently, Hirata and the four French actors he had selected from auditions in Paris in October were in the middle of a monthlong stay at KIAC prior to the Oct. 4 world premiere there of “La Metamorphose version Androide,” his French-language (with Japanese subtitles) take on Kafka’s 1915 novella that he created at the behest of robot-theater fan Robert Lacombe, a former director of the French Institute in Tokyo.
Now artistic director of the Autumn Festival Normandy in northwest France, Lacombe told Hirata he wants to stage the world’s first non-Japanese robot theater there in November.
“The French actors have really enjoyed this situation,” Hirata reported, explaining that “local people often invite us to their festivals and other gatherings, so the actors have had lots of communication with residents — and of course they’ve been having natural hot-spring baths every day.”
Among that quartet chosen from about 200 actors he auditioned, Hirata was clearly delighted that Irene Jacob, who won Best Actress at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival for her lead role in “The Double Life of Veronique,” and her husband, the renowned actor Jerome Kircher, were eager to play the protagonist’s mother and father.
“I was so shocked the first time I saw such a famous film star as Irene washing dishes in the residents kitchen at KIAC,” Hirata said with a big laugh.
Yet in this production, even she will be playing second fiddle to her on-stage son Gregor Samsa, who wakes one morning to find that he’s not taken the form of a mushi (in the original’s Japanese translation, meaning a “worm” or “bug”), but of an android, which his family believes he’s really operating from in hiding. Trapped in the mechanized form, he comes to long for death to free himself from its power.
In the six years since Hirata started working with Hiroshi Ishiguro, the director of an intelligent-robotics laboratory at Osaka University, the pair have staged five original plays featuring different types of robots and androids each time.
Amazingly, too, they have consistently delighted both theater lovers and robotics enthusiasts with dramas that have included a robot gradually becoming humanized and a man losing his humanness as they interact among others in “Hataraku Watashi (I, Worker),” and — in “Sayonara (Goodbye)” — what was essentially a memento mori delivered by a human-looking tele-operated so-called geminoid robot as it reflected on the meaning of life.
So what, I asked him, was Hirata aiming to explore with this latest work?
“As I made more robot-theater plays, I understand more clearly that there is no difference between robots and human beings,” he began, before explaining that “the philosophy of existentialism is that there is no reason governing the meaning of human life, and individuals are free to behave through their acts of will.
“Nowadays, this is becoming a real issue, not just a matter of philosophy, because as people come to coexist with more and more advanced robots they also start to question the meaning of their own existence.
“In this production I have created a near-future situation in a French family at a time when people question whether to go on living after robots have taken over most roles from us.”
In the rehearsal, Hirata tried again and again to perfect the timing of dialogue exchanges between his play’s cast of top-class actors and its debutant android, as they engaged in hot debate about the difference between brain death and patients in a persistent vegetative state. In doing so, he said his approach was “exactly the same” as if he was working with an all-human cast.
As to those who deride what he’s doing as gimmickry, Hirate inquired: “Why do people have no problem accepting puppet theater, such as traditional Japanese bunraku? My robot theater is fundamentally a cutting-edge style of bunraku.
“Furthermore, those puppets are all the same style, but my robots progress technically day by day. So even though I don’t know about the future of robot theater, I know it’s exciting.”
“La Metamorphose version Androide” (in French with Japanese subtitles in Japan) — runs Oct. 4-5 at KIAC, then Oct. 9-13 at Kanagawa Arts Theatre in Yokohama before heading off to Europe, including stagings at Autumn Festival Normandy in France. For details, call 03-3469-9107 or visit www.seinendan.org.