Yu Shibuya, a rising writer/director for both the big screen and theater, believes in the redemptive power of narrative: “We don’t really have to be reminded that humans are weak, or that we have the ability to commit violence,” he told The Japan Times in a recent interview. “There’s a place for that in storytelling, but not for me. I want to present what humans are capable of becoming.”
Although his award-winning short films have screened around the world, Shibuya, 35, says his first love is the stage — and it’s a love he’ll be sharing this month when his third play, “The Three Sisters of the Kunitomi Family,” opens in Tokyo. With a cast of 10, the play — which seamlessly interweaves flashbacks — focuses on the sisters’ relationships over a 10-year span.
With this work, Shibuya said he set out to explore shifting values over time against the backdrop of a family drama — and to consider what it is “to see and be seen” in the tangled and often tearful hilarity of sisterly relationships.
As he explained, “A line of dialogue, or an exit, triggers something — then suddenly the scene shifts to the past. It is a technical challenge trying to bring in something similar to film, but which you can only do in the theater.”
Although he said he “started out in the theater, and film was just an accident,” Shibuya was in fact introduced to the dramatic arts as a student at the Tokyo-based Christian Academy, from where he went to the University of Redlands in California to study acting and directing.
“I liked the nervousness of theater work, the preparation; the unity that is necessary for any production,” he said. “I even liked how theater disappears when it’s over — it kind of resonates with the Japanese sentiment of liking something that vanishes quickly, such as fireworks or cherry blossoms. Theater has that same attraction for me.”
However, Shibuya soon realized that “excellence in acting is the art of telling someone else’s story but not my own story.” Hence, as he explained, “I switched over to writing because in acting someone else is controlling the content, whereas in writing, you are creating the content.”
After a first degree at Redlands, he moved across the country to Indiana, where he earned a master’s in poetry from Purdue University before returning to Japan and starting a blog in Japanese — “to improve my Japanese written skills.”
Due to his bilingual, creative-writing background, Shibuya was then asked to edit a film script. The successful outcome of that led to other work, and then he began making short films. Nowadays, he writes in both English and Japanese, choosing which one as the story demands.
For “The Three Sisters,” he worked entirely in Japanese. Yet the most important challenge he faced was not with the language but the actors, he said.
“Good acting starts with the internal motivations. Sometimes it is hard for me to communicate — a lot of times when great acting happens, the actor isn’t even aware it was good, because he or she was so focused on what the character wanted in the scene. That usually means the actor was not aware of what they were doing externally.”
This work — whose titular leads are Hyunri, a Korean who grew up in Japan; Yuki Morizane, a singer who started out in musicals; and You Hasegawa, who also stars in Shibuya’s next short film, “The Apology,” which tells the inspiring story of an apology that takes 100 years to deliver — promises more of Shibuya’s trademark “redemptive” story-telling.
“Working as an independent and producing my own work, I can keep a creative integrity,” the writer/director believes. “In this play, I wanted to present hope. But hope can be fickle, it can be something that turns people away, too — so it has to be given in a manageable dose.
“It’s the difference between presenting hope that is blinding to your eyes, or presenting hope as a firefly, glittering faintly.”
“The Three Sisters of the Kunitomi Family” runs Nov. 11-16 at Theater Green in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. For details, visit www.bokuyoken.com.