“If I were a man doing the same work, no one would make any special mention of my gender, but I find I’m always being referred to by the media as ‘the female director, Junko Emoto.’ I don’t want to say that’s right or wrong, but it reminds me that this is today’s reality,” the Tokyo-based artist said during our recent conversation about her upcoming contribution to the Owl Spot Shakespeare Festival.
“I could overlook this and other such things and continue to create theater,” Emoto claimed, “but I have no intention of doing so — even though lots of dramatists and people in general seem to find it easier to ignore awkward issues to avoid stirring up any controversy or conflicts among those around them.
“But if people close their eyes to small troubles, and are frightened of disturbing the harmony or rocking the boat, then they will gradually accept almost anything — including things causing problems in our society and the reasons for them.”
A director, playwright and actress, Emoto, 35, founded her Tokyo-based company Kegawazoku (which translates as Tribe of Furs) in 2000, when she was at the capital’s Rikkyo University. In Japan’s male-dominated theater world, the troupe soon made its name with light-hearted revues featuring near-naked actresses, then went on to build a strong following for its full-on energetic and erotic stagings.
Looking back, Emoto said, “I’d never been to a theater until I founded my company with my friends, so I started with no knowledge or experience. Really, I just wanted to write something to address the existing values in this country, which everybody blindly accepts as they go about their busy daily lives.
“I wanted to expose the way many fixed ideas had unconsciously permeated even my own thinking through being unquestioned values in our supposedly mature society.
“I’ve always tried to smash old values and carve out a new path along which to move forward — I suppose that is my nature. That’s the thing I wanted to do through theater.”
Having found that the stage offered freedoms not readily accessible elsewhere, Emoto has never let the nationwide renown Kegawazoku has garnered dull her reformist zeal. So rather than rest on her laurels, she said she always aims to move on from each previous work to explore new possibilities for theater.
As a result, in 2009 she started Zaidan Emoto Junko (which translates as the Junko Emoto Foundation), where she tries out experimental pieces, mainly at very small theaters with actors from outside Kegawazoku.
This time however, the Owl Spot festival sees Emoto making her Shakespeare debut with an adaptation of “The Taming of the Shrew” that she wrote and directs for the theater in Ikebukuro, Tokyo.
An early comedy, this notoriously sexist work from 1590-92 is built around the story of Baptista Minola (played by Takamasa Tamaki), a wealthy old man in Padua, Italy, and his two daughters Katherine (Miyuki Torii) and Bianca (Michie Kakimaru) for whom he is seeking husbands.
When word gets out these young women are on the marriage market, young blades are soon lining up to seek the hand of beautiful Bianca — but Baptista won’t let any of them woo her until the older, less “feminine” sister, Katherine, is betrothed.
Unfortunately, nobody wants to marry strong-willed Katherine, who men have branded a “shrew.” That is until an ambitious young chap named Petruchio (Tokio Emoto) arrives from Verona and proposes to her just to get her considerable dowry.
Though everybody thinks their marriage would be a disaster, it seems Petruchio “tames” Katherine and she is happy with him. However, dramatists have interpreted this relationship in many ways, from them falling in love to it being a sham behind which they continue their lives as before — to it being a harmony arrived at through a shared penchant for S&M.
As to her take on the play, Emoto laughed as she said, “Every day, I strive to tame these actors with minds of their own about this work, but at last I have made it as a straight funny play. Now, I am concentrating on adding each character’s scheming and detailing the links between them — as they’re really all self-interested ‘shrews.’
“I think this is a complicated drama about human relationships, involving people’s quests for love and their financial greed — not a simple love comedy. But thanks to Shakespeare, I can play around with his firm framework and rework it in my own ways — yet it still remains his work at the core.
“For example, I changed the dialogue into colloquial speech and let Torii play Katherine in a straight manner, not as an eccentric so-called shrew.
“But why was Katherine called a shrew? That’s my first question.
“So I want to put doubt into people’s minds about that label and make them think about what it really means.
“In so doing, I want people to realize it was men who gave her that label based on their conventional, unquestioning ideas — and all the troubles in the play happen due to men’s prejudice.
“As a woman, in fact, this is a distressing comic play.”