As a playwright, stage director, Osaka University professor, manager of the Komaba Agora Theater in Tokyo and leader of the city’s Seinendan theater company he formed in 1983, Oriza Hirata — whose “contemporary colloquial theater” set the scene for much of Japan’s new drama over the last 20 years — has long been in the forefront of Japan’s theater world.
Lately, however, he’s also been spreading his wings internationally — and into other realms as well.
That’s because Hirata, 52, has been working since 2008 on what he calls his Robot Theatre Project — assisted in fusing art and technology by Hiroshi Ishiguro, a famed robot developer and fellow professor at Osaka University.
From devices that looked like machines, to ones almost like humans, Ishiguro’s robots have evolved with each iteration as Hirata has cast them in roles which ultimately pose the question: “What is human?”
Now, the current French-language (Japanese subtitled) work “La Metamorphose version Androide” (“The Metamorphosis Android Version”) features a humanoid starring in an adaptation by Hirata of Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella “The Metamorphosis” commissioned by the Automne en Normandie (Autumn Festival Normandy) in France.
In this sixth work in the series — created during a recent residency at the Kinosaki International Arts Center in Hyogo Prefecture — we find Gregor Samsa, Kafka’s central character, being transformed not into a mushi (as in the original Japanese translation, meaning a “worm” or “bug”), but into a lifelike android.
Meanwhile, French stage and screen legend Irene Jacob, 48 — who I last saw in 2000 in London, where she and (“Home Alone”) Macaulay Culkin played the leads in Richard Nelson’s “Madame Melville” (dubbed as “similar but far superior to ‘The Graduate’) — portrayed a mother who must accept her son who has ceased to be human. As her voice and attitude become warmer, the android too seems to come to life.
During the play’s weeklong run at Kanagawa Arts Theatre in Yokohama last month prior to touring in Europe, I asked Jacob about her thoughts on this, her stage debut with an artificial being.
“My favorite line is in the fourth act, when Gregor says, ‘I won’t be able to be sad anymore,’ ” she replied at once, adding: “I encourage him by saying, ‘If you’re afraid of that, it only proves that you’re human.’ I like that because it’s completely contrary to the ordinary world view that we must always pursue happiness, and I think this sense of being afraid to lose the ability to feel sad is valuable.”
Then a kind light shone in her eyes as she added: “Oriza would say, ‘Speak this line as if you are talking to a small child, slowly, and with humor.’ “
As for other advice from Hirata that left an impression, Jacob said, “He’d say, ‘Imagine a situation where the system you always believed in has fallen apart.’
“So, rather than individual characters, I realized it’s the energy that fills the overall space which is important,” Jacob continued. “And as well as the work’s poetic sentiments and mysteries, I came to understand the flow of how a family going through tribulations can begin to form ties.”
Apart from concerns over Gregor, I asked about that family’s other tribulations that might be difficult to express.
“There are a variety of problems the audience can’t see,” the actress noted. “In the background are economic scares, environmental pollution, general strikes and wars. So both inside and outside the home, the family is engulfed in chaos.
“However, you can feel their ‘somehow it will work out’ attitude that’s like the last scene in Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film ‘Modern Times’ (in which, after countless scrapes, Charlie gets his girl — or vice versa — and they trudge off down a lonely road together).”
In a similar vein, I noted that in this play Jacob plays the wife of a character acted by her actual husband, Jerome Kircher — and asked how that felt.
“It was a chance for us to venture into the unknown together,” Jacob replied in a positive tone. ” ‘The Metamorphosis Android Version’ unfolds like a fan, stretching out to become a wonderful play. But it takes a lot of concentration and the tension is always so much that every morning my husband and I told each other, ‘I’m tired.’
“That’s why I’m glad we brought our children with us to Japan. By spending time with our 9- and 12 year-olds, it helps us to get refreshed.”
This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.