Tomohiro Maekawa, the 40-year-old playwright, director and founder of Tokyo’s Ikiume (Buried Alive) theater company, is acclaimed in Japan’s theater world for his groundbreaking sci-fi works sometimes bordering on the surreal.
Usually populated by ordinary people such as salarymen and working mothers of around his own age, Maekawa’s plays have tended to suddenly plunge the characters into situations involving aliens, invisible powers, dreadful new viruses or other versions of themselves that engulf them in self-doubt as they search for explanations.
However, what’s really special about them is that changes in awareness don’t just happen to characters on the stage, but also to audiences as Maekawa lures them into questioning with more opened minds how they think about themselves and others.
In recent years, though, the dramatist has shifted his emphasis appreciably from employing strangeness to reveal issues of personal identity to a similar approach that bravely and cleverly confronts audiences with political and social issues normally hidden — and deliberately kept hidden — from people’s everyday reality.
That this shift has occurred since Maekawa returned in 2010 from a monthlong International Residency Workshop for young playwrights at the Royal Court Theatre in London is likely no coincidence. At that revered institution he would certainly have been encouraged to take a global outlook — including a much more objective view of Japan — to equip him for the international theater market.
Following that sojourn, with his current work “Atarashii Shukujitsu” (“New Holiday”), Maekawa presents — in place of chimeral strangeness — a brilliant caricature of Japan aimed at opening his audiences’ eyes to some core reasons for its dire and chronic stagnation.
Hence we are introduced to a middle-aged, middle-management man named Panichi (Shinya Hamada) who is alone doing overtime as usual in his office. As he sits there sighing in that key space in his life — which is created from symbolically flimsy carton boxes — a jester (Junpei Yasui) suddenly appears and suggests they review his life together.
What follows are scenes in which the dutiful worker recalls episodes such as the time he learned how to act smartly at school to be selected as a team captain, and another when he kept a complaint to himself to avoid being branded a black sheep — which led to someone else being singled out for bullying as the group indulged in a form of collective bonding.
However, thanks to the voice of his alter-ego heard through the jester’s comments on these episodes, Panichi realizes he was conditioned to feel comfortable in a society where the proverbial nail that stands up is ruthlessly hammered down for fear it might disturb group harmony or the status quo — no matter how valid a suggestion or objection may have been expressed.
Then when his life’s review arrives in present time, Panichi kicks his desk and the rest of his hallowed office to bits having concluded from his quasi out-of-body experience that that is the only way to challenge the system and reclaim his own life.
So here — without bizarre sci-fi devices — Maekawa again conveys to the audience a sense of illuminating strangeness, this time by simply portraying the humdrum life story of one of millions of anonymous Japanese men whose tutored timidity accounts for so many of the country’s woes and its widespread systemic inefficiencies.
It may be short and simple, but “Atarashii Shukujitsu” surely cuts to the quick of this failed harmonious culture.
“Atarashii Shukujitsu” runs till Dec. 14 at Theater East, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Theatre in Ikebukuro and Dec. 19-21 at ABC Hall in Osaka. For details, call 03-3715-0940 or visit www.ikiume.jp.