“Probably nobody ever got involved with theater the way I did,” Kenichi Tani said with a laugh, explaining that because his teachers at school were “really boring” he set his sights on becoming an interesting teacher in the future.
“So I often skipped classes to study about education in the library,” the Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, native said, “and I read that trainee teachers in England often have to do drama courses to improve how they communicate with pupils and express themselves.
“After that I joined a drama circle to help me become a great teacher — but instead I got more and more sucked into theater.”
Now aged 32 and a fast-rising playwright and director in Japan’s contemporary theater world, Tani is currently staging a Tokyo production of Ariel Dorfman’s world-renowned masterpiece “Death and the Maiden.”
In an interview last week with The Japan Times, Tani — who leads the Dull-Colored Pop company he founded in 2005 — recalled how, after falling under theater’s spell, he worked hard in his teens to be a professional actor, only to be rejected in auditions. So instead, he entered the drama department at Meiji University in Tokyo, then went to England to study theater in 2004.
“I joined the third year of a drama degree course at the University of Kent and studied the hardest I’ve ever done, often staying in the library all day till it closed at 10 p.m.,” he recalled.
As a reward, Tani was able to add “translator” to his resume when he returned to Japan — winning the prestigious Yushi Odashima Award in 2013 for his translation of U.S. writer Mark St. Germain’s rhetorical two-man play “Freud’s Last Session.”
But more importantly, he said, he had a marvelous life experience in England. “I was so impressed about the theater environment there,” he explained. “People go to the theater on a date, and what’s happening on the stages creates lots of debate in the media.
“One time too, when I went to see ‘Hamlet’ in the West End, by mistake I left the flash on when I took a picture of the theater’s beautiful foyer. Then a big lady came over to me and I thought she was going to tell me off — but because of the flash she’d noticed I was a foreigner, and she wanted to know what I thought about the play.”
After he returned from England, Tani started Dull-Colored Pop and began writing, directing and staging plays with the company. He also threw himself into other work, including creating a script for Belgian choreographer-director Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s recent manga-based Tokyo hit “Pluto,” and translating Harold Pinter’s “Old Times” for a Tokyo production last June. As well, from 2010-13 he was artistic director of the city’s cozy Atelier Shunpusha theater studio.
However, Tani said he now realized that, “In Japan, even drama school students hardly ever read Shakespeare or Chekhov — and I think that’s because of the way they have been translated and presented, which seems too highbrow.
“So I want to make pop theater that directly connects to audiences but isn’t just light entertainment — an aim I tried to reflect in the name of my company.”
Directing “Death and the Maiden” as he is now, Tani has a perfect opportunity to put his ideas into practice. Written by the Argentine-born 72-year-old novelist, playwright and a human-rights activist Ariel Dorfman, the psycho-mystery drama premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1991, was made into a film by Roman Polanski in 1994 and has been staged several times in Japan.
Set in a Latin American state, the work centers around Paulina (played by Yuhi Ozora), a former student activist living with her old comrade Gerardo (Kosuke Toyohara), now a successful lawyer. However, she is still traumatized after being blindfolded and savagely tortured and raped by unknown captors when the country was a dictatorship.
Then one night, Gerardo brings a doctor named Roberto (Morio Kazama) home for a drink after he helped him fix a puncture in his car tire. When she hears the stranger’s voice, Paulina is immediately convinced that, though she never saw his face, Roberto was one of her torturers who used to rape her after putting on Franz Schubert’s string-quartet piece “Death and the Maiden.” And so she starts to exact her revenge.
“All the perpetrators of violence are actually quite ordinary people,” Tani observed, saying that’s what really interests him about the play.
“People tend to think murders and extreme violence are committed by a separate category of people, but that’s not so,” he said. “Anyone could be dangerous and cruel for a variety of reasons, so for instance even if Paulina or Roberto sometimes made bizarre decisions, their actions often stemmed from feelings of love and wanting to protect somebody important to them.”
For Tani, though, success has its price. “Actually, I’ve been feeling that I don’t have time to read as much as I want to,” he admitted before adding somewhat astonishingly: “I’ve never said so before, but I am thinking of moving to England for a while to give myself a break to concentrate on my own creative output.”
Certainly, he will be greatly missed — just as his return will be keenly awaited.
“Death and the Maiden” runs March 19-28 at Theatre Crea, a 3-minute walk from Hibiya Subway Station in Tokyo. For details, call 03-3591-2400 or visit tohostage.com/shitootome.