Tokyo may be Japan’s performing-arts hub, but a growing number of artists are swapping the strictures of its cultural marketplace for the creative and lifestyle benefits of life outside the capital.
For the Osaka-based Ishinha theater company, however, there’s nothing new about that. In fact, since it was founded in 1970 by Yukichi Matsumoto, Ishinha — which loosely translates as “revolutionary or radical change” — has been creating site-specific performances that explore the intersections of urban and rural life and challenge the foundations of theater, art and shared experience.
While Ishinha only produces a few works each year, its large, immersive creations continue to draw new audiences curious to explore spaces transformed through its theater. For instance, its new work, “Twilight,” draws on themes of maps, journeys and idiomatic speech — hot topics in a world witnessing mass movements of people.
Sited in Soni, a village nestled deep in the Nara Prefecture countryside an hour by train from Osaka, this project’s “stage” is a floodlit sports field surrounded by the peculiar shapes of ancient volcanic mountains.
Recently, the authors met Matsumoto in his Osaka office to ask about the motivation behind this new project.
Why did you choose to work in the village of Soni?
We were looking at maps of the area and decided to go and explore that space. What we found was an intriguing place nestled in a mountain range, with breathtakingly beautiful night skies and dramatic shifts in landscape from around 6 p.m. onward. I immediately thought it would be easy to create a fictional story around this twilight time — hence the title of the performance.
What is the allure of maps for you?
Maps are always key to Ishinha’s productions. In the past we’ve looked at the idea of a “sea road,” tracing the ancestral roots of Japanese people and their migratory paths through Okinawa, Taiwan, the Philippines and other Asian islands. In “Twilight,” I want to layer together various types of maps, not only geographic ones, but also historical and political ones — and to do so in a playful way.
One of the narrative strands in “Twilight” concerns a group of schoolboys, so we play with school maps, the position of classrooms, toilets, the gymnasium and that eerie spot behind it. We’re also thinking about local maps, including an eighth-century historical map of Nara, through which we’re able to connect with the eighth-century “Manyoshu” (“A Collection of 10,000 Leaves”), Japan’s oldest known poetry compilation.
We’re interested in how these historical sites and figures converge with modern maps and places.
Besides maps, doesn’t “Twilight ” draw on idiomatic speech?
Yes. Another focal point is bad language or slang, such as the well-known Japanese derogatory expression, “your mum has a huge bellybutton.” This is completely nonpoetic language, and I want to see how we can integrate it in such a huge open space.
One of the things we noticed straight away was the site’s acoustic potential. In other performances, Ishinha actors often use wireless microphones for projection, but here they might not need them because the sound is so clear and creates echoes off the nearby mountains.
What has motivated you to create works outdoors over the past 45 years?
The idea of outdoor theater is not simply a matter of building a theater outdoors, it is also about standing outside.
I, myself, want to travel and discover new things. More than working with what I already have, I want to work with what I don’t yet know. One of the reasons we do outdoor performances is because the stories originate from the locations, rather than from classical texts like Shakespeare.
In the case of Soni, we found it inspires things we don’t have or awakens things dormant in us. For example, I usually have a good sense of direction — but there I became completely disoriented, I was lost. As a reaction to that I wanted to work with maps.
Being lost triggered a feeling of uneasiness and excitement, and I think this is part of the essence of working outside.
“Twilight” runs Sept. 19-27 at Soni Village Sports Ground in Nara Prefecture. For details, visit www.ishinha.com.