The year now ending began gloomily with the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris reminding us of hopeless breakdowns in mutual understanding and tolerance worldwide; now it’s set to close hot on the heels of an agreement by nearly 200 countries at the COP21 talks in Paris on the need to counter threatened apocalyptic levels of climate change due to global warming.
It is not really surprising that such events were frequently reflected in the last year’s contemporary-theater programs in Japan. However, it’s a source of great joy that they brought forth several unforgettable plays whose common denominator was their relevance to the world in which we find ourselves — and their commitment to raising their audiences’ awareness of what pivotal times these appear to be.
So as the year began, many of Japan’s theater lovers were astonished how the renowned Belgian choreographer and dancer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui injected astonishing new life — and timeliness — into his “Pluto,” based on a manga of the same name by Naoki Urasawa and Takashi Nagasaki that was itself a spinoff from Osamu Tezuka’s epic “Astro Boy.”
In his courageous visualization of Astro Boy as a perfectly child-like android, and his evil rival, “Pluto,” Cherkaoui’s imaginative genius shone brightly in this, his debut directing a full-length play — and one he created in Japanese with Japanese actors, based on a script by Kenichi Tani.
A self-declared lifelong manga fan, the 39-year-old Belgian master brilliantly conveyed that medium’s speedy excitement through his actors’ dancing and mesmeric acting as robots. As well, the effects he created — such as by projecting original manga drawings of the onstage action onto huge white panels — blurred the audience’s perceptions of what was 2-D or 3-D.
In capturing so completely the essence of his subject, Cherkaoui not only portrayed clashes of good and evil seeming to mirror human nature, but also reflected concerns recently voiced by Stephen Hawking and others about the looming power of AI (artificial intelligence), and how humans and nonhumans will soon be sharing this planet.
In contrast, as sublimely executed as that futuristic “Pluto” may have been, hot-ticket director Hitoshi Uyama’s staging of “Troilus and Cressida” was a startlingly blunt reminder of humans’ longstanding brutish embrace of tit-for-tat violence.
Set during the Trojan Wars of Greek mythology, Shakespeare’s verse-drama portrays leaders bending values and ethics to serve their own ends, while young warriors and civilians pay for that perfidy with their lives.
However, thanks to Uyama’s breadth of theatrical force and lambent and edgy direction — with some of his splendid cast dressed as punks — there was no escaping how awfully contemporary this work remains.
Meanwhile, despite audience numbers falling prey to economic misery — and some producers casting unsuitable idols to ensure high seat-occupancy rates — this last, artistically fine year, also featured memorable works from Yukio Ninagawa and Peter Brook. Like many of 2015’s other standout productions, the latest plays from these global titans spoke directly to today’s world.
For his part, the 80-year-old Japanese dramatist wonderfully wrought a chillingly pertinent “Richard II,” while the longtime French-based Brit 10 years his senior memorably revisited past glories with “Battlefield,” his new take on an ancient Hindu narrative poem.
Using actors from the two troupes of amateurs and semi-professionals he’s nurtured as artistic director of Saitama Arts Theater, Ninagawa had members of its Gold Theater for seniors perform in wheelchairs while the bulk of the cast was drawn from the ranks of its Next Theater for young people.
In this tale of a king drunk on his own title and vitality, surrounded by sycophants and swamped by self-indulgence, the contrasting casting served brilliantly to render some universal truths about the blind arrogance of power, whether in young or old.
While Ninagawa erred toward metaphorical allusions, Brook simply and straightforwardly made a statement about war through his new creation drawn from the “Mahabharata,” which he staged in a legendary nine-hour production 30 years ago.
This time, with musical accompaniment by his longtime artistic partner Toshi Tsuchitori on African drums, Brook extracted the original’s essence for his 70-minute “Battlefield.” Though the play was performed on his signature “empty stage,” with just four actors and the musician, it chillingly conjured up the spectre of the untold millions of dead claimed in history’s endless warfare.
Then when the triumphant king declares “Victory is a defeat,” those words from thousands of years ago offered a searingly clear lens through which to view the current world situation — whatever its transient leaders would have us think.
Moving fast forward to Tokyo’s arty Shimokitazawa district, though, and the acclaimed Keralino Sandorovich is now there leading his Nylon 100ºC troupe in a monthlong restaging of his 2004 masterpiece “Sho-shitsu” (The Disappearance”), which is playing to near-full houses at the Honda Theater.
Set after an all-consuming war, this portrays a few survivors living together alongside androids made to resemble lost friends and family, with an artificial moon above to which many had emigrated to escape chaos on Earth. Now, though, with Earth in ruins and no supplies reaching them, those escapees are as doomed as if they’d never left.
For Sandorovich, such self-inflicted human bathos is fertile ground for this desperately vivid black comedy that’s interestingly being played out this time by the same cast of six as 11 years ago. As they perform this sparkling drama, those actors’ mature acting and excellent teamwork only adds to the tension to create what is now a magical gem — and one whose darkness is considerably if absurdly lightened by its theme music: The Turtles’ 1967 hit, “Happy Together.”
Speaking of that song’s title, a pleasing feature of Japan’s contemporary theater world is the number of collaborations between South Korean and Japanese artists.
For Sung Ki-woong, playwright founder of the 12th Tongue Theatre Studio in Seoul, and Junnosuke Tada, a director of the Saitama-based Tokyo Deathlock company, “Karumegi” — their breathtaking 2014 masterwork based on Anton Chekhov’s acerbic 1896 play “The Seagull” — was always going to be a very hard act to follow.
Yet this year they pulled it off in spades with a jointly created new work based on Shakespeare’s final play, “The Tempest,” and titled “Taifu Kitan” (meaning “typhoon tale”).
In this cutting-edge piece about the ossified tensions between their two countries, however, they changed the Bard’s ending which saw a peaceful settlement of various disputes on the island where the storm’s shipwrecked survivors had found themselves.
Instead, in “Taifu Kitan” tensions escalate and the hero, Prospero (a former king of Korea), is killed by a Japanese soldier because, as Sung recently told this writer, “I didn’t just want to present an easy settlement and simple resolution, though of course I hope and believe that will happen one day.”
So, by the time “Taifu Kitan” comes to a close, Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, is living with the indigenous islander, Caliban, and former servants from Korea and Japan who are overcoming differences of nationality, class, language and history, and helping each other.
In addition to this, in 2015 Sung was involved in another terrific South Korea-Japan collaboration work, “King of the Road 2002,” his rewriting with Oriza Hirata of Hirata’s masterpiece, “King of the Road 1980,” which depicted everyday life in the dormitory of a backpackers’ hotel in Istanbul, Turkey.
In their new work, the pair revisit the same hotel 22 years later, by which time Japanese wanderers have become far more attuned to international social conditions and engage with their South Korean counterparts in many lively exchanges of opinion. Furthermore, by arranging for both plays to be performed on the same day, on at worst on alternate days, they encouraged audiences to see how conditions in the world changed and how malleable people’s thinking can be. It was a great plan.
Finally, to conclude this 2015 roundup, I’d like to pick out “Blue Sheet” (“Blue Tarp”) as the best work staged this year.
In fact this semi-documentary drama written and directed by Norimizu Ameya had already been performed twice in the grounds of Iwaki Integrated High School in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, in 2013 — earning Ameya the highly prestigious 2014 Kishida Kunio Drama Award for a new play.
This year, Ameya’s powerful work about school life in the wake — and the shadow — of 2011’s ongoing nuclear catastrophe, gained a long-awaited wider showing when it was commendably selected as the main program of Festival/Tokyo, the country’s biggest theater event.
Performed in the open in a Tokyo school’s grounds by students and graduates of the Iwaki school, this deeply moving piece transported audiences into a classroom where the young actors in high school uniforms chatted and had fun like any other teenagers.
Sometimes, though — as when all the blue tarps covering vast mounds and expanses of irradiated soil around where they live crop up — inconvenient truths leapt out to make those watching look again at the fresh-faced actors and wonder just what the future holds for them — and indeed, Japan.
Like so many fine works staged in 2015, this was an unforgettable theater experience that so clearly spoke to the now as it, too, reaffirmed the unique and wonderful power of live performance.
“The Disappearance” runs till Dec. 27 at the Honda Theater in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo. For details, call 03-5485-2252 or visit www.cubuinc.co.jp.