The #MeToo movement has been gaining momentum in Japan over the past year, though its impact on public life hasn’t been anywhere near as strong as in other countries. Still, the efforts of journalists such as Shiori Ito and BuzzFeed’s Keiko Kojima have helped bring social justice issues to new ears in this country.
One domain that has long been a bastion of critical thinking, political dissent and debate in Japan, however, is the arts — particularly the theater. While male creators still dominate the lineups of many film and music festivals here, Kyoto Experiment (KEX), a monthlong theater festival in the Kansai region, has this year curated a program of female artists or, as director Yusuke Hashimoto writes on the event’s website, “artists and groups that identify as female.”
A cynic might look at an all-woman roster and think of it as a gambit to latch onto current political discussions, but Hashimoto, seemingly aware of this fact, says the festival’s theme is simply “a message of support to the women who live in Japanese society today that, no matter how one looks at it, relegates them to a humiliating status.”
KEX will take place at both large and small venues in Kyoto, each with its own history, status and connection to local communities. In addition to the main program, which consists of 13 works by creators from here and abroad, the festival offers a fringe program to support emerging artists, as well as a series of forums to facilitate public debate on the festival’s core themes.
In his program note, which is worth reading before heading into the festival, Hashimoto writes that the broader reason for focusing on women this year is to “question the extent to which sex and gender is not only cultural but also political” and to look at society “through the idea of the woman as the Other.” These themes also touch on the relationship between the individual and the state: “(W)henever the nation-state … takes an interest in the volume and quantity of its population, the body of the nation becomes the object of interventions of power as an interface for controlling that reproduction,” he says.
If you accept that the state is structured along patriarchal lines, and that a festival like KEX takes place inside the state, then one of the central concerns for the theater is how to open spaces that challenge its norms and values. The artists featured in this year’s festival program all grapple in their own ways with this problem.
In “Rehab Training,” South Korean performance artist Geumhyung Jeong creates an intimate relationship with a life-size male doll, the kind used in health care education. Jeong’s choreography with the puppet blurs the lines between the controller and the controlled, as well as the organic and inorganic, producing a complex relationship that thwarts traditional female-male binaries.
Moving from the individual to the group, French choreographer Gisele Vienne, in collaboration with American writer Dennis Cooper, returns to KEX with “Crowd,” a piece in which 15 performers break into an intense dance party, fueled by techno from the 1990s, and forge relationships with one another through ecstatic choreography.
In her three-piece mixed-media installation titled “Embodiment of Water,” Roberta Lima explores water as a metaphor that unsettles traditional attitudes toward women. The piece draws on the Brazilian-born artist’s field work at the Shoutoku Shuzo brewery in Kyoto, where she spent a week shadowing a female head brewer in the production of sake.
Brooklyn-based theater troupe The Wooster Group joins the festival with “The Town Hall Affair,” a retelling of a heated debate on women’s liberation between novelist Norman Mailer, who wrote “The Prisoner of Sex,” and a panel of feminists that included Jacqueline Ceballos, Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston and Diana Trilling that was held at New York’s Town Hall in 1971.
From a debate war to a postwar debate, Argentinian playwright Lola Arias presents her play “Minefield,” performed in English and Spanish, which brings together six characters who fought on opposing sides of the Falklands/Malvinas War. The group question what it means to be a veteran and a survivor of a conflict.
Among the Japanese artists, Chikako Yamashiro’s “And I Go Through You” is a live performance developed from an installation titled “Mud Man,” which combines photography, video and beatboxing to bring to life the testimonies of Okinawan survivors of World War II. Meanwhile, Berlin-based artist Naoko Tanaka returns to KEX with a new production titled “Still Lives” in collaboration with performer and choreographer Yoshie Shibahara. Inspired by the long history of the former imperial villa of Nijo Castle in Kyoto, the duo recast stories from this symbolic in a world of light and shadow.
Playwright Satoko Ichihara will present a double bill comprised of “Favonia’s Fruitless Fable” and “The Question of Faeries.” The former is a play about a female office worker’s quest to buy leather shoes, which is interrupted by a series of strange encounters and the latter is a response to a massacre that took place at a Japanese care home for people with disabilities in 2016.
While conversations of social justice increasingly result in polarization and deadlock, KEX hopes the performances that have been curated for this year’s festival take place in the open-minded, fluid and experimental space that characterizes much of the theatrical tradition.
Kyoto Experiment takes place from Oct. 6 to 28 at various venues in Kyoto. Ticket prices vary according to productions, some festival passes are available with discounts for students. For more information, visit kyoto-ex.jp/2018.