Students and stage fans will see whether a hastily arranged series of performances of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera” this weekend can break a decades-long standoff over the closure of Japan’s oldest student dormitory: the wooden Yoshida ryō (Yoshida Dormitory) at Kyoto University.
The Japanese-style building that has been run by the 170-plus residents of its single, shared and communal tatami-mat rooms since it opened in 1913, has been under threat since the 1970s. Yet even with student activism in the air back then, it survived as lots of other self-governing dormitories were demolished for fear they may foster anti-establishment communities.
In 1986, a deadline to leave the building was simply ignored, and residents have since been astutely changing the rules in line with the authorities’ requirements — accepting female students in 1985, and foreign students in 1990. So when a closure notice declared that the dormitory had to be vacated by Sept. 30, 2018, most thought it was just another bump in the road — and indeed the date passed with little fuss.
However, for Kinya Kobayashi, 38, the actor who organized the upcoming take on Brecht’s 1928 “play with music” that offers a socialist critique of capitalism, alarm bells went off. This time, he felt, there was something different that may really signal the impending end of the dormitory where he himself stayed from 1999 to 2008 while studying biology.
Elaborating on those fears recently in Yoshida Dormitory’s large dining-kitchen room, where the play will be performed, Kobayashi says, “This time the university offered residents very generous financial support to help them get places outside. Consequently, many people left and only around 100 now remain.”
Part of the dormitory’s appeal is its ¥2,500 monthly rent (including utilities and the student association fee). The building is, however, plainly showing its age and men and women must share cozy rooms, small kitchen stoves, toilets and showers. So the money offered actually enabled many students to move out and start living independently with modern facilities for the first time.
“I was so upset seeing how the community had been divided due to the power of money,” says Kobayashi, lamenting the exodus. “So I wanted to stand up against such inducements by the authorities.”
As a result, he wrote “Now,” a comedy play about “the now and then of Yoshida Dormitory” that he staged in the dining-kitchen room in October 2018. In the audience was 36-year-old playwright, director and actor Takashi Masuyama, who later participated as a guest performer.
Joining our conversation in Yoshida Dormitory, Masuyama says, “I didn’t know much about the dormitory situation before, but I came to see the play and realized the issue is not as simple as fears about the dilapidated building, as cited by the university authorities, versus a nostalgic feeling from the students.
“In fact, the authorities are also trying to empty a new residence for 100-odd students that was built next door to it in 2015. And they’ve ignored many long-standing requests by the students to repair the old building themselves.”
They both say they feel the authorities’ real aim is to demolish the buildings to kill off the students’ community — with Kobayashi pointing out, “They’ve never discussed any future plans for the Yoshida Dormitory and never suggested rebuilding, even though they raised its deterioration as the main reason (for its demolition).”
To this, Masuyama — who heads the globe-trotting Kodomo Kyojin (Giant Child) theater company he founded in Osaka, but which is now Tokyo-based — adds, “I didn’t know that events such as concerts, lectures or performances were held regularly there. When I saw Kobayashi’s play I simply felt as a dramatist that I didn’t want to lose this unique and charming performance space and I was compelled to act there myself.”
Masuyama says that venue, where Kodomo Kyojin will present Brecht’s play along with live musicians, reminded him of his company’s European tours about 10 years ago with some Belgian musician friends who had been neighbors in Osaka. Then, he recalls, they held around 30 guerilla-style performances in non-theater places such as cinemas, old factories and private house parties.
“We did three European tours with the Belgian musicians and also did Japan tours with them, so experimental non-theater performances are one of Kodomo Kyojin’s strong points.”
Masuyama, who was born into a Korean-Japanese family in Osaka, said his first experience of performing goes back to his childhood. He remembers Korean-style events called jesa at which relatives gathered, prepared lots of different foods and welcomed the spiritual presence of an ancestor and acted as if the spirit was at the table.
“The memorial aims to mourn the dead person, but it unites the living family members as well. I imagine that theater was also originally dedicated to the gods, as in ancient Greece, but it also worked as a device to unite the people who saw the play. I hope ‘The Threepenny Opera’ will work in that way this time,” Masuyama says.
“I instantly had an idea to do this Brecht play which has an anti-establishment message delivered with sarcastic flair. Its great songs by Kurt Weill, such as ‘Mack the Knife,’ also give it a feeling of festivity, so that’s perfect for this event to attract a curious crowd.”
Audiences at Yoshida Dormitory will be treated to most of the original’s 15 songs, with vocalists drawn from people who have previously performed at the dormitory. Masuyama and Kobayashi also held open auditions for important smaller roles such as prostitutes and policemen, while both current residents and outsiders from the locality will be taking part in the stagings as well.
Since there are only three performances in total, most tickets have been sold, but stand-by tickets will be available and anyone is welcome to visit the dormitory, enjoy the food and drink stalls and chat with the performers and Yoshida Dormitory residents.
As to that decades-long standoff, though, it maybe wise to remember a famous quote attributed to Brecht: “Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.”