Stage

Theater for all as Tokyo festivals cast a wide net

by Nobuko Tanaka

Contributing Writer

Since 2009, when Festival/Tokyo was created by a raft of public agencies to enhance the city’s bid for the 2016 or 2020 Olympics, its role as Japan’s biggest annual contemporary theater, dance and performance event has changed greatly — in particular when those agencies altered course in 2016 by also launching the confusingly named Tokyo Festival.

Billed as a way of spreading performing arts to and from Japan and overseas, the new event’s remit spans a wide range from traditional Japanese specialties to international programs, Asian and Asian-collaboration works — as well as Festival/Tokyo itself. Hence, with both events running at a similar time each year, the onus has since been on Festival/Tokyo to define itself anew.

In July, Festival/Tokyo’s artistic director, Kaku Nagashima, declared that this year’s iteration will aim to present radical new perspectives that redefine both “Tokyo” and “the festival itself.” In particular, he has sought to get his audience of largely Tokyo-area residents to regard the city’s reality in fresh new ways as they experience the thrill of live theater in various guises.

As a result, besides featuring seven conventional theater and dance performances from Japan and abroad, and a documentary film, Festival/Tokyo 2019 — running from Oct. 5 to Nov. 10 in and around Ikebukuro — will also include public talks and lectures and four street performances.

Among the latter, Festival/Tokyo’s opening event, created by Sceno-ha (Scenographers’ Collective) and titled “Roaming Shopping Street Festival,” is set to enliven Ikebukuro and the adjoining Otsuka area for two days with performances divided into two parts.

First, following research in three different shōtengai (shopping streets), three creators and set designers will present different carts, cars or other forms of transport tailored to each locale. Then on Oct. 5 and 6, as the eye-catching creations are paraded to the square in front of JR Otsuka Station, people from each area will be encouraged to come together for an unspecified performance in which they will be invited to get involved.

One of the scenographers, Ayami Sasaki, says that after staying in Otsuka she realized many different nationalities live there, respecting each other’s culture but segregated by their own choice. To reflect this melting-pot, she has created an entrance gate with multilingual signs.

“I hope people who have never seen theater before, or haven’t for ages, will remember the feeling of gathering together through this event and love the unique excitement theater of all kinds can give,” she says.

Similarly, the leader of Sceno-ha, Itaru Sugiyama, says he is looking to create something like a chemical reaction to bring new life to today’s shopping streets through artistic, not financial, support.

“Many arts festivals in Japan have worked so well to revitalize rural areas,” he says. “When I thought about a festival for Tokyo, I realized a nice aspect of the city is that it is like a huge tract of Asian countryside where everyone lives in small units, largely closed-off from others and the world — unlike cosmopolitan places like London, Paris, New York or even Taipei.

“I wanted to show off one of Tokyo’s special attractions, its local shōtengai that are like miniatures of today’s urban society you’d never find in those places.”

Meanwhile, in another of Festival/Tokyo’s free performances, the architect and theater set designer Rick Yamakawa and Manila-based performance artist and story-teller J.K. Anicoche will collaborate to present walking-tour events, titled “Sand (a)isles,” in four areas near JR Ikebukuro Station.

In these events, designed to bring people closer to each other and their everyday surroundings, a leader pulling a cart of sand will take groups of five to 10 people around a planned course while telling stories about the area and finding out, with them, what reaction their sand produces in people they meet. Then the members will stop and talk about their experiences.

“I did research for this in Manila, Vientiane and Kuala Lumpur, trying to discover what sets Tokyo apart,” Yamakawa says. “In those other cities I found people often gather together in places such as an air-conditioned shopping mall or a town square, whereas people in Tokyo have forgotten how to take time out from their hectic lives. So we offer this unusual circumstance to stop and see familiar streets from different angles.”

However, Festival/Tokyo isn’t alone in seeking out new perspectives, as Tokyo Festival, running through Nov. 23, reflects a similar sensibility.

Its headline international lineup features a Russian sign-language version (with Japanese subtitles) of Anton Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters.” Staged by the 34-year-old dramatist Timofey Kulyabin’s Red Torch Theatre company, the work aims to wordlessly convey new understandings of this famed tale of family disaster.

There is also “Blind” by Brazilian-Dutch puppeteer and dancer Duda Paiva, a powerful piece founded on his experience of temporarily losing his sight in childhood. Then, filling out the roster from overseas is German director Thomas Ostermeier’s 2018 production of “History of Violence,” young French writer Edouard Louis’ autobiographical story addressing racism, homophobia and power structures in society.

Along with these, the Tokyo Festival World Competition 2019 — a new category this year — broadens the event’s horizons even further. Under this banner, selected works from China, Australia, Spain, Burkina Faso, Chile and Japan will be staged, with the one judged best being invited to return next year.

Like Festival/Tokyo, Tokyo Festival also has community-based programs.

In a “one-coin” (¥500) open-air production running Oct. 19 to 29, the playwright, director and actor Seiji Nozoe will present his take on author Natsume Soseki’s serialized 1905-06 masterpiece, “I Am a Cat,” a satirical observation of ordinary people’s lives as Westernization was creeping into Japanese society.

“We will put bench seats in the area next to Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in Ikebukuro and perform this drama with an almost 80-strong cast chosen exclusively through open auditions,” 44-year-old Nozoe says. “We had planned to do it with about 20 actors, but when I met the 500-plus candidates who turned up, there were so many interesting people that it just grew.”

With his cast ranging from teenagers to people aged 70-plus, and a mix of novice and veteran actors, he says his thinking was simply to offer more opportunities for ordinary people to meet up and create a work of drama together.

“Our performances will be in the middle of the din and bustle of Ikebukuro at night, but I hope to use those conditions for great dramatic effect,” he says.

Also sure to cause a stir is Ryohei Kondo, leader of the world-famous Condors dance company, who is involved in the spirit of the festival as director and choreographer of another citizen-participation production.

Titled “Bridges to Babylon,” this features many of Condors’ own dancers — along with some 180 non-professionals.

“Though we expected dozens of participants, it soon became 100 and now it’s many more,” Kondo says. “Basically, we didn’t reject anyone who wanted to dance with us.”

“Bridges to Babylon” will be the opening program at Tokyo Tatemono Brillia Hall, a new public theater in Ikebukuro.

“Thanks to such facilities, and the festivals’ influence, I hope many more people will be exposed to the performing arts and get involved if they want,” Kondo says.

Tokyo Festival runs through Nov. 23 and Festival/Tokyo 2019 runs from Oct. 5 to Nov. 10, mainly at venues around Ikebukuro in Toshima Ward. For details, visit www.tokyo-festival.jp or www.festival-tokyo.jp.

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