Stage

Capitalizing on the pull of experimental Japanese theater

by Nobuko Tanaka

Contributing Writer

Shuntaro Matsubara’s first contact with live theater was in 2014, when he saw a production of German dramatist Bertolt Brecht’s 1930 play “Fatzer” (aka “Downfall of the Egotist Johann Fatzer”) at the Kyoto studio of renowned director Motoi Miura and his avant-garde Chiten company.

Only 26 years old at the time, and a little-known author of several novels, Matsubara was impressed enough to join a drama circle run by Miura and, before long, the pair began to develop a creative partnership together.

The first fruit of Matsubara’s new inspiration arrived shortly after. In 2015, his debut work as a playwright — a piece titled “Michiyuki” (“Travel Scene”) that alluded to the March 2011 disasters in northeastern Japan — unexpectedly won the coveted annual Aichi Arts Foundation Drama Award for new scripts that has been a springboard for many young playwrights’ careers.

For his prize, the foundation invited Matsubara to present his play in Nagoya — which he did, with Miura as its director.

Following that, Miura asked Matsubara to write a piece for his Chiten company to stage at Kanagawa Arts Theatre (KAAT), an influential public venue in Yokohama.

The result was “Wasureru Nihonjin” (“The Japanese, Who Forget”), a powerful critique of many Japanese people’s tendency to act and think as directed by those in authority.

Then, continuing their collaboration, Matsubara and Miura worked with Chiten’s actors, to stage the newcomer’s “Yamayama” (which translates as “Mountains”) at KAAT in June 2018 — subsequently winning the Kishida Kunio Drama Award for 2019.

While many theatergoers have welcomed Matsubara’s arrival, critics and drama professionals have also been impressed by his unique approach. Perhaps best described as a non-narrative postmodern style lacking in any overall storyline, his work features unrelated characters making provocative statements that often relate to Japanese social and political current affairs, with lines such as, “Our time shorted out like electric wires in the Showa Era.”

Many observers, though, have questioned whether Matsubara could be as successful with any other director besides Miura, who has rendered his typically long and winding passages into consistently appetizing fare.

Now, that question is about to be answered, as the leading stage and TV actor, Tomohiko Imai, becomes the only other dramatist to direct a play by Matsubara — his latest work, “Memorial.”

Added to that step into the unknown, and far from the avant-garde environs of Chiten, “Memorial” will be staged by the mainstream Bungakuza Atelier theater in Tokyo — Imai’s home base, which dates from 1937 and is one of Japan’s best-known arts institutions.

“I saw ‘Wasureru Nihonjin’ at KAAT about two years ago, and though I wouldn’t say I understood it clearly, I recognized great possibilities in such obscurity,” Imai says about his first contact with Matsubara’s world.

“I read the original text and found it was very different from Chiten’s version adapted for the stage. And actually, I was shocked afresh by how great Matsubara’s writing was,” he says. “At the Bungakuza we normally don’t change text from the original, so I was immediately excited to imagine what ‘Memorial’ would be like if we staged it in our style.”

New vision: Stage director Tomohiko Imai says staging a play like 'Memorial' is a balancing act between keeping older, loyal viewers happy and stimulating them with something new | NOBUKO TANAKA
New vision: Stage director Tomohiko Imai says staging a play like ‘Memorial’ is a balancing act between keeping older, loyal viewers happy and stimulating them with something new | NOBUKO TANAKA

Although Imai, 52, has appeared in almost 100 plays, “Memorial” is only his eighth venture into directing. Hence it is hardly surprising when he says a big part of what attracted him to this play was that, as an actor, he was curious how best to deliver Matsubara’s “nonauthentic drama.”

“There just aren’t any clues or stage instructions about how to portray the characters — and these are vital parts of any script for conventional plays,” Imai says. “Consequently, I believe the actors are key to presenting the playwright’s world. It will be important that they say the words properly to convincingly express his complicated but heartfelt lines strongly, whether they’re based on reality or not.”

Imai says he is up for the challenge of handling the actors and their often open-ended dialogue.

“Of course, I oversee the performance, including the music and visuals,” he says, “but the crucial point will be how I, as director, work with the actors to bring the play to life in our dramatization on stage.”

In “Memorial,” which has no back stories explaining why anything happens, Matsubara uses a conversational style of dialogue among people who meet each other unexpectedly. Many actors also play multiple roles as characters from different backgrounds.

Whoever they are, though, and however they meet, the characters soon start sharing their daily problems and difficulties, sometimes also expressing bitter ironies, through lines such as, “You would kill people if America ordered you to do so, wouldn’t you?”

Yet while it appears each character is freely voicing his or her own opinion, Imai says the play has a powerful, unified tone despite its disparate threads.

“We are repeating scenes by trial and error in rehearsal,” he says. “And despite all my experience as an actor, I’ve never spent so much time thinking about theater itself, the meaning of acting, or the roles of audiences.”

Reflecting further on this staging, the Bungakuza veteran continues, “I understand today’s commercial market mechanism. It’s great that many people enjoy pure entertainment programs, and I actually sometimes perform in them. However, I believe we need to protect experimental and even abstruse plays like ‘Memorial,’ although I presume some in the audience will say they don’t understand it, or it didn’t move them.

“Even so, I think some questions will remain in their minds that they will think about afterward,” Imai says. “It’s for this reason that I’m convinced of the long-term utility of theater.”

In addition, referring to audiences at Bungakuza’s 200-seat Atelier theater space where “Memorial” is being staged, Imai says, “Many of our loyal customers are quite elderly, so I must strike the right balance between presenting a naturalistic drama they enjoy and stimulating them with a bit of an experimental approach.”

To that end, Imai and the actors are still discussing, scene by scene, how to deliver the lines. But while declaring that it would be “boring” to arrive at the end result easily, he laughs as he adds, “We are enjoying this voyage, even though we don’t know our destination.”

Imai says that working with this play’s actors and creators is very different to the things he has done before.

“This is thrilling, because its many unknown possibilities are making me think in different ways,” he says. “So to reward Bungakuza’s flexibility in staging ‘Memorial,’ even though it wasn’t written when I proposed it, I hope our audiences will be delighted by this exciting initiative as well.”

“Memorial” runs from Dec. 3 to 15 at the Bungakuza Atelier theater in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward. For more information, visit www.bungakuza.com/memorial/index-english.