A Gekidan Miyama performance is like taking a trip through time, with elements from the past intertwining with modern flourishes. However, there’s one modern flourish that the traveling theater troupe could do without — COVID-19.

Gekidan Miyama normally sells out shows up and down the country, but as with many theater companies around the world it faces an uncertain future. When I speak to the troupe’s leader, Takashi Nakamura, in March, the crowd at one show is sparse — great for keeping your distance from others, not so great for the box office.

“It’s something I think about every day. Is it OK to go ahead with the shows? Should we close? This is an unprecedented situation.” Nakamura says. “We’ve had earthquakes and typhoons that have shut down areas, but nothing on this scale. It’s hard to know what to do. We are following guidelines from the government and, at the moment, have decided to continue. This is our livelihood. Stopping could mean we fold. Like everyone, I just hope things get better soon.”

Gekidan Miyama has been entertaining audiences for over a century, persisting, as Nakamura says, through earthquakes and typhoons, but also managing to come back after a world war. The traveling theater changes location on a monthly basis, and a typical show features a play, a talk session and a traditional dance performance. Usually set during the Edo Period (1603-1868), its stories tend to focus on the concept of “giri to ninjō” (“duty and humanity”) with a bit of comedy mixed in. Roles are played by both men and women who are free to play any gender.

The company was founded by Emi Saburo in 1903 before being taken on by his protege, Mitsuaki Nakamura (stage name Shojiro Miyama), over half a century later when Mitsuaki was just 15. He then passed the baton on to his son, Takashi, who took the stage name Takashi Satomi. The young Takashi made his stage debut at the age of 3, and became director of the troupe only nine years later.

“People are often shocked when they hear I’ve had this role since I was 12,” Nakamura says. “I was chucked on stage as a kid and after that things just came naturally to me.”

Nakamura’s father fell ill when the youngster was in first grade at elementary school and decided to step back from Gekidan Miyama.

“For the next few years, we got on with our lives away from the theater yet, at the same time, it’s something you never completely cut ties with,” Nakamura says. “We still had all the props and several contacts within the industry. In my final year at elementary school, I started to seriously think about resurrecting things.”

At such a young age, it’s easy to understand why Nakamura’s parents were initially opposed to the idea of his taking over the family business.

“They loved being part of this world, but knew how hard it was. My father warned me that I couldn’t go into it half-heartedly,” Nakamura says. “When they realized how serious I was, they agreed. In the first few years, I split my time between the theater and my studies. As it’s a traveling troupe, I was changing junior high schools monthly. After graduating, I was then able to devote all my time to Gekidan Miyama.”

Life's work: Takashi Nakamura, aka Takashi Satomi, has been director of the Gekidan Miyama troupe since the age of 12.
Life’s work: Takashi Nakamura, aka Takashi Satomi, has been director of the Gekidan Miyama troupe since the age of 12.

In his 21st year as director, Nakamura remains as enthusiastic for his art as the day he started. In addition to promoting the company, he acts, choreographs, writes scripts, recruits and trains new actors, and manages the accounts. He gets support from his mother (his father has sadly passed away) and the other troupe members, but there is no doubt as to who is in charge.

“While it is very tiring, I know how fortunate I am being able to do a job that I love,” Nakamura says, adding that when he isn’t working he likes to watch other forms of narrative entertainment. “Inspiration,” he says, “can come from anywhere.”

“‘The Lion King’ is a great example. You’ve got Simba who thinks he has disgraced his family following the death of his father when, all along, it was his uncle, Scar, that was to blame. Or you could use something from ‘Tom and Jerry,’ animation and manga are great sources.”

Indeed, a good story can be told in a number of ways and be entertaining regardless of age or era. “The Lion King” had elements of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” after all, but Gekidan Miyama prefers setting such stories in the world of the yakuza. The troupe recently staged a play centered around a prominent yakuza leader named Choji who goes in search of his long-lost brother, an assassin who ends up killing Choji’s underling. Discovering the true identity of the killer shocks the mafia boss, leaving him with a difficult decision to make.

Nakamura, who played the estranged sibling in the production, says his Dad had previously performed a similar role in a story about father and son many years ago.

“Fundamentally, what we’re doing now is akin to what my Dad did when he ran things,” Nakamura says. “Within that existing framework, however, a lot has changed, as I’ve added my own flavor. During his time, there was more of an emphasis on traditional music like enka and instruments such as the shamisen. We have patrons who’ve been coming here for decades so we still incorporate those elements. But, at the same time, I felt it was important to modernize with some hip-hop and J-pop. From a stylistic and audio perspective, it’s very different from how things used to be.”

The third element of a Gekidan Miyama show is a slow dance performance done in extravagant kimono and other traditional Japanese outfits. The speed at which the performers change costumes and wigs, and do their makeup, is remarkable (around 90 seconds for the men and three minutes for the women). During this performance, some audience members approach the stage and present the cast with cash or gifts. Taking photos is permitted, as is drinking alcohol and eating snacks. The whole thing has more of a punk vibe than the highly structured plays that pop up around Tokyo, and it kind of fits in with the image of a traveling theater troupe.

“Every time I step on stage, I see it as a game. The goal is to give the audience something new with each performance,” Nakamura says. “When you look at something like kabuki, what they do is predetermined and structured, whereas we have more freedom to do what we like. I’ve spoken to several people from the kabuki world and they’ll often tell me that they envy our flexibility. There’s mutual respect between the two organizations. Of course, we go to watch each other.”

It’s that kind of support that the entire theater world is going to need in the months to come. It’s not like Gekidan Miyama hasn’t faced challenges in its storied existence, and Nakamura, who celebrated 20 years as director in 2018, can recall quite a few challenges. “But that was something you just accepted and got on with.”

Since this article was written, Gekidan Miyama has postponed some shows and pared down others, but remains active. For more information, visit www.gekidan-miyama.net

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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