Amon Miyamoto: Globe-trotting dramatist seeks new horizons

Director Amon Miyamoto aims to help right the wrongs he sees in Japan's theater world


Special To The Japan Times

Fifty-three years ago, Amon Miyamoto was born into a world in which he grew up listening to spirited exchanges between leading lights from the stage and showbiz in his father’s coffee shop across from the modern-leaning Shinbashi Enbujo outpost of the venerable Kabuki-za theater in Tokyo’s smart Ginza district.

He was influenced, too, by his mother, a former revue dancer who died when he was 21 but often took him to theaters in hopes of inspiring him to take to the stage as well. Indeed, while in elementary school, handsome young Miyamoto was taking lessons in Nichibu (traditional Japanese dancing), and would go to theaters instead of watching TV or playing baseball like others of his age.

But with being different being difficult, as it was — and is — in Japan, in his teens Miyamoto found himself marginalized by his classmates, and in consequence he became a hikikomori (social recluse).

As he went through the mental pain of that rejection, though, staying alone in his room questioning the meaning of his life for a year, Miyamoto one day found his salvation in recordings of works by the American composer Stephen Sondheim. A giant in the world of stage musicals, with “A Little Night Music,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Into the Woods” then already under his belt, it was Sondheim who provided the beacon to Miyamoto’s future.

Looking back on that time, when he was about 18, Miyamoto — a bachelor who has kept his good looks and appears to be a very cheerful chap — told The Japan Times, “Sondheim’s music sounded superb to me, as it deeply expresses the human soul and his tunes represent people’s multilayered and complicated thoughts. It’s not just cheerful, fun-type musicals he creates.

“That was the first time I dreamed about being a theater director.”

Afterward, he worked hard in the entertainment business and became a professional dancer and choreographer before branching out, when he was in his late twenties, to become a freelance theater director — a role in which he’s now been garnering increasing acclaim for more than 25 years.

In January, Miyamoto was appointed as the first artistic director of the new, publicly funded Kanagawa Arts Theatre (KAAT) in the aspiring artistic hub of Yokohama, just south of central Tokyo. For his debut conventional play there, he chose to present “Kinkaku-ji” (“The Temple of the Golden Pavilion”), which is adapted from a famous 1956 novel with the same title by Yukio Mishima. This production will be staged at the Lincoln Center in New York next month.

Meanwhile, from the middle of June Mitamoto will serve up for his audiences at KAAT reruns of two Sondheim musicals he has previously staged elsewhere, “Pacific Overtures” and “Sweeney Todd.”

Despite this prodigious workload, though, Miyamoto took time out at his KAAT base last week to sit down and talk for the benefit of the JT’s Timeout readers about his creative life, and about the perspectives on Japan he’s gained from his well-traveled life to date.

In your mid-twenties, when you were already a successful dancer and dance teacher, you went to London to study theater. Why did you go there?

I had been longing to be a director, but it seemed so difficult to get to that position in Japan. As a professional dancer, choreographer and dance captain, I believed from reading books about Broadway and the West End that it should be possible to make that step. However, though I knocked on all the doors I could to get a chance to do theater direction, I was treated so coldly and I realized there was no way. Instead, I opened a jazz-dance studio to present shows, but I became too busy to run it. So I got very fed up and left Japan for London.

What did you do in London?

I went there by myself, so I worked illegally in the daytime as a house-cleaner for a rich Singaporean family (laughs) and saved money and went to the theater every night. I saw about 700 plays and shows in two years, and I made notes about each performance along with my own direction ideas and detailed comments.

One day, at a party, I was asked by a friend, “What do you want to do?” — so I said, “I want to be a theater director.” Then my friend said, “I know that — but what do you want to do as a director?” At that moment, I was thunderstruck and woke up to an fundamental flaw in my thinking, because I’d always just dreamed about being a director — without ever really considering what it was that I wanted to deliver to audiences.

After that awakening I realized that although theater was deeply rooted in people’s daily lives in London, in Japan it was just a niche thing. So I started to think about how I could help to cultivate a theater culture like England’s in Japan. That was when I decided to get back to Japan to find out in concrete ways what I wanted to express through theater creation.

(When Miyamoto returned to Japan from England, he officially changed his first name from Ryoji to Amon as a way of “cementing” his new resolve. The two kanji in Amon mean “Asian gate.”)

Did you derive anything especially valuable from English culture?

Yes. First of all, there’s a certain individuality about each person there. For example, if I went to a park in London, there would be many people just relaxing and enjoying some peace and quiet on their own. But if an adult man was sitting on a bench in a park in Tokyo, people would wonder why he was there and wasn’t busy doing something or other.

Having different individual values is normal in England, and it was a great pleasure there to express my own opinions freely and debate with English people. People of all races and mixtures of races would talk openly and enthusiastically about their own cultures, and that was so exiting for me.

On the other hand, I was sometimes exposed to inquisitive stares due to my own race, and I also saw class conflict, which we don’t have in Japan, and I met some unpleasant, snobbish people.

After a while, though, I realized it was too simple just to talk about class conflict there, because there were different levels of distinctions and tensions everywhere in society. Nonetheless, even that sort of thing related to England’s vitality, I thought.

When I’d gone to New York before that two-year period in London, I also felt a sense of people’s individuality, but New York was a big dangerous city then and London had more of a village community feeling, so I mixed with lots of people in London and had all sorts of discussions there.

Those were great experiences, because I’d always thought about the issue of individual independence and whether people should live as others expect them to in what’s considered a specific ideal and correct way. Conformity is one of the problems with Japan.

Let’s talk about your upcoming production of “Pacific Overtures.” Why did you choose this to be the first musical you stage at KAAT, especially as you also staged it as the first-ever musical at the New National Theatre (NNTT) in Tokyo back in 2000?

First and foremost in both cases, I wanted to do a Sondheim musical, and at the NNTT in 2000 I thought we should do a musical related to Japan. Back then, the bubble economy had well and truly burst and in the media top managers always seemed to be bowing and apologizing for their company having gone bankrupt. It made me feel as if Japanese society was collapsing and I couldn’t clearly imagine what was going to happen next, in the new 21st century, to restore Japan’s forward-looking self-confidence.

That made me think we needed to return to the starting point of the relationship between Japan and the United States and re-examine the later period of rapid economic growth in our country. So I thought “Pacific Overtures” — which is a play about the opening up of sakoku (closed-country) Japan by the U.S. in the 1850s — was the most suitable program for the nation at that time.

When I was preparing to direct that production in 2000, I watched a recording of the original 1976 Broadway staging directed by Harold Prince. It was beautifully presented in a decorative kabuki style, but I thought the kabuki element took most of the attention and the story became a bit of out focus. So I forgot about that production altogether and instead tried to listen to the music again and again. Then I realized that this musical is really very simple.

As a result, I tried to make my “Pacific Overtures” as straightforward as possible — like a kamidana (Shinto family altar) — and I did it in a noh style. Sure, it’s not a noh stage, but I call it “noh style” to give a clear image to foreign readers — and certainly, I tried to look objectively at Japanese people in the Edo Period (1603-1867).

I wanted to show through this play how Japan, a small island with lots of beautiful mountains, plants and animals, came to have great economic power once, and also — especially — how Japanese people reacted when their feudal bonds were broken following Western contact in the 1850s. Also, with Western, Christian-based culture having swept into Japan, I wanted to explore where we — today’s Japan that’s so melded with America — would go next.

When I saw your first performance at the NNTT in 2000 on DVD, I was amazed by the audience’s excited reactions.

Well, that time I puposely united the stage and auditorium by having a hanamichi (the walkway running from a kabuki stage through the audience to the rear) in the middle of the theater, with the rear area the Western world and the stage area Japan. So, Westerners such as U.S. Navy Cmdr. Matthew C. Perry (1794-1858) appeared from behind and crossed the hanamichi to talk to the Shogun’s samurai officials. That meant the audience was figuratively floating in the Pacific and observing both sides of the momentous exchange.

After you staged “Pacific Overtures” at the NNTT in 2000, you did it again there two years later and also took it to New York and Washington with the same Japanese cast in 2002. Then, in 2004, you presented it on Broadway with an American cast and it was nominated for four Tony Awards in 2005. Were the audiences’ reactions very different on each occasion?

“Pacific Overtures” seems to be fated with the timing of its runs. For example, when we first performed it with Japanese actors in New York in July ’02, it was quite soon after 9/11 the year before and audiences reacted strongly and emotionally to the huge Stars and Stripes on the stage, and they also saw the play from a political viewpoint of what the U.S. had done to and for other non-Westernized countries.

Then, when I did it with American actors in ’04, it was just after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, so I added an episode involving the Japanese Self-Defense Forces refueling Coalition warships in support of America’s revenge war. That way, the play reminded U.S. audiences about their country’s non-stop war history and made them think about its foreign policies.

But there wasn’t really anything new about doing that, because from its premier in 1976, the show aimed to sound the alarm about U.S. history at the time of the 200th anniversary of the nation’s founding.

Now, again fatefully, we will stage this repeat performance in Japan following our nation’s disaster on March 11. So this time I think it will make Japanese people reassess their country’s past, and its modern history.

Due to all these circumstances, and the nature of this play, the audience reactions have been different each time.

Have you noticed differences in audiences’ behavior in Japan and America?

Well, American audiences show their feelings so directly. Once I was surprised to hear a loud cry of “Bravo!” during a performance, then I realized that the line just spoken from the stage was very sympathetic to America. Another time I was shouted at by someone outside the auditorium who cried out, “Remember Pearl Harbor” (laughs).

Also, when I included an A-bomb image in a scene about Japan, it was the first time any Broadway musical had touched on that subject and it became a big talking point in the reviews.

Interestingly, though, they welcomed that A-bomb scene when we first staged “Pacific Overtures” in New York as guest performers from Japan at the Lincoln Center Festival, but they were so angry about it in the later Broadway staging with American actors. Those two theaters are only a few blocks apart, yet they could accept the A-bomb scene in a Japanese guest program, but not in English with an American cast. They are so straightforward, unlike in Japan, so I welcome such reactions.

Did you make any other cultural observations in America, as you had in London?

One time, I had a chance to hold a symposium with John W. Dower, who was awarded a Pultzer Prize in 2000 for his book, “Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II,” and I often experienced people expressing all kinds of opinions about World War II and the relationship between Japan and the U.S. They are all great memories for me now.

John Dower is quite probably the world’s leading authority on Japan in the postwar period. How did you find him as a person?

He is a very sincere Japanophile and his wife is Japanese. I got the feeling he was giving his best and most candid advice to Japanese people.

One thing I remember in particular was him saying how postwar Japan began with Emperor Hirohito (1901-89) making the first-ever Imperial radio broadcast, on Aug. 15, 1945, and telling his people that “Japan had endured the unendurable.” Obviously people understood from that that Japan was a defeated nation, but the effect was to make it a victim nation in Japanese eyes as well. So people just forgot about all Japan’s wartime aggression and buried themselves in hard work to build a capitalist economy that would soon astound the world.

That reminds me of another strong reason why I’ve decided to stage “Pacific Overtures” at KAAT. In the late ’90s, I moved to Okinawa and I saw U.S. aircraft every day from my home and it was normal for Okinawa people to talk about the U.S. bases and forces and debate the political issues openly and actively. So, if I hadn’t lived in Okinawa, and if the base-relocation issue was not so hot now, there would be no “Pacific Overtures” at KAAT this time, I think.

However, this musical is not a propaganda work. It just poses questions from history but never draws conclusions.

In the show’s last number, “Next,” the characters sing about the future of Japan, and that’s where you added the episode about the Self-Defense Forces in the ’04 version. Will you be changing the lyrics again this time?

Yes, I suppose the lines will change day by day until the last moment to fit today’s world. I hope many foreigners, both those who love and dislike Japan, will see this musical and rethink their ideas about Japan, especially as it is now facing such a hard time.

The other day, I attended your public symposium at KAAT with fellow director Yukio Ninagawa on the subject of publicly funded theaters in Japan. Like you, Ninagawa is artistic director of a public theater — Saitama Arts Theater, since 1998 — and you are both active internationally. I got the impression you are a person with a huge, lively curiosity and willingness to try new ideas. Is that so?

I can’t hide my curiosity and I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know why, but the Japanese theater world has a cheerless atmosphere even though theater creators work in such a stimulating, fun world.

I sometimes feel like a troublemaker in Japan’s entertainment business world.

I am a simple person, so I don’t care about hidden rules and subtleties. For instance, many stage actors hesitate to appear in TV dramas because of their principles or pride, while TV creators often regard theater as a higher art form they can’t aspire to. But really, there’s no reason for either of those stances. I think each category has different values and there is no higher or lower ranking between them.

I also often find that people are so concerned about what others around them may think that they never express their honest feelings — that’s the same as the response to the ongoing nuclear power stations’ crises. It’s because so many people are obsessive about something that they want to protect or keep secret, and so they don’t tell the truth.

I don’t have anything to protect, or titles or positions, so I don’t understand those people’s minds.

Sometimes people tell me I am childish because I don’t “read/feel the atmosphere” like other mature Japanese, but I just want to talk about anything that crops up openly with as many people as possible.

That’s also my idea of how to run KAAT from now on, and at the symposium to which I invited Ninagawa we were considering how public theaters like ours, which are both outside Tokyo, but not far outside, can compete with Tokyo-based commercial theaters. We also explored what special roles public theaters can have for people in the regions.

Do you have any particular mid- and long-term plans for KAAT?

To be honest, this is a hard time to think about any future plans due to the nuclear power stations’ problems. That feeling is widespread in Japan now, I think.

Fatefully again, perhaps, at the time in which “Pacific Overtures” is set, just after Perry arrived there was a big earthquake called the Ansei Jishin (on Nov. 4, 1854), and then there were two big afterquakes within a year. Actually those earthquakes are mentioned in the play. So I think the earthquake cycle has just come around again, and we should be alert for big afterquakes — and of course we have to focus on the nuclear accident which is now level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale, although I expect TEPCO (the plants’ operator) will just announce more bad news bit by bit as we go on.

Besides that earthquake worry and the nuclear thing, though, I am feeling that this country — or this Earth, for that matter — has come to a big turning point now. The way things are, lots of people have doubts and fears and are groping for meaning in their lives — and that makes me wonder what I can contribute to them as a theater person.

Does anything specific come to mind?

Well, first off it’s quite important to move around physically a lot to keep on living, so I would like to do many more theater workshops for all sorts of people, such as ordinary citizens, seniors and children. I also plan to do symposiums regarding this earthquake, to which I will invite various artists and let them talk about their current thinking and plans for the future. Anyhow, that’s where I am at the moment.

You have explained some shorter-term goals, but what are your long-term plans for KAAT?

Basically, in recent years I’ve felt that many old preconception have been broken in many areas of life in Japan, and people aren’t so tied up in such ideas anymore. For its part, I believe theater also has to break away from conservative fixed ideas and do a lot of fresh thinking across the board. For example, we can stage performances on the streets, in parks, cafes, community centers and schools. In that way, I believe theater has untold potential to launch into a new era in the future. And of course, KAAT can be part of that.

How do you think the March 11 disasters will affect Japan’s people?

The other day, one of my friends called from Europe and said it looked as if Japan never wants to change even though it’s facing so many problems — and he said he thought that was because Japan has never had a revolution. What he meant, he said, was that in Europe people seized their freedoms and democracy through citizens’ revolutions. In contrast, Japan became a democratic country without a revolution, so its people are dressed in democracy but underneath they are still waiting to follow leaders like they did in the olden days. So individuals here don’t strive for change themselves; they are just forever waiting.

I completely agreed with him, and it tallies with my own experience of working in foreign countries.

For example, everybody — actors and staff — express their opinions throughout the whole theater-creation process in the West, but here in Japan the rehearsals and meetings are all quiet. That’s because they are all just waiting for someone, probably the director, to make decisions and tell them what to do. Maybe they hold back because they are worried if their question may seem peculiar — but such questions are very much welcomed by me. Maybe I should find better ways to involve the actors.

But specifically, in answer to your question, following America’s “Pacific overtures” of the 1850s, Japan — which had been shut off from the world for more than 200 years — opened to the world and suddenly started pursuing Westernization in a material sense without really considering other cultural or social aspects, so Japanese people have continued to be bad at making decisions by themselves.

Now is probably a good time to change that national habit and for people to stand on their feet and start saying what they think. Otherwise, like my friend in Europe said, Japan will never change.

“Pacific Overtures” runs June 17- July 3 at Kanagawa Art Theatre (KAAT), a 5-min. walk from Nihon Odori Station on the Minato Mirai Line. “Sweeney Todd” — Stephen Sondheim’s 1975s Broadway musical directed by Amon Miyamoto — runs July 9 and 10 at KAAT. For more details, call KAAT at (045) 633-6500 or visit www.kaat.jp. “Kinkakuji (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion)” runs July 21-24 at the Lincoln Center in New York City. For more details, visit www.kaat.jp or www.parco-play.com/web/play/kinkakuji/NY/.Nobuko Tanaka’s theater blog (in Japanese) is at thestage.cocolog-nifty.com.