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Sunday, March 6, 2005

Issey Ogata: Comic chameleon

Staff Writer

Issey Ogata is nothing if not versatile. Alone on an empty stage, he has audiences in fits as he performs his seriously funny one-man shows portraying characters as diverse as a classic sarariman (office worker) and a folk-song diva -- one after another.

News photo
Issey Ogata

In the past 25 years, his hilariously insightful shows have won him legions of Japanese fans, as well as devoted followings abroad gained through simultaneously translated performances in New York, London, Dublin and Munich.

Not only that, but Ogata also directs others' productions. Oh, and he writes books and short stories as well.

Recently, Ogata has been basking in the limelight, having played the lead in two critically acclaimed feature films. One is "Tony Takitani," the latest work by Japanese director Jun Ichikawa, which is based on a short story by the best-selling and world-renowned novelist, Haruki Murakami. The film, which is now showing, won a special award at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland in 2004.

Ogata's other leading movie role is in Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov's "Solnze (The Sun)," which was shown at the Berlin Film Festival last month. In that, Ogata plays the late Emperor Hirohito, focusing on the Emperor's inner self as he made the decision at the end of World War II to surrender unconditionally to the Allies on Aug. 15, 1945. The film won no awards in Berlin, but Ogata says that his playing of that role "was only possible because of my 25-year career as an actor.''

Ogata, 53, started to perform one-man shows in 1980, after about 10 years' experience in performing arts while also working on construction sites. His shows were soon winning prizes, including one awarded by the Cultural Affairs Agency in 1985.

For his monologue performances, Ogata draws his themes from everyday life. He conjures up his characters using costumes, makeup and his astonishingly skilled body language on a stage normally furnished with no more than a single chair. Yet his Everyman (and Everywoman) tales -- spiced with extraordinary episodes -- make each of his mini-dramas compulsive viewing.

Over the decades, Ogata's hundreds of characters have included a father of lots of children at home on New Year's Eve (his wife is absent for some reason); a drunken white-collar worker having a hard time finding a taxi at midnight; a woman shopkeeper in a rural fish shop, who falls for a visiting violinist; and a father on vacation in Hawaii who ends up mediating between his feuding wife and mother on the beach.

They are seriously, and sometimes painfully, funny. But Ogata does not make fun of the characters. Instead, he shows just how strangely people can behave under certain circumstances -- and how hilarious they can seem to others. Almost invariably, you are reminded of somebody or something you know well.

Ogata works on new material for his solo shows with Yuzo Morita, his long-time stage director, and with Morita's wife Kiyoko, who is also his producer and manager. In fact, what appears to audiences as a one-man show, is in fact the product of this collaboration between the comic in the spotlight and the team behind the scenes. The Moritas have been working with Ogata for nearly 30 years, and the trio has developed an almost familial bond.

Last week, in that Tokyo office -- which looks like a workshop, with a big wooden table in the middle -- Ogata, just back from Berlin two days before, spoke to The Japan Times about the festival, the films and his one-man shows. Though he spoke quietly and seriously, as though analyzing his experiences and feelings to find the right words -- he was still funny.

What was it like to participate in the Berlin Film Festival?

It was the first time I had been to a film festival, and I was very excited. I saw my film ["Solnze"] in a packed theater with 1,700 people. When it started with scenes of a dark, damp and somber air-raid shelter, I was worried the audience might fall asleep. But as the story developed, I saw their reactions -- including laughter -- and I realized the film had got into their bodies, not just their minds. That was good.

Now, what I remember above all is working with the director, Aleksandr Sokurov, and that it was a great experience.

News photo
Issey Ogata (left) as the late Emperor Hirohito

How did you feel when you were offered the role of the late Emperor Hirohito?

I decided to play this role because I understood it was offered to me as a positive reaction to my 25-year career. The director had been planning to make the film for the last 10 years, and he must have given a lot of consideration to the casting.

He said he had chosen me after seeing all my shows on video. The director was very serious about creating this film, and actually the shooting was done in a very serious atmosphere. . . . I think he hopes it will be released in Japan so that Japanese people can see it, too.

What was it like to play the role of Emperor Hirohito in the film?

The film aimed to describe intensely and deeply the inner state of Emperor Hirohito at the time. [From around August 1945 to Jan. 1, 1946, when he declared he was not a god.] It didn't focus on what he did or what happened historically. Instead, it described very carefully what happened immediately around him, sometimes only 5 cm away from him. For example, in one scene, the Lord Chamberlain silently just fastens the buttons, so many buttons, on the Emperor's shirt. In another scene, a piece of tamagoyaki (Japanese-style omelet) is served for breakfast. He debates whether to eat it or not. He doesn't feel very much like eating it.

They were very simple scenes to play, but I gave a lot of thought to how to do them, and thought about my own stages of development over the years. I thought about the days when I would sometimes start my solo performances with my bartender act in front of an empty theater. At that time, I repeatedly asked myself, "What is funny about this?" and "Why is this not funny?" Then I told myself that this must be funny, and I should try to believe that.

Taking part in this film, I thought a lot about what I had been doing on my Issey Ogata stages. I think that was because there was no sure way how to play what happened inside the Emperor's mind, and I just tried very hard to do something that I didn't exactly know how to do until I actually tried.

Have you ever played a real person before?

I don't think so. . . . Oh, I did mimic [TV news anchor] Tetsuya Chikushi once on TV.

In another recent film, "Tony Takitani," you played the main character, who is a successful but deeply lonely illustrator. What particular difficulties did that role present?

When I perform, I usually create the outer appearance first, then play the deeper, inner character -- as I did when I played Emperor Hirohito. That is my technique for the shows of Issey Ogata.

But, to play Tony Takitani, the director [Jun Ichikawa] told me to act with almost no makeup. So on the set I was always aware of that because I always wear makeup and often costumes, so it was a difficult aspect of that film for me.

Also, as the camera was moving around, I was told by the director that I should not act too much. At first, I didn't understand what he meant, but in the process of filming I came to understand his intentions. I was acting Tony Takitani -- but in a way that might not seem to be acting. I have never played like that, and it was very difficult, too.

You played Tony Takitani's father, too, in a rather similar way to what you often do in your solo shows.

I wanted to play him a little more. (laughs)

Among the hundreds of characters you have created in your solo performances, are there any to whom you are particularly attached?

News photo
Issey Ogata in his one-man performance title "Hiroko-san"

There is a sarariman character called Yama-chan. I have special feelings toward him, especially when I perform overseas. He works in the sales department of a company, and often goes out to meet clients.

In one episode, he suddenly suffers from amnesia in a parking lot. In another, he happens to find a half-dead crow on the street and keeps it all day with no idea what to do. He is one of the most popular characters in my repertory.

Foreign audiences seem to be impressed when they see Yama-chan, who they seem to regard as a typical Japanese -- but one who actually has a rich, interesting character underneath. Acting Yama-chan on stage before foreign audiences, I feel an attachment to him. He may be a blunderer, but I feel what a lovable man he is.

Why do you perform sarariman roles a lot?

Sarariman characters evolved naturally from my simple amazement when I first encountered the sarariman species at a TV company. Back then, as I was working on construction sites while performing, it was the first time I saw business people working in an office wearing suits and ties. And their nice shoes.

They are in similar suits, but I was surprised to see how each sarariman was different as a person. That was the reason why I created many sarariman characters. I made the shows based on my "sarariman experiences."

You know, the sarariman's working style is very different from that of a construction worker. The work of construction workers is easy to understand. They build buildings on a vacant site. They move things from one place to the other. They take some rest when they feel tired and go back to work after the rest. Very simple.

But, when it comes to a sarariman, it is not that easy to tell if he is tired or has jobs to do. Even now, I do not know exactly what they are doing (laughs). But they make me imagine a great deal about what they are doing -- and about what they are thinking.

Do you do anything special to get ideas for new shows?

I do nothing to find an idea. I do not observe people intentionally. I have never done that before and I will not do that in the future.

I take notes. For example, when I took a shinkansen, I wrote down all the words and phrases on signboards I saw from the window. So many names, such as, Hokaron (Hokaron pocket body-warmer), Anabuki komuten (Anabuki Builders) . . . and so on.

In the notes, there was "Eagle Hotel," which I found interesting, and it has led to an idea for our show. I imagine, what sort of people stay at the Eagle Hotel. Then the story goes like: a businessman visits the Eagle Hotel to look for his colleague who has gone missing . . .

In other words, I have so many ideas of my performances -- but many just never work at all.

News photo
Issey Ogata in his one-man "Daikazoku -- Omimai-hen (Big Family - Going to See Someone in Hospital)"

Well, I don't intend to watch people, but in Berlin this time, for example, the "best shot" I saw was in the party after the preview of our film. After people left the table at the end of the room, the director was left sitting there by himself, and he was eating three pieces of custard pudding saying, "I love this!" This image branded itself on my memory (laughs) -- though I don't know in what way it may be developed in my works.

This sounds paradoxical, but good shows are often not based directly on anything I noticed, though they may come out of it. It is a paradox, indeed, but I believe that art is born like that way. Oh, did I call it "art" by myself? (laughs).

This month you will be performing in Munich and Berlin. How did you start taking your solo stage overseas?

Originally, I was performing only in Tokyo as I didn't want to go anywhere else. But some people who saw me in Tokyo said they wanted to see the shows in their hometown, and I started playing outside Tokyo. The same thing happened overseas, too. Foreign audience members in Tokyo asked us to perform in their countries, and that was the beginning of me taking my shows abroad.

To do the performances in foreign countries, this office -- that means Kiyoko Morita and our translators -- prepared everything by themselves in exactly the same way we do in Japan. That means finding theaters, talking to theater managers, fixing the schedule, making hotel and travel reservations and selling the tickets. That started about 13 years ago.

This time in Berlin, when we took part in the film festival, office staff went there and gave out leaflets for our Berlin performance in March to those who came to the event in front of the venue.

Do you find the audiences' reactions to your shows are different in foreign countries?

I had assumed that they would be before I performed abroad. I thought foreign people might not find it funny. I thought they might not understand. But all those preconceptions are blown away when I play in foreign theaters.

Luckily, we have a very good translation staff to handle the foreign performances. They translate the shows simultaneously and brilliantly. For example, the staff nicely translated the names of many kids in one performance, titled "Dai-kazoku (Big Family)." The translators found suitable names for each kid in the show in English, names that imaginatively conjure up something about the kids' characters in the minds of the audience. Then they laughed a lot at the show.

You are different from many stand-up comedians in Japan, who have learned by coming through the conventional "master-student" system. What do you think about that system?

Well, from the beginning, I have regarded myself as a performer who cannot fit into the existing system. I have friends in the manzai world and I sometimes ask them what their masters taught them. They often say the masters taught them almost nothing. Seems like they learn things from their masters by just seeing the performances. They have a strong relationship of respect and love, and I think it must be an important system in the world of manzai.

What kind of performances are you now aiming at for the future?

We [Ogata and the Moritas] are trying not to create shows with big messages. Entertainment is often regarded as something that makes an audience one, such as in the parts where audience members laugh or cry together.

But we aim to create performances in which audience members enjoy the show in different ways. There is no "right" way to enjoy Issey Ogata shows.

When they come to see an Issey Ogata show, the audience members complement many parts of the story just by relying on their own imagination and experience -- such as why this person is there or that person is doing that. And while one audience member may find the show is funny, another may say they don't understand what it's all about. We try to create that type of performance. We believe that is good theater.

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