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Sunday, Oct. 7, 2007

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NAHOKO YAMAZAKI

Off-stage woman stars in men's theater world


Special to The Japan Times

Just as in the realm of politics, in the arts world — and here, particularly regarding the performing arts — different countries adopt different policies depending on their historical and economic circumstances.

News photo
Tokyo's risen stage star, Nahoko Yamazaki YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

The United States, for example, takes a free-market stance on the arts in a similar way to its "liberal" approach to business in general, while in several European countries, including France and Germany, a government ministry or department is closely involved in the operation and financing of the arts. In Britain, it's halfway, with a so-called arm's-length system channeling government subsidies through the Arts Council, while keeping a certain distance from both arts policy and funding from the private business sector.

So what is the system in Japan, I wondered? Well, on its home page the Agency of Cultural Affairs explains its role as:

"Focused support for top-level performances of stage arts and traditional performing arts; the promotion of international exchange through hosting international festivals related to music, dance, and drama; and the training of artistic groups to meet world-class standards of excellence."

This prompted me to recall the words of theater director Hiroshi Koike, whom I recently interviewed (JT, Sept. 27), and who cast suspicion over "who will decide what is 'top level?' " It also put me in mind of the many theater insiders I've met who have said, "I don't expect anything from the government regarding the arts. We have to survive by ourselves."

Clearly, Japan's official arts policy could be called a "doughnut system" — one with no core policy and no core leadership.

In these circumstances, there's now a growing "gap society (kakusa shakai)" in the theater world, just as there is between high- and low-earners in the wider society, with many companies — especially smaller ones — presenting "edgier" material and relying on members' zeal and willingness to take on side jobs to stage their works.

Meanwhile, to such companies' considerable chagrin, there is a genre in Japan called shogyo engeki (commercial theater), which is organized by big production companies who run their own theaters on U.S. business lines. To get the revenue results they seek, such companies normally cast famous star actors and idols in their productions' main roles, or buy the rights to stage tried-and-tested, popular musicals and plays from abroad with Japanese casts.

A mecca of this commercial theater is the upscale Ginza-Hibiya area of central Tokyo, where major production companies such as Toho and Shochiku have their Teikoku and Enbujo theaters, respectively.

Just a year ago now, fresh news quite rippled this rather conservative pond when the showbiz mogul Toho revealed it was going to open a new theater this Nov. 7 in its entirely refurbished former Geijutsu-za (Art Theater), which closed in March 2005 due to its dilapidated condition.

Called Theater Creation, this new, exciting drama venue was launched at a splendid press conference in September 2006, when Toho announced that the opening program would be "The Fearless Otojiro's Company," a new work by the popular playwright Koki Mitani, whose "The Last Laugh" will open in the new year in London's West End. Based on the real life of Meiji Era theater director, actor and producer Otojiro Kawakami and his wife Sada, Japan's first professional actress, the play focuses on an amazing episode during their pioneering American tour 108 years ago.

At that press conference, Toho also made waves when it announced that all the managers it was appointing to run this new theater would be women in their 20s — a decision that positively rocked the male-dominated theater world in Japan.

At last, was it really possible that a major, established organization such as Toho was about to go radical, shake up the moribund mainstream theater world and seek a new direction?

To find the answer, The Japan Times spoke to Theater Creation's new general manager, 29-year-old Nahoko Yamazaki, an administrator who could easily be on stage with her gorgeous looks, and asked her about her vision of Japan's drama world in the future, and how an increasingly busy public could be induced to fill theater seats in years to come. And then more specifically, could we look to her to set in motion a new approach to arts policy in this country? Let's hear what she has to say!

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