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Sunday, Dec. 16, 2007



A drama of our own making

Special to The Japan Times

One recent sunny afternoon, I set off for a performance of "Tokyo/Olympic" by the city's Port B theater company.

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a Decrepit community center in Ueno was the setting for one "scene" in Takayama's drama, where the "cast" got to meet old folk who go there to socialize and pit their skills against each other playing the board game go.

Normally, I rush to a theater, deal with the ticket stuff and finally relax when I sink into an overstuffed red velour seat. But that day was a bit different.

First I had to find the "front desk" — which was no desk at all — on a street heaving with shoppers, most of whom were the kind of female oldies who can trample grown men without blinking an eye if they set their sights on a seat in the subway. (Yes, the meeting point was in no less than Tokyo's still-traditional Sugamo in Toshima Ward — and in Jizo Dori indeed, a shopping street famed as an old ladies' mecca.)

Unique 'fieldwork' event

But I had worried in vain. The "audience" for this offbeat tour-bus-style performance were mostly already there, unmistakable with tour-issue MP3 players slung aroung their necks.

This, as you may gather, was to be no regular theatrical event.

Port B company's founder, 38-year-old Akira Takayama, studied drama directing in Germany and started this company in 2002 after returning to Tokyo. Takayama, though, has not been content to just stage plays where you expect to find them — in theaters — but has created several unique events based on "fieldwork" with ordinary people. One "experimental drama" involved residents in a giant housing complex in Takashi- madaira on Tokyo's northern outskirts; another enlisted a cast of downtown residents living by the Sumida River.

Then, in 2006, Takayama presented his first "tour performance" — titled "One Way Street." Set in the self-same Jizo Dori in Sugamo, that walking-tour show with a cast of ordinary people was highly acclaimed, and paved the way for this "Tokyo/Olympic" tour using one of the capital's emblematic, bright-yellow Hato Bus sightseeing charabancs.

When the 1964 Tokyo Olympics burst forth as a symbol of national postwar rebirth, today's generation of Japanese corporate warriors looked on as children amazed at how their hometown was being transformed into an international city. Tipping its hat to that remarkable period — and with the bulk of its likely "audience" in mind — "Tokyo/Olympic" takes in many of the sites linked to that time, such as the National Sports Arena in Yoyogi, the Toyko Metropolitan Expressway and the huge event space that is Nippon Budokan.

But as it's certainly no mere nostalgia jaunt, the tour takes in both the pre-Olympic city that lives on in places like Sugamo and Ueno, and the world of the post-Olympic generation in youth meccas such as Harajuku and Akihabara.

In fact this isn't a tourist trip at all — because all of us signed-up for this performance play were actually its "cast."

So off we went. After being issued with my MP3 player and directions to the next meeting point, I spent half an hour strolling along the 500-meter-long Jizo Dori by way of a curtain-raiser to this production. Strangely, with no particular reason for being there, I felt very different indeed from normal as I observed, like a visiting alien, the "performance" of these people's normal lives — all their shouting, calling and huddling, all those human interactions and the material details of the area — on what was really just a day like any other.

Amazingly, I noticed, there wasn't a brand shop or chain store to be seen. Instead, there were any number of lingerie, nightwear and clothes shops for seniors, as well as traditional sweet shops and others selling old-fashioned, healthy foods — a retail mix it would be hard to find almost anywhere else in the city.

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Tour-drama director Akira Takayama (top) hands a ticket to actress-tour guide Akiko Neko as "cast members" head from Ueno to Akihabara after a curtain-raiser stroll through Sugamo's Jizo Dori (above) following the issuing of MP3 players and maps at the "front desk" (below). NOBUKO TANAKA PHOTOS
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A pro's clear diction

Then, when I got to the crowded precincts of the shrine that was our meeting point, I found lots of other drama tourists already waiting for our bus. All of them were sporting MP3 players like me, but being shy Japanese they were sitting around quietly and separately. Then, as the second act began to unfold, a bus guide in a vivid yellow uniform (actually Akiko Neko, a Port B actress) arrived to lead us all to a similarly colored Hato Bus.

Soon after all 30 of us settled in our seats, for this second "act" a veteran Hato Bus guide, Mitsuyo Oikawa, picked up a microphone and began her performance.

With the clear diction of a true pro, Oikawa delivered a history of the Hato Bus company, telling us how the women's bus-guide jobs in the '60s were so in-demand that the guides had executive status. She also recounted a wonderful tale about the famed poet and dramatist Shuji Terayama. Apparently, back in the '70s, Terayama staged an experimental theater on a Hato Bus by putting an actress aboard who played the role of a runaway girl. The resulting drama, Oikawa said, involved all the passengers in heated discussions about how to deal with this turn of events. As well, Oikawa was fascinating when she later shared with us her memories of being a guide during those heady 1964 Olympics.

In contrast, as a subplot to this second act of the drama, Oikawa sometimes handed the mike to a young woman now working as a Hato Bus guide who talked in language quite different about the modern face of Tokyo we were passing by.

With a couple of stops here and there by way of intervals in this rolling drama, what could easily have been a soap opera kept up its near-thriller pace. On a scheduled stroll through the "Carnaby Street" of Takeshita Dori in Harajuku, for instance, we in the audience again tuned our MP3 players to information and interviews with its denizens. These comments opened our eyes to the fact that there are apparently around 300 scouts there — mainly hip-hoppy black guys — who cruise the area trying to make a living by luring young women into all manner of "glamorous" employment.

From there our "play" moved on first to old-fashioned Ueno and a decrepit apartment building whose meeting room was being used as a venue for scores of aging players of the board game go. From there, by way of the city's Yamanote rail loop, this fast-changing production took us to a four-story game center in the "Electric Town" of Akihabara, surrounded by shrieking and flashing high-tech computer games.

That was an amazing scene in our "Tokyo/Olympic" drama, to see all those young dudes riveted to the screens with their fingers ranging in a disembodied way across the controls as admiring spectators stood behind them. Truly, it was a vision of our times, while from my ever-present MP3 player I heard a gamer telling me: "I came here to communicate with others who share the same hobby. I get such a huge kick when I clear a game."

It was a shocking experience to see all those young people so entirely wrapped up in computer games. But afterward, I thought that was actually the best scene in the whole "Tokyo/Olympic" drama.

From there, with a huge feeling of despondency, I went back to my seat in the bus. We drove back through Tokyo neon and returned to Sugamo, where our guide summed it all up, saying that the performance had aimed to expose us to some of the iconic sites of the '64 Olympics and then contrast that with the city as it now is.

Post-performance chat

After this half-day dramatic adventure, our producers led us into a meeting room and a post-performance chat. There, amazingly, previous shy Japanese opened up with excitement to share their personal discoveries after this mundane but remarkable drama we had experienced. One middle-age man, for example, said: "I joined this tour without any advanced information, but I enjoyed it so much. Surprisingly, at first I felt like an audience member, but then I began to feel that I was also a performer — especially when I was following the yellow tour flag through the Tokyo crowds."

"Besides," another person said, "In a normal theater experience, the audiences are just passive toward the performers, and it is a one-way communication. But in today's theater, we — the audience — participated in the play and also had a lot of time to consider the content. It was a wonderful, huge difference from a normal theater.

Finally, as the curtain came down on this seemingly mundane but thought-provoking drama, the moving force behind "Tokyo/Olympic," Akira Takayama, philosophized, saying: "In theater history there was a playwright's epoch, an actor's epoch and then a director's epoch. I believe there will be audiences' epoch in the near future.

Now there's food for even more thought.

"Tokyo/Olympic" runs Dec. 16, 19 and 23, starting at Jizo Dori in Sugamo, a 3-min. walk from JR Sugamo Station. Tickets are ¥3,800 in advance. For more details, call Port B at (048) 269-4679 / (080) 6529-1015 or visit portb.zone.ne.jp

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