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Sunday, May 4, 2008
Acting with joy in his soul
Special to The Japan Times
Even in today's theater world in Japan, which tends to venerate age, at just 52 Hideki Noda is already a towering, legendary figure.
Wherever you go and talk to dramatists or stage performers, you will find his name and achievements almost invariably come up. This is especially the case among young dramatists in Japan, who, even though their theater styles might be different from his, almost all acknowledge a huge artistic debt to Noda in their own theatrical creations.
Born on tiny Sakito-jima Island in Kyushu's Nagasaki Prefecture, Noda was just 4 years old when his family moved to Tokyo. His origins, though, have never deserted him, and in 1999 a play he wrote and staged called "Pandora's Bell" dealt with the U.S. atomic bombing of Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, when the grotesquely named "Fat Man" exploded over the city and took at least 80,000 human lives with it in a flash. In that work, Noda posed challenging questions about the Showa Emperor's war responsibility, his subjects' blind fanaticism and World War II's ongoing scars in Japan.
To begin with, though, Noda entered the theater world in earnest when he started a company called Yume no Yuminsha (Dreaming Bohemian) when he was a 20-year-old university student. Then, in a twinkling, Noda became a theatrical hero and in 1976 his company became a theater-business sensation with their second production, titled "Hashire Melusu (Run Melusu)," at the VAN99 hall in Tokyo's Aoyama district, thanks to the nonstop, speedy, highly physical on-stage movement and Noda's imaginative and puzzling plots.
By reaching out so dynamically and provocatively to a younger than usual and techno-minded generation previously not really interested in theater, Noda at one fell swoop transcended contemporary theater's previously geeky, serious, self-indulgent and academic underground image among young people. In doing so, too, he almost single-handedly kick-started a major youth-theater movement in the 1980s. Moreover, he broke new ground by successfully soliciting sponsorship from Mitsubishi Motors, and also attracting more than 26,000 people to a one-day theater event at the Yoyogi National Gymnasium in Tokyo.
Then, true to his individualistic form, he broke up his company in 1992 at the peak of its success and took a yearlong sabbatical in London. It was after he returned from that sojourn that he founded Noda Map, the company he has worked with tirelessly since to establish it as the front-runner in Japan's contemporary theater world.
Now, in the 21st century, Noda is vigorously presenting socially provocative dramas that rely less on physical performance than many of his earlier works. In 2003's "Oil," for instance, he tackled the issue of chain retaliations following 9/11, while in 2006's "Rope" he turned his spotlight onto the distorted, media-controlled lies of modern war. As well — with his original plays Red Demon" (2003) and "The Bee" (2006) — Noda, who is an excellent English-speaker, has launched himself big-time into the English market using local British casts.
Unlike others in the hot-house media world, however, Noda is not a legend because of glitzy magazine coverage of his work or private life, but purely because of what he's done and the fact he's never shrunk from putting his own of strong opinions into his work.
So, at the beginning of this year, when I heard that Noda was going to become artistic director at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space in Ikebukuro, and also take a university-teaching position, the news was not only exciting but also a bit perplexing. Why, in his mid-50s, had this longtime maverick decided to go so very public — and what did it mean for contemporary drama in Japan? To explore these and many more questions, I visited Noda's Tokyo office for a JT interview. There, in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, his answers were not only illuminating, as I'd expected, but also punctuated with laughter and the lively dramatist's sharp wit.
What were you particularly interested in during your childhood?
Like other children, I was interested in all sorts of things and my future dreams were changing all the time. I was always the last child playing on the playground. Then, when I was between 9 and 12 years old, I had a really unique teacher who was absolutely apart from the usual school stuff. He banned his pupils from going to outside cram schools and he didn't give us any homework or daily tests — my class was the only one like that. When it was a fine day we played baseball, or played in the school grounds instead of having lessons in the classroom, so we didn't need to study like all the other classes' pupils.
The teacher only took a serious view of basics such as reading, writing and calculation, and he respected the children's autonomy regarding most things. Later, if I look back now, that was a little bit of an influence in me starting to do theater because that teacher was also hugely enthusiastic about tackling the annual school performance day. As a result, we prepared for that play full-time for two months, while the other classes only usually did so in the limited curriculum, often with ordinary lessons.
When it's fine, children should play outside — that was the teacher's policy. So he was called to account for himself to the board of education sometimes, but he ignored them (laughs). Then finally he quit — he probably had to quit. That was my childhood.
So was that your first encounter with theater?
Ummm — there is another interesting story.
When I was chatting with one of my best friends, Kanzaburo Nakamura (a leading kabuki actor and producer who last summer staged productions in English at the Lincoln Center in New York, and who has also twice enlisted Noda to direct kabuki plays — both to great acclaim — and who has signed up Noda to direct another of his kabuki works in August), we discovered a very funny coincidence. Both of us were born in 1955, and both of us went to Christian kindergartens — and we both played exactly the same role in the Nativity play at Christmas. It was the most inconspicuous, short role as Balthazar, one of the Three Wise Men from the East. We laughed together, saying that maybe all actors should play Balthazar in kindergarten.
Long after that coincidence, you entered the University of Tokyo (the most prestigious in Japan, commonly referred to as Todai), even though you say you didn't really study at primary school.
First, I went to a very competitive high school, and the school (attached to Tokyo University of Education) aimed to send all its students to Todai, and actually 130 out of the 160 in my year went there. So it was a matter of course for me to do so even though there were good and bad circumstances about being at such a competitive school — such as the students pretending not to study very hard but in reality having great rivalries with others over their marks. So I did theater every day, and others did different kinds of things instead of studying for entrance exams. On the up side, there were many interesting and intellectual people there, but on the down side, many of them were already elitist and looked down on ordinary people. Afterward, many of those types become government officials and now have high positions in society (laughs), though I think many of those with a good nature and character tended to escape from such a fixed, elite track early on.
Anyway, that was my starting point doing theater for real. I experienced the audience's applause when I presented my first original play, "Ai to Shi o Mitsumete (Gaze into Love and Death)" at that time. Back then, too, I poured my love for theater into my diary — it was absolutely more pure and hot than today (laughs).
Also, I didn't want to make an excuse later saying "I could have gone to Todai, but I chose not to do." So, I had an embroilment at high school between my vanity driving me to select an elite course and my longing to do my favorite thing, theater.
Then later I realized that such torment was not necessary after all, as I dropped out of the university anyway (laughs).