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Sunday, June 5, 2011

CLOSE-UP: 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.

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Forward-looking: Miyamoto with his dog, Beat, in Okinawa. COURTESY OF AMON MIYAMOTO

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?

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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.


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