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Thursday, Dec. 29, 2005


A gradual rise to excellence

Special to The Japan Times

A loss of direction appeared to afflict large parts of the Japanese theater world in the beginning of 2005 as last year's promising stream of new actors and directors failed to live up to their 2004 debuts. Dramatists responded by looking outward for inspiration, creating an upsurge in international collaborations throughout the year.

News photo
The Noism dance company performs "Nina" at the New National Theatre; a scene from Marius von Mayerburg's "Fireface" at SEPT (bottom) PHOTOS COURTESY OF RYUTOPIA/SEPT (bottom)
News photo

With the inherent difficulties of communicating complex ideas across cultural divides, trial and error characterized many of these efforts. On stages large and small it was apparent that, unclear about its future, Japanese theater remains deeply unsure of its current identity.

In such a turbulent time, in terms of vision, determination and vitality, three "Ds" might be said to have symbolized the theater year in Japan: Deutschland, dance and doyens.

Serious Deutsch

Thanks largely to the German/Japanese cultural showcase "Deutschland in Japan, 2005/2006," a German whirlwind swept theaters, and audiences accustomed to English-language plays from the West End and Broadway were exposed to a quite different dramatic blast. A night out at the theater became much less a dressed-up escape to a place of illusion, and more a bracing and provocative experience crafted by clear-headed dramatists intent on seriously challenging their audiences.

Beginning in March, the Berlin-based Volksbuhne arrived on their first Japan trip with a stunning, avant-garde version of Tennessee Williams' classic "A Streetcar Named Desire." The Volksbunde's version had been so reworked for the post-Cold War era, and so filled with sex and violence, that the copyright holders denied it use of the original title. The result, renamed "Endstation Amerika," replaces William's inward-looking angst with a heavy view of a world fouled by money, corruption and immorality.

In June, the Berliner Ensemble came with "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" by the group's legendary founder Bertolt Brecht, in a staging by the late, radical director Heiner Muller. The work's powerful message about the dangers of obedient, acquiescent masses blindly following a charismatic leader was outstandingly conveyed by memorable acting from Martin Wuttke in the title role.

Also in June, the Germans came to the Setagaya Public Theater (SEPT) with two programs from Schaubuhne am Lehniner Platz -- "Nora," based on Ibsen's "A Doll's House" and Marius von Mayerburg's "Fireface." These were the best from Germany this year, and the production of "Fireface" in particular, by Schaubuhne's artistic director, 37-year-old Thomas Ostermeier, was a solid demonstration of the power of contemporary drama.

Though sometimes over-the-top, this exploration of the breakdown of a middle-class family should have touched many raw nerves here. There was virtually no distance between the stage and the seats, which only added to the work's immediacy and directness. Shunning the artistic arrogance and wishful hypocrisy we often see in the theater, von Mayerburg's play poses questions that never end with a final catharsis -- instead, most of the audience likely left for home with more undigested and anxious feelings. It is just such provocative plays that are the most important in today's drama world.

World-class dance

For all the power of these challenging German works, dance was the most significant player in this year's performing arts scene. Whereas it was once confined to a small coterie of fans, in all its forms, 2005 was a tipping point that extended its appeal to the general public. This was no overnight sensation, but a result of the continuous efforts of a number of performers who were trained overseas.

Tetsuya Kumakawa, returning to Tokyo after a career as a principal dancer with The Royal Ballet in London, is running his own K-Ballet Company. This year the company staged high-quality productions of the standards "Swan Lake" and "Nutcracker," as well as of the 33-year-old Kumakawa's own "Summer Triple Bill/Prodigal Son."

Following consistent improvements in the company, K-Ballet finally delivered a world-class production with "Nutcracker" with all original choreography. Kumakawa displayed both his famously elegant high jumps in the main role and a talent for imaginative direction. The outstanding performances of the company's dancers, especially the corps de ballet, and the beautiful sets and costumes by his former Royal Ballet colleagues Yolanda Sonnabend and Leslie Travers, all combined to contribute to the ballet's success. K-Ballet Company is now stepping into unprecedented territory in Japanese dance by being able to stage classical ballet of the very highest international standards.

In the contemporary dance world, the most memorable staging of the year came from Jo Kanamori, the artistic director of Niigata's Noism dance company. The 31-year-old Kanamori studied classical and modern ballet in Europe from the age of 17. His 40-minute, nonstop dancing in the Ikuyo Kuroda-choreographed "Last Pie," part of Noism's triple bill in July, was the highlight of the year -- and possibly of the last five years.

Last week, Noism was back in Tokyo with "Nina" at the New National Theatre, with Kanamori devoting himself to directing and choreographing. Noism's 10 dancers presented an amazingly physical performance that sustained the tension between black-costumed, dominant male dancers and female dancers in nude-colored leotards acting almost like mannequins, through to the end.

Besides these two troupes, other homegrown performances -- solo contemporary dances by Kaiji Moriyama and Kim Ito and the emerging comic-dance brilliance of the Tokyo-based Kondoruzu group -- shone brightly, as did foreign productions from two outfits, Britain's Matthew Bourne Company ("Swan Lake" and "Highland Fling") and Belgium's Rosas ("Bitches Brew"). With more theaters and producers now willing to stage dance performances, the boom should only continue to grow in the year ahead.

Local doyens

Doyens, Japan's veteran dramatists, were led this year by 70-year-old Yukio Ninagawa and 63-year-old Kazuyoshi Kushida. In July, Ninagawa directed kabuki for the first time, albeit drawing from his favorite material, Shakespeare, to use "Twelfth Night" as the basis of his story. The result made for a radical, visually stunning and quite unforgettable production at the Kabuki-za Theater. And this was just one of four other completely different productions -- "Maboroshi ni Kokoro mo Sozoro Kuruoshi no Warera Masakado (The Saga of Shogun Taira)," "Kitchen," "Medea" and "Tempo 12-nen no Shakespeare" -- that he put on at his Theatre Cocoon in Shibuya.

Ninagawa triumphed with all four, but the best was the monumental, four-hour-long "Tempo," which combined all of Shakespeare's 37 scripts into an interwoven drama set in the Edo Period. Truly a tour de force, Ninagawa poured all of his theatrical experience into the one work, directing it with an outstanding cast and throwing in all the stage tricks he knows. It will probably be a long time before we see the likes of a "Tempo" again.

Kushida broke new ground with his musical staging of Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle." The international cast of actors accompanied the play with instrumental music while sitting just outside the circular stage, gradually making the audience feel like part of the village-folk in the drama. Kushida also created a vivid, technicolor piece of entertainment with the contemporary kabuki stage he put together for "Sakurahime."

Ai Nagai's "Utawasetai Otokotachi (Men who Force Singing of the Song)" posed a question about the trade-off between individuality and conformity by tackling the problem of whether teachers and students should be enforced to sing the "Kimigayo," the traditional national anthem. In the play she presents an intellectual debate on par with the best that European drama can offer, including the aforementioned German plays.

Similarly, Yoji Sakate of Rinkogun presented a powerful political docu-drama, his specialty, in collaboration with the English scriptwriter David Hare. "The Permanent Way," an interview-based script about a series of major train accidents in England after the privatization of the railroad, calmly and sensitively exposed what was unsaid in the words of the witnesses, survivors and family members, officials and others.

Finally, an honorable mention to the production company Horipro's "Densha Otoko (Train Man)," which burst supernova-like from the outer reaches of geekdom this summer. Through its revolutionary use of computers and multiscreen effects, the play showed the unlimited technological possibilities of the future of live stage.

So, while 2005 may have started slow, in the end, theater in Japan provided plenty of spectacle, virtuosity and entertainment, as well as a setting for serious intellectual debate. Let's hope that the momentum is kept up into 2006, and that theater continues to find its direction with both an introspective look into its own culture and collaborations with the wider theater world.

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