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Thursday, July 13, 2006


Antiestablishment for all

Special to The Japan Times

Founded in 1970 by director Sho Ryuzanji, the Engekidan company was a natural bridge between two major theatrical movements in postwar Japan: the 1960s underground scene of dramatists such as Shuji Terayama and Juro Kara and the so-called "small-scale theater movement" started in the 1980s by the likes of Hideki Noda and Shoji Kokami. Ryuzanji's current company, the Ryuzanji Company, is now presenting "Buraikan," the first play in a series commemorating the late Terayama.

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Director Sho Ryuzanji is staging a remake of the movie "Buraikan" BY 1960s underground dramatist Shuji Terayama at The Benisan Pit Theatre in Morishita. COURTESY OF RYUZANJI COMPANY

"Buraikan" is based on Terayama's 1970 movie of the same name, which was itself based on a traditional kabuki play by Mokuami Kawatake titled "Kumoni Magou Uenono Hatsuhana" about the violent, dying days of the Tokugawa Shogunate. In Ryuzanji's version the struggle is not against the shogunate, but against subsequent post-Restoration governments bent on controlling the people and robbing them of life's pleasures. The staging at The Benisan Pit features a star-studded ensemble including Ryudo Uzaki (music), Tengai Amano (film effects), Norihiko Tsukuda (script writing) and the noh actor Hideo Kanze. As he prepared for curtain-up on July 14, Ryuzanji shared his thoughts with The Japan Times.

Tell me about your current production, 'Buraikan'

I would like to advocate chaos in society through the play.

There are 22 original musical compositions by Ryudo Uzaki, including 15 songs, so it is an Edo Period samurai-style musical with sword fights. The story is about the so-called tenpou reform by the Tokugawa Shogunate, which was really just a crackdown that enforced severe working conditions and restricted people's pleasures. We relate it to [Prime Minister Junichiro] Koizumi's so-called structural reforms.

One of the six main characters, Naojiro (Judai Ikeshita), starts a rebellion against the state, which has turned everyone into robots who wear the same clothes, just like salarymen do now. As they walk, they all sing the words of the revised Fundamental Law of Education now being proposed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

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Director Sho Ryuzanji

Why are you producing a series commemorating Terayama?

Nowadays, drama belongs to an elite, intellectual class and I hate that. A play needs intelligence, but I don't like it when these groups shut out ordinary people and close off themselves in their own small, self-satisfied worlds. People in the theater world are, primarily, those who don't want to be salarymen. But these antiestablishment types proceed to create their own establishment -- only its one in which they have the power. The theater should be against the establishment, but the current batch of theater people in Japan have forgotten this basic premise. Terayama never forgot it.

A drama is not just the work of a writer and a director, as people usually consider it. The director should be able to look at a play critically, but in Japan the same person is typically writing and directing, so there is no real meaning to being a director in the theater world here. There used to be, with directors such as Yukio Ninagawa and Tadashi Suzuki; but they became outmoded and lost their cutting edge.

Has that antiestablishment spirit completely disappeared from Japanese theater?

I am still trying to do plays with such a spirit!

The theater should belong to the socially weak, the poor and lower class. But sometimes, I wonder whether Japanese really need theater in their lives. I've started to produce dramas with ordinary people -- I am doing projects with over-45-year-olds called "Rakujuku" and with men over 70 called "Paradise Ichiza." But if the next generation doesn't want to continue this approach, then theater will die out.

But as for myself, I am quite free -- In some ways, I do not possess anything at the moment. My child is independent, I divorced my wife and I don't have any status or inheritance or even a house, which makes me a traitor to the Japanese way. But this traitor receives theater subsidies from the government and will continue to make plays for the citizens.

What trends do you currently see in the theater world?

Theater for many of the younger generation is a private matter. They never meet or are involved with other dramatists. That sort of self-serving theater can be interesting up to a point, but I hope the trend does not take over.

This generation avoids criticizing or being criticized. Why did Hidetoshi Nakata suddenly announce his retirement after Japan was knocked out of the World Cup? It's because he cannot communicate with people properly. When someone is criticized, they remember that they are not so special, and people must remember that the theater, fundamentally, is an art created by not-so-special people who make magic by pooling their individual talents.

Your generation tried to change society through the radical student movement and underground theater movement of the 1960s and '70s. Why didn't you succeed?

I wonder why -- and I wonder why young people and students still demonstrate all over the world, but never in Japan. It is probably because of the affluence here, because money has become god. So naturally one of the missions of theater in Japan must be to protest against the worship of money.

Our generation, the baby boomers, should be repaying society with the benefit of our experience. We used to say we wanted to change Japanese society, but we made it even more inflexible by joining the system and forgetting our ideals.

You have taken your company to many unusual places -- China, Iran, Russia and Belarus. Why have you never gone to the United States or Britain as other Japanese dramatists have?

I don't put much value on Western plays. Indonesia, Egypt and Iran have very high-quality theater, and, quite honestly, the physical ability of Indonesian or Thai actors is much better than Westerners. They have a deep understanding of human beings.

I personally prefer to make approaches through theater to the fringe of civilization because the majority of people belong to the fringe. When we tour overseas, we don't stay in hotels. The actors and the staff all do home stays. That way we learn what sort of theater the local people really want to see. Dramatists in the previous generation, like Terayama, Ninagawa, Suzuki and Keita Asari only focused on Western drama, but in the 21st century, we should pay attention more to the non-Western countries and stop thinking that the West is the center of the world just because of its capitalist values.

"Buraikan" runs till July 30 at The Benisan Pit Theatre, a 5-min. walk from Morishita Station on the Oedo and Toei Shinjuku subway lines, or an 8-min. walk from JR Ryogoku Station. For more information call (03) 5272-1785 or visit www.ryuzanji.com

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