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Thursday, Sept. 28, 2006
An Asian woman becomes aware
Special to The Japan Times
Thirty-one year-old playwright, director and actor Keishi Nagatsuka has been turning heads since he staged his first productions while still a student at Waseda University. In 1996 in Tokyo, he founded the Asagaya Spiders company, which has received glowing critical acclaim and regularly plays to full houses. Today, Nagatsuka makes his debut at the New National Theater, the nation's foremost venue for contemporary drama, with a new play titled "Ajia no Onna (An Asian Woman)."
Set in Tokyo in the near future, the play deals with recovery and self-sacrifice after an unimaginable loss. In the aftermath of a devastating earthquake, mentally ill Makiko (Yasuko Tomita), who lives with her older brother, Akio (Yoshimasa Kondo), spends her time tending a barren garden amid the rubble. When Akio's old friend, Ichinose (Ryo Iwamatsu), a middle-aged novelist, moves into their half-ruined house, the two men waste their time talking and drinking. Slowly Makiko begins to regain an awareness that life must go on -- not just her own, but her family's and the city's, too.
Nagatsuka spoke to The Japan Times recently about his latest work and his concept of theater.
What were you seeking to explore in "Ajia no Onna"?
Modern life has become so easy -- we can do almost everything by cell phone, for instance. So I thought that if I want to really describe people these days, I could best show their true substance in a situation where they had lost everything. In old newsreels and documentaries about Japan after the war, the potential of ordinary citizens to overcome such devastation is clear to see. What I wanted to do here was to explore modern Japanese people's potential in similar circumstances.
Although you are well known for violent, blood-splattered plays, and as a spokesman for younger generations, "Ajia no Onna" is much quieter in tone. Why is that?
Although I decided to set this play in a quite extreme situation, I was determined to portray ordinary people's simple life stories. I could have made a play with lots of amazing, dramatic episodes, but if I had done that, it would just be a story about the impact of a big earthquake, a kind of amazing survival-game story, and I wasn't interested in that.
Also, everyone has seen the effect of huge natural disasters such as the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 or 2004's Asian tsunami on their screens at home, so they have enough information to imagine the details. The audience can create their own image of a decimated Tokyo in the 21st century, and that would be more interesting than just being given a fixed idea by me.
In this play, people repeat mistakes from the past, such as the massacre of foreigners that happened in Tokyo after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. Have we not learned from such things?
For any nationality, not only Japanese, it's difficult to be hand-in-hand with others. When we are young, we innocently believe the world can live in peace, and, of course, we need these dreams. Then we learn that it's almost impossible to act in unison. So we must start from that point, that it seems almost impossible to cooperate with others who are different.
But if someone just accepts that like a disappointed child, and doesn't try to overcome the difficulties, they can easily become, for example, a rightwinger or a biased person.
In the last few years, you have become one of the leading stars of Japanese contemporary theater. How do you feel about that?
I try not to bother about such external voices, and try simply to put my own thoughts and questions into my plays. For example, when I wrote "Akuma no Uta (Devil's Song)" in 2005, I wanted to ask whether all the Japanese soldiers in World War II fought for the Emperor, because I doubted that they did. So I created a fictional situation where people from today's young generation meet the zombies of dead army soldiers and they have conversations together.
I try to write from the viewpoint of ordinary people such as myself, even though the play may have a wider theme. In the process of writing, I am often surprised that I start to face the characters as if they are real, so they take on their own voices.
What do you aim to achieve through your plays?
If even one person in the audience discovers something -- or if 15 or 100 do -- then it has been worth it. We, the flesh-and-blood actors and audiences, share the same time and stage for a certain period, and that is a powerful experience. Through such an experience, any one of us can realize the bud of new questions or ideas. That's a great thing.
Who are your favorite artists?
I like American film director Sam Peckinpah (1925-84) a lot. He made masculine films, but he succeeded in combining a dark side of humanity with brilliant entertainment. I like the plays of Suzuki Matsuo. When I saw his plays, I felt huge freedom to make drama.
Finally, is there anyone in particular with whom you would like to collaborate?
In "Ajia no Onna" I am now working with Ryo Iwamatsu as an actor, but I want to work with him as a director next time. He is one of the few directors who can create something extra on stage beyond the words in the text.
"Ajia no Onna" runs from today till Oct. 15 at the New National Theatre, a 2-minute walk from Hatsudai Station on the Keio New Line. For more details, call (03) 5352-9999 or visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp