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Thursday, July 5, 2007
Drama and deconstruction
Special to The Japan Times
What goes around comes around, they say, and in the early 1980s, Japan's contemporary drama scene was transformed by a slew of small companies that were the artistic heirs of the previous generation's radical student politics. That brave new world of the so-called shogekijo (small-scale theater movement) was led by a still sparkling cast of playwrights/actors/directors such as Hideki Noda, Shoji Kokami and Hidenori Inoue.
But that movement has now in turn engendered a trend among younger dramatists that is pushing the envelope yet further.
Striking among this new wave of shogekijo is Potudo-ru, a Tokyo-based company led by 31-year-old Hokkaido-born playwright and director Daisuke Miura, who — together with contemporaries like Yukiko Motoya and Toshiki Okada — is busily reinventing the radical-theater wheel in Japan.
Miura came to wider critical and audience attention in 2000 with "Knight Club," the first of his entirely original "semi-documentary" productions, in which cast members frequently appeared naked, sometimes performed fellatio on stage, slapped each other hard and started fighting for real. In this, and his "Nettai Video (South Seas Video)" two years later, Miura's intrepid actors are also want to talk about their real love lives — and even confess their true feelings for others on the stage. All this — in its "semidoc" way — occurring without any fixed plot or script or storyline.
A few years ago, Miura changed his approach again — to more typical plot-based fiction plays focusing on the lives of today's disaffected youth moving from one low-status part-time job to another. This new "realistic" trend began in 2002 with "Otoko no Yume (Men's Dream)," a frank and uninhibited peek at a group of young friends in the confines of a karaoke booth.
Miura's "serious" dramatic credentials were, however, underlined in 2006, when he received Japan's most prestigious theater prize, the Kishida Kunio Award, for his play "Ai no Uzu (Maelstrom of Love)," which portrayed a group of young people having a sex orgy.
Then, in 2006, he came up with the improbable "Yume no Shiro (Castle of Dreams)," a drama with some noises but no words that was based on those same type of young people at home in a shared apartment — complete with sex scenes and them sleeping, playing video games and eating. The work was a tremendous success.
Now, as he prepares for his upcoming new staging, "Ningen Shikkaku (No Longer Human)," Miura talked to the JT about this drama drawn from the 1948 autobiography of the famed but tragic author Osamu Dazai (who constantly declared he is "sorry for being in the world"); and about his past and prospective experimental artistic challenges.
How did you develop your "semi-documentary" style of theater?
When I started to do theater at Waseda University, I was making extreme taste [violent action and language] fiction dramas; then I started to doubt the point of doing such theatrical fictions; and then I lost my interest in drama. However, it was impossible to just stop, as we had become a certain size of company and I was involved with numerous people such as actors and staff.
Anyhow, I wanted to change my style of extreme fiction drama. So, I started to make a semi-documentary style of drama. That was my first turning point.
It must have been a quite difficult challenge to do such "semidoc" dramas on stage, especially as they were not just one-off productions.
Yes, it was hard, to be honest. I made several of them and each had a different style. First, they appeared to be live dramas, but actually they had a simple plot. Then, I got into entirely free-form "happening" theater — actors told their private stories on the stage without any prepared scenario, and the plays were created without any plots. In those, the actors had to take on an unbearable burden to expose their privacy, so they got totally exhausted. But audiences could witness entirely unexpected live drama and have a quite rare chance to see adult people's real nature exposed. That's a very thrilling experience, I think.
I actually got the semi-documentary idea when I saw an argument at the next table when I was in an izakaya (pub). It was a quite interesting scene even though I didn't know about the actual situation or those people's backgrounds. So, I wondered whether it was possible to create such a thrilling moment in a theater; then I tried.
How did audiences react to your "semidoc" theater?
Some people said it was not theater, and some came to see it repeatedly. But I believe there is no restriction regarding theater, so anything we stage can be "theater." But like I said before, I don't want to stick to any one style or genre, but to always make something new.
Anyhow, people started to categorize us as an extremely experimental, radical theater company, so I changed my style again. I started to write scripts grounded on the experience of those previous documentary dramas.
How did you feel about winning the Kishida Kunio Award in 2006 for "Ai no Uzu (Maelstrom of Love)"?
Well, nobody from the selection committee really saw my play in the theater, but they read it and chose it as the best that year. However, I wondered if they really thought it was the best, because my scripts are normally not completed, and might just say "actors make a suitable conversation, etc. . . . " So it's not completed till it's actually on the stage.
How do you actually go about staging a production?
First of all, I don't take much care over the written words in a script. I'd rather ask the actors to take the plots and put them into their real, natural words, so they can change them as they would normally speak. Also, I am never satisfied unless I try something new in a new play. So, I am trying a new method in "Ningen Shikkaku" this time — although I can't tell you concretely about it here as it will be a surprise for the audiences. Sorry.
Of course, I don't want to attract audiences just for new surprises, and the play essentially needs a core structure and core posture, but I also want to take on some new challenge each time. Otherwise, I can't keep my creative motivation.
Regarding "Ningen Shikkaku," will your play closely follow the novel of the same name by the famous Showa Period (1926-89) writer Osamu Dazai (1909-48)?
Hmm. I started to write the play to relate to the novel, which is a quasi-autobiography. But it was becoming too "factitious," so now I am writing it freely and not taking so much from the original novel.
The play is not set in Showa, but in the present day, and it is about a person who was affected by Dazai's novel. I am sure there are so many people who were influenced by the novel and by the author's gloomy life [Dazai committed suicide by jumping into a river with a young mistress when his career was at its peak]. The biggest difference between the central character in the novel and one in my play is that mine is an irresponsible and immature young man in our current times who doesn't have any serious anguish about his life — unlike Dazai's pessimistic outlook on the human condition.
What do you think you will you be doing in 10 years?
I don't know whether I will be in theater or even doing anything creative. As I don't think about my long-term future plans or ambitions so much, I'm not afraid to do rather radical and challenging things on the stage at the moment. I just want to do the most interesting things for me at this moment. For example, to show the moment when a person discloses his/her dumb or stupid human side is the most interesting subject for me. I don't want to show it just to reveal something curious or sensational, but I always want to present such human weakness from a warm point of view.
"Ningen Shikkaku" runs from July 6-16, at Mitaka City Arts Center, a 15-minute walk from JR Mitaka Station on the Chuo Line. Tickets are 3,300 yen. For more details, call Potudo-ru on (090) 5501-9693 or visit www.potudo-ru.com/