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Thursday, Jan. 24, 2008

From ordinary to spectacular

Special to The Japan Times

Go Aoki is one of Japan's most in-demand playwrights and directors. The small venues where his Gring theater company typically stages his works attract drama-world insiders — as a result, besides taking Gring on the road in early 2008, Aoki has already been enlisted for three high-profile collaborations.

News photo
Director and playwright Go Aoki

The first of these came in answer to a plea from 47-year-old Hidenori Inoue, founder of the theater company Shinkansen, for Aoki to write a play based on the tragic life of the Tokugawa Shogunate-era samurai Izo Okada. The new Aoki play now running at the Aoyama Theater, "Izo," goes easy on the spectacular effects characteristic of Inoue's "entertainment-style" samurai plays, favoring instead a brilliantly crafted human drama.

After "Izo" closes in early February, Aoki will direct "Uranus," an original work by 33-year-old Tomohiro Maekawa, that has been selected to launch a new series of plays by young dramatists at the small, atmospheric Aoyama Enkei theater in the round. Then in August, Yukio Ninagawa will stage a new play by Aoki based on the manga "Glass Mask."

The Japan Times caught up with Aoki last week at a rehearsal studio in Tokyo.

How did you come to be in theater?

When I was in kindergarten I saw a play by the children's theater company Mokuba-za, and it had a mirror ball over the stage — so I decided theater was for me (laughs). After that, I saw other different kinds of theater, such as kabuki, the all-female troupe Takarazuka and Shingeki (Western-style plays). In the 1980s, along came the popular young people's theater movement, Shogekijo (small-scale theater), and I saw most those plays.

I went to Meiji University, which has a drama course. However, it was not so practical, and we studied theater mostly in classroom lectures, so in my third year, I decided to audition for a production training course with the long-established En theater company. I was accepted and found myself in the En company's studio every day from 7 a.m. till 3 a.m. — so I automatically dropped out of university.

Why did you start your own company?

Unfortunately, after my three-year trainee period, the En company did not take me as a permanent member. That threw me completely, and though I occasionally acted a bit or did some freelance work as a stage manager, basically I just laid low for a while. Finally, almost out of desperation when I was 30, I wrote my first play and directed it and also acted in it.

What kind of plays did you want to make?

I have always loved magnificent stagings such as those for the onnagata (female-impersonator) kabuki-actor Tamasaburo Bando, and also I liked the imaginative plots, brilliant rhetoric and speedy movement of plays by Hideki Noda, so I aimed to write those kinds.

I collapsed from stress two weeks before my first play was due to open. I think it was really because the play then wasn't good enough to show; I only had two actors lined up even though I had written 800 pages. So I consulted Hidenori So, my mentor at En, and he praised one part of my 800-page script. He advised me to expand on that particular three-page part. That was actually just a minor everyday conversation scene, and in spite of my first intention to write large-scale entertainment, I found I was actually good at writing sketches of ordinary people's daily lives — in other words, realist drama. When I'd finished writing in that tone, and the stagings went quite well, I decided to form my theater company in order to create plays about ordinary people's unglamorous lives. Since then, I've never again tried to write anything like one of Noda's plays.

I've read you were never actually interested in the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Yes. Until director Hidenori Inoue asked me to write a play about Izo Okada in that era, I'd never been interested in that period at all. But I wanted to work with Inoue at any cost, so I accepted his offer. Surprisingly, once I got down to it, it was very interesting. It would be rather grisly if I wrote a modern play with so much killing in it because life today is already horrible. But as "Izo" is a historical play with a historical context, I could freely enjoy writing such a brutal killer's story. Basically, I was not interested in samurai murderers; I was much more drawn to lives of ordinary people who had to live with such ambitious lunatics. Actually, when I was writing it, I drew on my own experiences — I tried to put Izo and his master Takeichi's relationship in the framework of mine and Inoue's, as he is my master in the theater world.

What have you learned from the collaboration?

Inoue's staging is completely different — it's showy entertainment. And it's at the grand-scale Aoyama Theater, and I have never had one of my plays on such a large stage before. So with "Izo" I just concentrated on writing the script, and I left the direction entirely to Inoue. It was a great experience to see my script being brilliantly polished as a spectacle. So, the biggest thing I've learned working with Inoue is to rely on another director and enjoy the delight of a team job.

What do you want to do in the future?

I am agonizing over my theater directing a bit now. I am not sure if I have enough talent at theatrically visualizing plays, especially at big theaters. I am confident directing in small or midsize theaters, but I think I have to study more to direct at bigger venues. Also, I have lots of things to write about, but not so many plays to direct at the moment — so perhaps I feel more comfortable about writing plays than directing them just now.

Is there anyone in particular you would like to collaborate with?

My great wish is to work with Tamasaburo Bando. I'll never forget my excitement when I saw his Desdemona in "Othello" when I was small.

"Izo" runs till Feb. 3 at the Aoyama Theatre, a 7-min. walk from JR Shibuya Station. For more details, call (0570) 00-3337 or visit www.sunrisetokyo.com; it then travels to Theater Brava in Osaka Feb. 10-19. For more details, call (06) 6233-8888 or visit www.kyodo-osaka. co.jp "Uranus" runs from Feb. 6-17 at the Aoyama Enkei Theatre, a 7-min. walk from JR Shibuya Station. For more details, call Nelke Planning at (03) 5469-5280 or visit www.nelke.co.jp/stage/uranos/

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