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Thursday, Sept. 25, 2008

An incomprehensible answer for modernity

Akira Emoto leads "Exit the King" by Eugene Ionesco

Special to The Japan Times

Check the film listings and you'll find Akira Emoto cast in at least 10 movies playing this autumn. Since winning the Japan Academy Awards prize for supporting actor in 1983 and '97 and for leading actor in '98 — for his role in "Kanzo Sensei (Dr. Liver)" — Emoto has become one of Japan's most well known stars.

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Not only is he active in film, the 59-year-old Emoto is also the leader of the Tokyo Kandenchi (Tokyo Battery) theater company that he founded in 1976 with fellow actors Junji Takada and Hidki Ayata. Emoto acts in most of Tokyo Battery's productions, as well as often being director.

The company established its reputation in Japan's contemporary theater through its unique taste in original plays, which often feature absurdity, and also through its stagings of works by Anton Chekhov and Eugene Ionesco.

Emoto is currently tackling the role of King Berenger in a production of Ionesco's "Exit the King" directed by 65-year-old Makoto Sato — the undisputed king in the world of absurdist drama — at the Owlspot theater. The play celebrates the theater's first anniversary.

How are rehearsals going?

This is the sixth time I've worked with Makoto Sato as director since we did Samuel Becket's "Waiting for Godot" in 2000. We did Becket's "Endgame" in '06. I had an amazing work experience with him during those productions, and I don't think I could have had any better job offer than "Exit the King." I feel that it's such an awesome play, even though it's totally incomprehensible to me.

You must be a big fan of Ionesco.

Yes, he's amazing. I was invited by the Eugene Ionesco Theater Company to go to Kishinev in Moldova in May, where the artistic director Petru Vutcarau was organizing a theater festival. It was my second visit to the festival, and this time we did Ionesco's masterpiece "The Lesson." Unfortunately there was a bit of a technical problem and our subtitles were not clear, but the audiences enjoyed it enormously and Vutcarau asked us to come back in 2009 with "Exit the King" for Ionesco's centenary year.

What is the play all about?

I don't know what people normally mean by "making sense." To me, for example, it's incomprehensible the way that people watch TV dramas every day. I don't understand such dramas because they are too comprehensible. I have serious doubts about such ways of thinking that are so easy to understand. I don't even want to understand such low-level kinds of dramas. So, in that sense, Ionesco's play is totally incomprehensible, and that's what makes it so interesting for me.

Nowadays, people are brought up in a simple, easily understood culture and TV programs sometimes even put on subtitles while the performers are talking, so people get used to having their culture spoon-fed to them.

Sometimes I feel it's a kind of verbal violence when people glibly say, "I don't understand it at all, so please explain it to me." It's as if they are trying to justify their ignorance and laziness. I want to ask these people whether they believe they can make out any of the meaning of their existence at all.

I imagine that kind of society is convenient for certain people because it makes it easy for them to control the masses. Nowadays, I think this tendency toward nonthinking culture is taking over the world and is combining conveniently with the never-ending drive for economic growth.

What do you think about the current state of theater in Japan?

I live in the Shimokitazawa district of Tokyo, which has for a long time been described as a Mecca of small-scale youth theater. Certainly it seems to be a flourishing theater town, but actually I don't feel it's a theatrical place at all. Theaters there put big expensive floral ornaments at the entrance, and there are seats reserved for producers and business types even in very small, cozy theaters. Of course it's all right for people to run their businesses their own way, and I wouldn't suggest that such young actors shouldn't do TV dramas, but that's not a real cultural place. Easy culture pervades everything, so, in the final analysis, Tokyo is almost a lost cause.

Under these circumstances, I am lucky to be able to spend my time intently deliberating Ionesco's great incomprehensible play.

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What's it all mean? Movie star and thespian Akira Emoto as King Berenger in Eugene Ionesco's "Exit the King" by Tokyo Theater Company © TSUKASA AOKI

You said in your book "Tokyo no Haiyu (An Actor in Tokyo)" that the audiences are your enemy. What do you mean?

When a play starts attracting big audiences, the creator should worry about its quality. Theater shouldn't have a mass following, because it is a dubious, suspicious activity in which actors should be presenting inscrutable plays with the audience peeping from the other side, from the darkness of the auditorium. Then there would be an appropriate tension between them. However, there are only a few plays nowadays that have such a powerful, tense relationship between the actors and the audiences. Creating a collaborative atmosphere in theater, as many young companies are doing, is out of order. Actors and audiences can share the work as a common subject, but there should be a confrontation between them.

What's been the history of the Japanese theater world in the last 40 years?

The '70s underground-theater movement was an antithesis to the Shingeki (modern theater) movement of the early 20th century. In turn, many small companies came out against the underground movement. So, always there was always an antiregime and antiauthoritarian energy. There was anger everywhere.

"Exit the King" runs Sept. 28-Oct. 5 at Owlspot, a 2-minute walk from Higashi Ikebukuro Station on the Yurakucho Subway Line. For more information call Owlspot at (03) 5391-0751 or visit www.owlspot.jp

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