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Friday, April 24, 2009
Wishing Chong: from barbecue to demons
Special to The Japan Times
2008 was undoubtedly the year of "Yakiniku Dragon" ("Korean Barbecue Dragon"), a realistic, autobiographical work by the Korean-Japanese playwright Wishing Chong that premiered April 17 in the New National Theatre's Pit. When the curtain came down that night on the NNT/Seoul Arts Center collaboration that he codirected with Jung Ung Yang, Japan's theater world was abuzz; the play went on to monopolize last year's drama awards.
Chong, now 52, dropped out of Doshisha University in Kyoto to work in the movie business after watching around 700 films over two years. Later, in 1987, he cofounded the Shinjuku Ryozanpaku Company with his Korean-Japanese colleagues. He has written that when he first visited South Korea as an adult, he realized he is not Korean, and now feels ambivalent about the country.
Chong is striking out in a new direction with his latest play, "Kamogawa Horumo," a fantasy-comedy set among a group of young students. Based on a novel of the same name by Manabu Makime, the story tells of a young man who joins a mysterious extracurricular group at Kyoto University that is doing battle with groups in three other universities using demons. "Kamogawa Horumo" opens next month in Kichijoji, where The Japan Times visited Chong last week. Tell me about being Korean-Japanese in Japan. After the war, many poor people — both Korean-Japanese and Japanese — built shacks around the walls of Himeji Castle, and my family was one of them. My father had moved here from (present- day) South Korea when he was young.
Lots of people in Korean-Japanese society obstinately stick to traditional Korean customs, even though many of them are gradually disappearing over there nowadays.
They still perform an all-night memorial service called a chesa when someone dies and on certain anniversaries of their death. When I was young, I thought everyone did the same thing and didn't realize that it is a tradition unique to that community. However, I knew I was Korean-Japanese and not just Japanese from when I was very young, because my father was always telling us to learn a trade so we could earn a living with a special skill. He said that if we just tried to get company jobs, then Japanese people would always have priority over us.
Anyway, I was a daydreamer when I was young, forever reading all kinds of books, from novels to pornographic magazines (laughs) that my father, who was a scrap-collector, brought back every day.
You are now working in South Korea? Yes, I'm a visiting professor at Chuo University in Seoul, so I go there every two or three months. I will make new plays with the university drama students, so although I can't give lectures in fluent Korean, my instruction is more practical. We will stage these plays in the Tehanno district of Seoul, where there are almost 100 theaters and the system is quite different from in Japan. If a production is doing well then its run will keep on being extended. For example, the hit musical "Chikatetsu 1 go-sen (Line 1)" has just closed after a 14-year run.
In last 10 years, the Korean theater scene has grown incredibly. When we took "Yakiniku Dragon" to Seoul last year, I got so many job offers that I was at a loss at what to do because I am not good at saying "No," and they are so pushy! (Laughs.) How did "Kamogawa Horumo" come about? It's based on a 2006 novel of the same name by Manabu Makime. I liked it very much when it came out. It is one of three plays based on contemporary literature that are being produced by the Atelier Duncan company. When they asked me to direct, I accepted the challenge immediately, though now I regret that a bit, because the novel is so imaginative and full of fantasy that I realized it was quite a hard job. "Kamogawa Horumo" has also been made into a movie that renders the demons with computer graphics. How will you deal with the demons live on stage? I am thinking of making them quite scary characters, though the movie versions are cute and comical. I will present the demons in a low-tech theatrical way. What do you think about contemporary theater in Japan? I'm surprised how many young, mature writers there are in their 20s and 30s nowadays, and they write very sophisticated, well-finished plays. However, most of the plays are set in their writers' closed worlds and only relate to their own soul-searching. I don't think there's any point in doing theater if it doesn't try to share something with the audience, and if it doesn't relate to the wider world. Sometimes I've wanted to throw rocks at the stage after I've seen such self-absorbed type of plays. Have you felt the language barrier when staging plays in Japanese in other countries? I rarely feel a language barrier in any place. My play "Ningyo Densetsu" ("Legend of a Mermaid") was staged in Germany and other countries, but people laughed and cried at almost the same times everywhere. I always aim to make theater that's open to any nationally and that relates to any society.
"Kamogawa Horumo" runs from May 15 till June 7 at the Kichijoji Theater, a 5-minute walk from JR Kichijoji Station. It then tours to Kyoto, Nagoya and Osaka. For more details, call (0570) 00-3337 or visit www.duncan.co.jp/web/stage/horumo/