Beijing opera is emblematic of Chinese theatre, and the shadow puppets of Wayang Kulit are iconic symbols of Indonesian culture. So too kabuki, noh, bunraku, and kyogen are familiar global ambassadors of the Japanese stage.
Since traditional performing arts are its best-sellers internationally, it’s no surprise that on the culture information site All About Japan you’ll find kabuki, kagura (Shinto music and dance), bunraku, noh, and rakugo (comic storytelling) among suggestions to tourists for entertaining theatre outings, alongside the Takarazuka Revue, Gekidan Shiki (Japanese musicals staged in a Western style), and works by English-language (mainly expatriate) community theatre groups.
Consequently most visitors have little incentive to include contemporary theatre in their itinerary. But in light of such popular Japanese exports as manga, anime, computer games, cosplay, sushi, and lately KonMari, surely it’s high time the country’s vibrant if largely inward-looking contemporary theatre followed suit—perhaps becoming more international, even universal, along the way.
Fortunately there are encouraging stirrings. In particular the 2020 Tokyo Olympics/Paralympics is prompting various initiatives, inspired in part by the runaway success of Britain’s nationwide “cultural Olympics” when London hosted in 2012. In the performing arts field, for example, the large-scale annual Tokyo Festival was launched in fall 2016 as an international theatre event showcasing leading-edge theatres from around the world to the wider public. As adjuncts to that, festivals featuring small-scale experimental Japanese theatres, colorful programs from other Asian countries, and traditional performing arts events open to ordinary people, are now flourishing as well.
Taking advantage of the festive Olympic spirit to spread performing arts cultures to a wider public, many of these programs actually happen on the streets, in parks, and in other open-air spaces. There, people who have perhaps never been inside a theatre may casually encounter—and hopefully enjoy—something they’d never thought was for them.
Unfortunately, Japanese contemporary theatre productions, cutting-edge and otherwise, are almost never staged with the English (and/or Chinese or Korean) subtitles that might open them to tourists. In contrast, kabuki theatres normally provide a multilingual earphone service, while major Korean musicals that draw so many foreign visitors to Seoul often have subtitles in Japanese, Chinese, and English. Clearly this language barrier in Japan—a product, in part, of risk-averse producers preferring short runs they can sell out locally without the cost of subtitles—deters most foreigners, but it also ensures that Tokyo is unlikely to have a Broadway or West End of its own any time soon.
A few producers and venues have recently found a way of tapping into both the tourism bounty and domestic leisure budgets with shows that appeal equally to Japanese and others. Generally relying on sensory intensity, these non-verbal entertainment vehicles tend to major on loud music, lighting effects, video projections and acrobatic spectacles involving sword fights, Japanese drumming (taiko), formation dancing, and suchlike. Though this rising sector may be good fun for a night out, any domestic tourists or foreign visitors looking for theatre that speaks to life in current-day Japan or beyond will most probably still find themselves left out.
Ironically the best place to find a sampling of the full range of Japan’s arts and theatre scene was in Paris last year, where Japonismes 2018 marked the 160th anniversary of diplomatic relations between France and Japan. The wide range of programs featured both cozy shows by young artists and exhibitions of works by major figures such as the influential Japanese/French painter Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita, and Jakuchu Ito, the Kyoto-based master best known for his lifelike images of birds and plants. Another standout was Au-delà des limites (Transcending Boundaries), a mind-bendingly gorgeous interactive digital installation by Tokyo-based art collective teamLab. This interdisciplinary group of ultratechnologists formed in 2001 “sees no boundary between humans and nature, and between oneself and the world; one is in the other and the other in one”—and judging from the exhibit’s popularity, neither did the many thousands who lost themselves in its ever-changing but intangible realms.
In the field of performing arts, Japonismes presented both traditional forms—noh, taiko, and kabuki—and a contemporary theatre series that delivered a comprehensive overview of the genre (with subtitles in French). Headlined by the late Yukio Ninagawa’s masterful Kafka on the Shore, presented as he staged it in 2012, and In the forest, under cherries in full bloom, a 1989 work by the leading playwright-director and actor, Hideki Noda, the program also included two plays by Toshiki Okada, founder of the globe-trotting chelfitsch company. One was Pratthana – A Portrait of Possession, a new four-hour collaboration with Thai artists that depicted a young man’s uncomfortable life in today’s Thai society. The other reprised Okada’s most influential work, 2004’s Five Days in March, set in the runup to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which exposes the alienation many younger Japanese felt then, as they still do, from the society created by their elders.
Similarly Avidya—The Ignorance Inn and The Dark Master by Kuro Tanino, staged by his Niwagekidan Penino company, respectively unpacked the closed society of a rural village and told the mysterious story of a taciturn cook raising a young boy to be a great chef. And in another work holding up a mirror to society, Shu Matsui’s Sample troupe presented his Proud Son, about a middle-aged man’s abnormally dependent relationship with his mother. This heavyweight mix of plays was leavened by a contemporary kabuki staged, with simple sets and music, and actors in plain modern clothes, by the groundbreaking Kinoshita-Kabuki company.
Another illuminating strand of Japonismes 2018 gave European audiences their first sight onstage of two megahit programs from the new made-in-Japan genre of what are called 2.5-dimensional musicals. In these productions, actors are made up and dressed like characters from the anime, manga, computer, or video games on which they are based. Paris audiences were treated to a tale of battling samurai, Touken Ranbu, drawn from the eponymous, hugely popular computer game, as well as the cute-but-tough fighting girls’ story, The Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, which began its life as a manga comic series. Despite many commentators’ skepticism in advance, people crowded to these productions, with many afterward applauding the remarkable diversity of today’s Japanese theatre.
The use of the word “diversity” brought me back to an interview I conducted in 2007 with John Caird, the director of Les Misérables. The English dramatist enthused to me about Japan’s “very vibrant theatrical culture,” marveling at the coexistence of so many wide-ranging styles, from noh to 2.5.
To be honest, as I move around as a theatre writer, I’m inclined to lose sight of that diversity. I wonder if my restricted vision is because I tend to choose my favorite programs and fail to venture into less familiar fields. perhaps it’s because Japanese contemporary theatre is fragmented into so many small groups of creators whose club-like audiences can be less than welcoming to newcomers coming along? I suspect the latter is the real reason much of Japan’s contemporary theatre remains stuck in its domestic market, rather than reaching out to the world, a la Korean pop music and musicals. That fragmentation may also be why non-traditional theatre remains a niche market and a relatively minor contributor to the nation’s culture.
These niches mean it can be hard to get a seat to a hot play in Tokyo, especially as the typically short runs mean that seating is strictly limited. The situation is exacerbated by the trend of staging productions at mid-size or large theatres with celebrity actors, singers or good-looking “idols” to headline the cast, nearly eliminating the risk of empty seats. So for an average run of two to four weeks, tickets are often entirely sold out long before the opening curtain rises.
This isn’t a new trend; actors have long been a key draw in Japanese theatre. In kabuki, for instance, audiences all know the story but attend repeatedly just to bask in the glow of a particular actor’s presence, skill, and artistic expression. For mainstream contemporary theatre, the prime ticket buyers at large and mid-size venues are young women eager to see their favorite ikemen (good-looking young men) in the flesh as many times as possible (or their favorite Takarazuka actresses in male roles). Young men, of course, may do the same for actresses they idolize, but the phenomenon is overwhelmingly dominated by women, who throng theatres with wild cheers and thrown gifts and flowers.
As a leading contemporary director, Hidenori Inoue, whose Gekidan Shinkansen company is one of the best-attended in Japan, told me, “Many theatregoers here just want to see their favorite actors and follow their careers, rather than particular programs. There’s also a fundamental fickleness in the Japanese nature, and a tendency to get bored easily, so they prefer something that’s novel or new.”
It’s true: Theatres in Japan change their casts and programs a lot, with new works frequently favored. As a result, the same coterie of theatregoers tends to fill the seats again and again, effectively crowding out potential new audiences.
With casting so central to a work’s success, the storyline often seems secondary— after all, anyone going to see a 2.5 musical knows the story of the original manga or anime inside out. Consequently, despite the variety of styles onstage in Japan, there is less real diversity in artistic or thematic content. Many Japanese audiences, in short, seek escapism from their daily grind, and prefer to be absorbed in a fantasy entertainment world of ikemen and kawaii (cute) girls in dazzling costumes.
Contemporary dramatists and theatres dealing with live issues in Japan, like those seen at Japonismes 2018, are still generally confined to the smaller venues on the margins. Indeed most Japanese audiences don’t get to see much of the high-quality work that was on display in France.
If I had to point to one promising counterbalance, it would be 48-year-old female dramatist Mikuni Yanaihara, a world-famous choreographer and dancer who has spent her career trying to bridge the divides of genre, gender, politics, and nationality.
Yanaihara first rose to prominence in dance productions with Nibroll, the company she founded in 1997. Two years later the company, as she put it, “accidentally” attended the Avignon Festival Fringe—and drew a rapturous reception. Soon offers from other international festivals flowed in, and Nibroll was busily traveling the world.
Later Yanaihara started to write and stage plays, and in 2012—the same year she became a founder member of the Asian Women Performing Arts Collective—she won the prestigious Kishida Kunio Drama Award with Maemuki Timon (“Let’s Think Positive”), her unique adaptation of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. Now she actively creates multi-genre productions combining dance, theatre, video arts and visual arts.
In February, Yanaihara presented her latest dance-drama, Drama Queen, with a cast of five actresses. In it the women share sad memories and regrets one after another, through lively, non-stop talking and frenetic movements, their voices sometimes rising so high they are almost in hysterics. Though each episode they face seems quite minor itself, their desperate petitions show how many thorny problems still confront women in Japan.
In a recent conversation with Yanaihara, she told me that when she went to New York to study dance as a teenager, she learned she just couldn’t change the way she was, however hard she tried. At first shocked by this realization, she soon learned that being herself, rather than worrying about what’s expected of her, is the basic imperative of any artist.
Now, after traveling to several other countries, she adds to that self-realization the importance of seeing herself, and Japan, from outside. Ultimately she believes that artists create through their own bodies and minds, so it’s crucial to find themselves and not be swayed by labels of nationality, gender, or age.
Explaining her approach to her theatre and its themes, she starts with a question. “How did language develop in society?” she asks rhetorically. “I read in many books that it was so people could tell lies to deceive someone else. In the world of animals they never lie, but in human society, we tell lies and create the concept of a unified group, and that leads to religion.” That in turn, she says, leads to “totalitarianism,” by which a deceitful elite “have come to control the world with their feel-good lies, and that’s led to all kinds of troubles. In contrast, I, as an artist, would like to take such lies and, using imagination in a good way, bring forth new concepts.”
In the last scene of her play Drama Queen, the five actresses turn to the audience and say, “Don’t blame me if you’re short of money,” “Don’t blame me if we can’t stop wars,” “Don’t blame me we if still continue to have the death penalty,” and so on. Then they stretch out their hands to the audience.
Just as these heroines bravely face up to their difficulties—and responsibilities—the message is clear that Japan’s contemporary dramatists must also find themselves by shedding narrow group identities and learning to see themselves, and Japan, as if from outside. If the French example is any indication, Japanese artists may find a market beyond their own shores for their brand of honesty and innovation. Why haven’t they realized that yet?
Nobuko Tanaka has a B.A. in German literature and an M.A. in arts management. For more than 15 years she has been the main contributor of theatre and dance articles to The Japan Times, the country’s leading English-language daily newspaper, and in the last few years has begun organizing U.K. tours for Japanese theatre companies.