The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
Theater is an experiment in communityThe world of Yoji Sakate, pioneer in small theater

Yoji Sakate
Japan was always like this, but it’s getting worse. For example, concerning opposition to the death penalty, there’s very little here and the press rarely writes it up. Last year there was an important law passed in the area of criminal law (the average 20-year term after which most prisoners serving life sentences have been released from prison in Japan was raised to 30 years) but there was almost no media coverage of that. Last year I wrote a play, Blind Touch, modeled on a man named Fumiaki Hoshino, a political prisoner who was arrested on trumped up charges and has been in prison for 34 years. But we never see media coverage of the problem of how the time actually served for life sentences can be arbitrarily decided within the penal system.

Sometimes I don’t know why I have to do this all by myself with my plays. I’m certainly not enough by myself. We need more people to take these things up. If you ask me whether or not there is freedom in Japan, I would have to say that I really don’t know. The Japanese people are all holding their breath. They cannot exhale, they cannot express themselves. The young Japanese girl in “The Attic” says that she envies Anne Frank’s freedom. Anne Frank, she says, was overjoyed when she heard about the plan to assassinate Hitler. “I,” she adds, “am looking forward to watching a television serial drama.”

I don’t know whether freedom really gives people the right choices or the wisdom to opt for them. We Japanese always give in to the prevailing customs of the time. We opt for freedom that doesn’t rock the boat.

→“Play of the Month”

by Roger Pulvers

In a moving passage the young girl who has locked herself up in her own personal attic speaks of Anne Frank. The young girl, presumably living in present-day Japan, can choose to do what she likes with her life, unlike Anne Frank. And yet she envies Anne Frank’s freedom. She asks herself, and us in the process, what freedom is.

It is in scenes like this that “The Attic” soars. It becomes a vehicle for introspection that we all ride in. In that sense, the young girl who is holed up in her attic as well as the young man who makes the same choice are more aware of society’s pitfalls and traps than those “free people” who come to save them.

The space itself is an ingenious device. It is literally a hole in the wall. Yet Sakate as director uses this with great skill, giving it a flexibility that is sometimes quite startling. Being an attic it is just below the roof. But, at various times during the play, it is underground, at the very top of the sky (yet when the young man’s brother jumps out he is on terra firma), in what appears to be a dugout during a war and so on. The attic suddenly becomes a womb when a character tells us that a fetus is a kind of hikikomori.

This word, hikikomori, is pivotal to the play. It refers to the young Japanese people who withdraw from society and hole up in a room, usually in their parents’ home. But it is clear from the beginning that Sakate is much more than a social commentator on contemporary Japanese mores. On one occasion the young girl’s teacher comes to visit her, presumably to persuade her to give up her voluntary isolation and return to school. But, in this scene which turns into a hilarious comment on the level of bullying in adult society, the teacher, all choked up, begs forgiveness from the young girl and expresses the desire herself to be shut off from the outside.

Other scenes which display what has come to be thought of as a most unJapanese black humor involve the young man’s over-protective mother, who, it appears, prefers her son to be near her even if it means that he is seriously disturbed and agoraphobic; two detectives who long to see themselves as characters in a television police drama; a virtually homeless family that lives in a cardboard “attic”; news reports from 2023; a mountain retreat in a blizzard; the attic-as-coffin, where the dead young man hams it up to great comic effect; the attic as stage for a parody of a jidaigeki, or samurai drama (the samurai can’t draw their swords for lack of room!)…in other words, Sakate’s attic is a microcosm of Japanese society in the first instance and, by clear implication, of life in our time.

Sakate’s manipulation of the space through the use of sound and light is brilliantly inventive. Each region occupied by the attic, whether physical or mental, is clarified in our mind by light and sound, defining the space and its purpose in the scene.

The cast’s physical and vocal work is equally brilliant. As an ensemble they work with an amazing unity in style and rhythm, with very clear yet not overly mannered gestures that go further to defining the attic that they find themselves in. Their physical discipline reminded me of what I saw many years ago in Wroclaw in Jerzy Grotowski’s theater.

Sakate reaches far out of Japan with this play. He is equally at home in portraying kitsch Japanese TV-screen types as he is historical figures such as Kaspar Hauser, who, like Anne Frank, was kept isolated from the outside world involuntarily. When the young girl visited by her teacher turns her little bedside lamp into a planetarium projector and the entire theater is flooded in stars, we realize that Sakate’s attic can take us anywhere our imagination allows it to.

He combines the wacky with the arch-serious, the mundane with the lyrical: in one of two beautiful monologues we are told that “the dream just continues on…it never ends….” And we finally come to learn that the object that the young man who committed suicide in his attic held in his hands was not a weapon, a stick or a pole, but a paintbrush. If Sakate’s attic is everyplace, then the young artist’s portrait, left on the attic’s wall--just as people left drawings on the walls of caves tens of thousands of years ago--is of everyperson.

Sakate’s “The Attic” is universal in more ways than one.
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