The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
Keishi Nagatsuka is a leader of a new generation of contemporary theater artists who finds fantasy in the darker sides of the human character
The Pillowman
The Pillowman
Photo by Ryo Sekimura

Performed originally as part of the London National Theater repertoire over the period from November 2003 to April 2004. It won the 2004 Laurence Olivier Award for best new play. It is a thrilling black comedy about an author in some authoritarian state who is arrested on the charges that children are being killed one after another by the same means described in the grim stories in author's children's books. In the interrogation room where he is being questioned by the detectives, frightening new facts are revealed one after another. As his first work set outside of Ireland, The Pillowman has won McDonagh new acclaim. In November of 2004, Keishi Nagatsuka directed a highly acclaimed production of the play at the Parco Theater in Tokyo that has won several awards.
Song of the Devil
Song of the Devil
→ "Play of the Month"
How about The Pillowman?
Since it is a story about an author, I believe it must have been written with great effort and soul-searching. It is fascinating because of all the internal pains and joys of the author that come out in the play. With this play, I think McDonagh has reached a new level as a playwright and that was a very stimulating discovery for me. I saw a performance of the play in London and I remember thinking when it was over that what happened in the story was terrible but I still felt saved. There was salvation for me in it. I don't know if it was when the "green girl" came out or when he didn't burn the manuscripts, but there was something uplifting for me, and despite being very gritty with raw human emotions, I came to perceive it as fantasy. And that left a very strong impression on me. It may be a dark, heavy and painful play to watch, but in the end you may be surprised to come out with a lightened heart. And, you can leave thinking, "I'll figure out why I feel uplifted later." McDonagh doesn't create characters that are just cruel and heartless. His characters have both front and back sides and he is good at showing the dark side of people. That is what I originally liked about his plays and why I wanted to do stage productions of them. And when I staged this play I did so thinking that I would consider it a success if you could see one ray of light at the end. With The Pillowman I had a much clearer line of thought concerning what I wanted to do compared to The Lieutenant of Inishmore.
After staging McDonagh's plays I found it very tiring to get back to writing my own plays. I found myself saying, "If McDonagh read this he would probably laugh," and then I rewrite it. Because we are of the same generation, I find myself thinking, "Since McDonagh has written such powerful scripts, this [that I am writing] is not good enough." I find that much more often I am asking myself, "Is this good enough?" or "Is this written well enough." After doing McDonagh's plays I find that I am reaching for the next level in the plays I write and the characters I create. This has been a very big thing for me.

In your latest work Song of the Devil you take on the theme of World War II. Will you tell us your thoughts about war?
When I was in elementary school we were shown documentaries about the atomic bomb and it was a terrifying and very dramatic experience for me. In junior high school our teachers were what you would call left-leaning and they told us there are things that are not written in Japan's history textbooks. They told us about how the Japanese army's 731 Corps used Chinese for testing chemical weapons. Thanks to that "leftist education" I became negative about Japan. Then, by the time I entered college we were beginning to see Japanese athletes competing overseas, and there would be people in the stands waving the Japanese flag. Those images made me think, "Is this the kind of country we are?" I'd ask myself "What is going on?" And there were a lot of questions that I didn't have answers for. Is the structure of today's world determined by the winners and the losers of World War II? Then I began to think, "What would Asia be like today if there had not been a WWII?" My mind was full of a lot of complex questions, and I went to Okinawa to see the war documentation there. And I though about what those people had been fighting for. Surely there was an element of fighting for the country, but I came to the conclusion that these were people with ordinary lives and in the end they were fighting for their families and their loved ones. These were citizens that the countries at the time pulled into the war—just like we would be pulled into a war if it happened today—and I thought that those many ordinary people can't be negated. We have to admit the wrongs that Japan was responsible in the War and feel sorry for them, but at the same time we must not forget to respect those ordinary people for what they did.

Now we have the Iraq war and the involvement of Japan as one of the current topics. Is this why you chose to take up the theme of war at this particular time?
It is not because of the timing (and because this year is its 60th year memorial) but because this is a time I have been thinking about the question of war (not only because. After reaching the age of 27 or 28 I had the clear feeling that I had to deal with the theme of war. Of course there may be a number of influences involved, but if my plays cause people today to think even for a minute about that [WWII] time and to think about how they are living now, it will be worth it for me. If you ask people, "Do you like Japan?" I think they will stop to think about that question.

In this most recent work you are looking at war not from a historical or ideological perspective but from the point of view of human psychology, aren't you?
Yes. The only thing I wanted to do was to portray those people who were there. It was my first trip to Okinawa and I spent all my time going to the war museums, archives and battle sites. For four days and three nights I immersed myself completely in the war. I went to the Kiyan Point where the islanders threw themselves to their death rather than surrender to the American forces when there was nowhere else to run. It is a devastatingly beautiful place. And it was hard to believe that people were killing themselves in such an incredibly beautiful place. But, that is what war is, I realized. The scenery and other thinks no longer matter at all. All I could do was stand there in disbelief, in a state of semi-shock. It was tough.
Rather than presenting your ideas as intellectual arguments, I believe there should be a way in which things take the shape of solid statements in the course of naturally following your direct emotions. Last year I saw a Brit-Pop movie titled Live Forever and it showed me through its tour of the popular music hit charts how the rock musicians were thinking about their country as the governments changed from Thatcher to Majors to Blaire. It was very stimulating for me to see how they faced the political situations and showed where they stood with regard to their country of Great Britain. It was quite a shock for me to realize that what I had been appreciating simply as music also had very political meaning and that these musicians were consciously taking political stances. I want to look at the same types of questions sometimes, and I now believe that is an essential part of creating works.
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