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Ai Nagai
NAGAI, Ai
Ai Nagai is playwright, director and leader of the theater company Nitosha. She graduated from the Toho Gakuen College of Drama and Music with a major in theater. She is one of the most sought-after playwrights in Japan today for her “Well-made Play” that treats social issues from a critical perspective. Nagai presently serves as the President of the Japan Playwrights Association. Nitosha was founded in 1981 by Nagai and her fellow theater artist, Shizuka Oishi, as a two-woman theater company. Both being born in the Year of the Rabbit, they named their company Nitosha (meaning a company of two rabbits). They took turns writing plays for the company’s productions, while also acting in them. From 1983, Nagai assumed the role of director for these productions. In 1991, Oishi left the company to concentrate on scriptwriting, after which Nitosha became a production company for Nagai’s plays directed by Nagai herself. These activities continue to this day. Nagai’s plays have won a strong reputation for their outstanding story development, the interesting characters she creates, the witty lines and contemporary themes. Particular acclaim has been won by her “Sengo Seikatsushi-geki Sanbusaku” (Postwar Life History Play Triology) which began in 1994 as a series of plays that tells the stories of groups of characters whose daily private lives reflect the changing times. Her plays Miyo, Hikoki no Takaku Toberu wo and Ra Nuki no Satsui, written for the Seinen-za company and Theatre Echo respectively have also won critical acclaim. And, the Nitosha production of her play Ani Kaeru was awarded the 44th Kishida Kunio Drama Award (sponsored by Hakusui-sha) in 1999. Expectations are high for Nagai’s continued contributions to Japanese theater.
http://www.nitosha.net/
Utawasetai Otoko-tachi
Utawasetai Otoko-tachi
(Oct.-Nov. 2005 / Benisan Pit)
Cast: Keiko Toda, Ryosuke Otani0 Moeko Koyama0 Masami Nakagami, Yoshimasa Kondo
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* “Sengo Seikatsushi-geki Sanbusaku” (Postwar Life History Drama Triology)

Toki no Monooki (Time’s Storeroom) (1994)
A proud family being changed by the pragmatism of Japan’s era of high economic growth rate.

©Nitosha
In 1961, even though the heat of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty conflict remained, Japan was entering its era of rapid growth of the economy, when the government was promoting a program to double per capita income, a leisure boom was raging and families were hoping to bring home the big three consumer items: a TV, an automatic washing machine and a refrigerator. The country was also looking forward to hosting the Olympics three years later. The “poor but proud” Shinjo family doesn’t have a television yet. But, the mysterious woman Tsuruko who rents a vacant room in the Shinjo house receives a television and that leads to frequent visits by people from the neighborhood. The wife of the Shinjo house, grandma Nobu is deeply concerned. There was surely a reason why the daughter Tokiko and her husband sent Tsuruko a televison. The son of the family, Mitsuyo teaches middle school while writing novels. The grandson, Hidehoshi, is a college student who has decided to run for president of the local community association. The granddaughter Kasumi wants to be a Shingeki actress. The living room of the Shinjo house harbors memories of times that none of them can forget.

Papa no Democracy (Papa’s Democracy) (1995)
Defining the Japanese of the Postwar Era” in a depiction of the confusion brought on by the sudden change from militarism to democracy.

©Nitosha
The setting is Tokyo in 1946, just after the end of World War II. The priest of a Shinto shrine, Tadanobu Kinouchi, is being criticized as having been a running dog of the militarists and is therefore woefully out of place in the new age of democracy. His eldest son is being held in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia and in these times when food is scarce he has to support his son’s wife, Fuyu, his second son, Nobukiyo, and a live-in freeloader named Motohashi (former special political police officer). To add to his troubles a former member of the Women’s Association for the National Defense now turned democratic activist, Midorikawa, shows up demanding that he take in seven people who lost their homes during the war. Among them is an assistant director from the Toho film studio named Yokokura who is deeply involved in the debate about what democracy is and frequently gets into fights about it with Tadanobu. Fuyu becomes completely absorbed in Yokokura’s activism and begins organizing strikes to improve labor conditions. To this, an adopted son, Chiyokichi, returns from the war. Fuyu tries to get the weak-willed Chiyokichi to get involved in her activist movement by preaching to him about democracy, but ….
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A look into the theater craft of Ai Nagai   A leader in the genre of social comedy  
 
Ai Nagai is a playwright and director who creates plays that deal with contemporary themes in the context of daily life with a comical touch. Her artistic activities have especially attracted attention since the 1994 start of her “Postwar Life Drama Trilogy” (*) of plays dealing with the rapidly changing values of Japan’s postwar years in a home comedy format that has won her a number of major awards. In the wake of her winning the 2005 Asahi Drama Awards Grand Prize for her play Utawasetai Otoko-tachi (Men Who Want to Make Us Sing), which deals with the problem of mandatory singing of the national anthem in the setting of a public school, we spoke with Nagai about her works.
(Interviewer: Roger Pulvers)


What was your initial encounter with theater?
When I am asked why I wanted to do theater, I really think that I would have to go all the way back to our group dances in nursery school. Looking back, I realize that I liked doing things in front of people, an audience, from a very early age. When I was complimented on my singing, I dreamed for a while of becoming a singer. But in the end I gave up that idea and next I decided that I wanted to become a stage actor.
My father is a painter and he had a number of friends in the theater world, and he once wrote an essay about Van Gogh for the pamphlet for Gekidan Mingei’s production of Hono no Hito, Gogh. And, I think I may have been influenced to some degree by the fact that young stage actors often visited our home.
When I graduated from high school I was a member of the Friends of the Haiyu-za theater company and saw all their productions. At the time I became a fan of their lead actress Etsuko Ichihara and thought that I just had to become a member of the Haiyu-za company. That is why I chose to enter the theater department of Toho Gakuen College of Drama and Music. When I was in college in the 1970s the “angura” theater (underground theatre / theatre noir) movement was popular, so I was always going to performances at small underground theaters like Jokyo Gekijo, Kuro Tent (Black Tent Theater) and Jiyu Gekijo. That killed my desire to enter a company of the “Shingeki” (naturallistic western-style theatre) genre. But, I also didn’t have the courage to try to enter one of the “angura” companies, so I took the test to enter the Kobo Abe Studio but wasn’t accepted. Eventually, I left home saying that I would do theater while earning my own living with part-time jobs.
It was the kind of era where we didn’t think about being recognized by the existing establishment. And while I was drifting from job to job I got an invitation to join a theater company called Shunjudan, and that is where I met Shizuka Oishi. The company disbanded after two years, so Oishi and I decided to try to do something on our own. That is when we started our Nitosha company. At that time I had no intention of becoming a playwright or a director, but I really had no choice, because if I didn’t write my own play I wouldn’t have a play to act in.

You are known today as a playwright who deals with social issues. How is it that you came to take this approach?
When I look back at myself, I was still a child during the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty protests of the 60s, and I remember that for some reason we children used to shout “No to the Security Treaty!” when we were running around playing choo-choo train. I don’t know why, but it was a time when even ordinary shop owners were hanging anti-Treaty posters in their shop windows. It is hard to imagine in Japan today. But, I also participated in anti-Vietnam War protests when I was in high school.
My father was a member of the Communist Party and we were a family where political discussions were commonplace. But that was something that, in my child’s mind, I disliked. I didn’t want to listen to political talk, I wanted to talk about brighter, more optimistic things, the things that dreams are made of. I wanted to live on a lighter, easier level. I would go to my friends’ houses and they would be talking about TV shows or the latest electrical appliances, not about what is wrong with Japan or how the world should be. And, I would envy that kind of atmosphere. But, when it came time for me to go out into society and start making it on my own, I realized that I could never be like those people.
For example, in Utawasetai Otoko-tachi I dealt with a problem that is actually happening now in the public school system. It is now mandatory that the national anthem be sung and the national flag be displayed at certain ceremonies and events in the public schools, and in Tokyo, teachers who don’t obey this rule are dealt with harshly. When I read about this in newspaper articles, it disturbed me, even though it is not something that affects me directly. The public authorities do not allow freedom of choice in this matter and, as a result more than 200 teachers have been punished for not standing at attention and singing the national anthem. But the general public doesn’t speak out about this problem. I decided to make it into a play and ask if this isn’t a problem worth speaking out about.

Why do you think most people have so little interest in problems like this?
There was a big resurgence of political protest during the 1960s with the Security Treaty controversy, but the opposition movement eventually died out and Japan entered its period of high economic growth rate when everyone became bent on acquiring material wealth. There was also a flurry of political protest in the 70s, but the mood eventually soured as a result of several rather grotesque incidents where activists from different sects were murdering each other. So, people were told that such protest was only destructive and didn’t lead to any constructive good. While this was going on, Japan entered its bubble economy period and, in the end we were told that the protest had been meaningless because the establishment had brought prosperity to the country ….
We can probably say that it was the repetition of a cycle of political thought being repressed in these ways that led to today’s mentality. In Japan there has been a long tradition in which people are told to go with the flow, and those who stick their heads out get them chopped off. Living in this kind of an environment for so long, people have never gotten into the habit of thinking for themselves. I believe that it is this history of never questioning your own conscience and just following the powers that be that has produced today’s complacency and apathy with regard to political issues.

Could you tell us about Utawasetai Otoko-tachi in a little more detail?
Even though I have taken up this theme of what is happening in the public schools, I have not written it as a play of accusation. And, I believe that even if I took that approach, it would not be interesting. Instead, I wanted to write a play where we could experience what happens when a system is put in place that “forces” us to do something. We may read about these issues in the newspaper, but I think it is hard for most people to imagine the things that are actually going on in these situations and what the people involved are actually saying and doing and what the atmosphere is like. By writing a play about this issue, I first wanted to find out what I personally would experience. Then I wanted people to experience it through my play so that I could find out what they think.
Can you imagine that in our municipal schools today teachers are subjected to questioning and are seriously reprimanded by the board of education for teaching that the Japanese constitution ensures the right of freedom of thought to all citizens? They are actually being seriously reprimanded for teaching about the constitution! Can you believe it? I wanted to get people to experience the absurdity of what is going on and ask them if they think it is natural for a teacher to be called in and reprimanded by the principal for not standing at attention and then for the school to employ the principle of collective responsibility and all the teachers forced to attend a [corrective] study group. Would things like this feel strange or would they feel natural? What would the common-sense reaction be? I wanted to find this out from the audiences’ reactions. And, to make sure that I wasn’t just selecting the materials that supported my point of view, I also included in the script parts giving the board of education’s side of the argument. Some of the audience even misinterpreted those parts as being my true message. But, the most frequent answer we got on the play’s questionnaire was that the audience was definitely worried about living in a Japan where this kind of situation is progressing. Although I may not have changed most of the audiences’ stance as bystanders in this issue, I think I did succeed in getting most of them to start thinking and make judgments with an attitude that this is a problem that involves them, too.

People say that one of your characteristics as a playwright is that the more you make your plays about everyday lives of everyday people the more they come to involve social problems.
Even if you are not focusing on social problems per se, if, for example, you have an elderly mother you have to care for, that automatically involves issues like Japan’s medical system and welfare system and the circumstances of the person(s) involved. In this way, the everyday lives of everyday people always connect to problems of the society. So, it is not a question of having any particular political consciousness that brings these problems into my plays. It is rather that if you are portraying the lives or ordinary people, who are in fact social entities, some social problems will always emerge. I want to continue to write about them without avoiding the social and political aspects that come out when you try to portray ordinary human beings.
 
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