|If the “individual” giving way to “solitude” that you mentioned earlier and the hollowing out of Japan’s taproot that you have just mentioned are occurring, that is certainly an interesting state of affairs that perhaps means that even if the long-awaited Godot were to come, few would be able to find a meaningful experience in the arrival. This is the kind of contemporary condition you took as your theme in the latest work you brought out this year, titled Yattekita Godot (Godot has come) with the subtitle “Fujori Dotabata Kigeki” (slapstick comedy of the absurd). Do you by any chance believe that Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a play that should be read with a sense of humor?
Yes, I believe so. When seen as a whole, I think that the theater world is still infected with the belief that tragedy is the true path of theater. But, I believe that comedy is actually the most effective way to depict the contemporary world. I think that is in fact comedy that is the true path and, although it may seem like an extreme way to express it, tragedy is an outdated way of measuring human existence in terms of the old context of “a dialogue between human beings and the gods” [or between the Christian or Muslim and his/her God]. In reality, comedy is clearly the mainstream in our daily lives today and I feel that we are in an age when the patterns of action of comedy are highly effective. So, if you think Waiting for Godot is an important work, I think you should try to read it with a sense of humor, and Yattekita Godot (Godot has come) is a play I wrote in an effort to make “Godot” succeed as a comedy.
I think you will agree that there is a tendency in the world at large today to look down on comedy as something corny and meaningless. The only time it is really appreciated is when it includes social satire. But the comedy I am interested in is not that kind. It is pure “nonsense comedy” that has no social satire or anything like it. Nonsense comedy is the purest form of comedy, and I would even go on to say that I feel nonsense comedy is the ultimate form of absurdist theater. I believe that Ionesco’s The Lesson and The Chairs are ultimate nonsense comedy.
Your plays have a quality that doesn’t end with laughter of the moment but leaves a lasting and inspiring impression on the audience of the work as a whole after the performance is over. It seems to me that when you are writing these plays you must have something in your mind that transcends the theatrical space of the play itself and it is the tension between these two dimensions that brings the work to the realm of the universal.
Yes, there is a sense of something transcendental. It is something different from the Western concept of God, something connected to the Buddhist concept of “ku” (emptiness), something that might be expressed with words like void or nihility. Kafka said that before the gods, man is always in the wrong. Even when it is the gods that are wrong, it is always man that is judged to be wrong. If it is truly the human being that is always in the wrong, this is tragedy. But if the human being is judged to be in the wrong even when it is the gods that have been wrong, this is comedy—I believe that this is the ultimate form of absurdist comedy. I believe that we want some transcendent entity not as an object of worship but as a means to confirm whether human beings are indeed in the wrong or not.
In 2003, you took the position as director of Hyogo Prefecture’s Piccolo Theater company (Amagasaki Youth Creative Theater of Hyogo Prefecture). How has that been for you?
I don’t think the kind of grand-scale dramas we were doing in the 1960s that took on the world as a whole and said “This is the contemporary world” can be valid theater in today’s world. If there is one redeeming hope, I believe it is that there can be region specific theater based on the character of a particular region or locality. In that sense, I believe it is a quite important development that local theater companies are beginning to do plays in their local dialect.
The various regional dialects of Japan are homogenized in the “unified” national dialect spoken on the national televisions station NHK, but this “standardized” language has little potential or power left as a theatrical language. I feel that it has lost its “power as word” and only the meaning is left, as if it were a code. But local dialects still have physical element, a sensual element. It has not just meaning but also a smell, a resonance. And those elements give it substance and the power to arouse drama. In the past, local dialects were dismissed as something lacking in universality, but now that very lack of universality makes it effective as a tool, an added means for nurturing more intimate communication within a local community. I feel great possibility in the prospect of depending on a local community and making the effort to develop theater there that has a unique local character, using the local dialect. I feel that this kind of effort can develop into a source of broader cultural activities.
Speaking in terms of language, we have for example playwrights like Oriza Hirata, who has created what is called “Contemporary Colloquial Theater” by making almost excessive use of everyday language in his scripts. On the other hand we also have Daisuke Miura, who presents young people in their raw, pre-verbal state in his plays. And then there are young playwrights like Toshiki Okada who use the slang of today’s young people just as it is in their plays.
I believe there is something correct and positive in such efforts. I don’t have many opportunities to see the plays of today’s younger playwrights but I can sense that they are doing simulating work in their own unique styles. That is why I am not at all pessimistic about the future of theater. I have the feeling that there will probably be new things coming out of the regional localities and that there will be new things produced in Tokyo that originate from sources other than standardized Japanese.
This is probably a naïve question, but I would like to ask you if you believe there is an experience that the medium of theater can bring to people which cannot be experienced through other media like movies or television or music.
Yes, there is. I think that theater is probably the only mechanism by which life-sized people can confront life-sized people with drama in practical and effective context. I feel that, in the end, the old, inconvenient nature of theater as a moment shared by only a small number of people in a closed-off environment is actually a fortunate limitation. In this age of globalism where something spoken in Japanese is immediately translated into English and things that can be understood anywhere proliferate in borderless media, I think you can even go so far as to say that culture itself becomes a product for consumption. In an age where culture is accumulated and recorded as material for reproduction and replaying, I have the feeling that the closed environment of theater can in fact be an important foothold and source of inspiration for the creative process.
I speak in terms of nikusei (the live voice) and I say that I believe the live voice is disappearing from the world at large. The live voice retains that portion of communication that is lost when a voice is codified [in the process of being recorded or transcribed]. It is like the difference between Western medicines and Chinese herbal medicines. Instead of extracting only the necessary active ingredient, the unnecessary parts are also used in their raw, un-extracted form. Although we may not know how those unnecessary parts function, we find that the herbal medicine may have less side-effects or be easier on the body and the person. In other words there may be something important in the traditional form that has been verified by tradition. I definitely believe that theater is a tradition what contains such inexplicable elements, and it is those elements that haven’t been extracted out or abstracted that are important.