The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
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Artist Interview
Portraying the tough but humor-filled lives of an ethnic minority   An interview with the Japan-resident Korean writer Chong Wishing
Niju Seki Shonen, Shojo Shokashu
Niju Seki Shonen, Shojo Shokashu
Tsubakigumi Production
Niju Seki Shonen, Shojo Shokashu
(Collected Song for Boys and Girls)

(Jul. 15 –24 2003 at Shinjuku Hanazono Shrine precincts specially-installed stages)
GS Chikamatsu Shoten
Tsubakigumi Production
GS Chikamatsu Shoten

(Jul. 13 –23 2006 at Shinjuku Hanazono Shrine precincts specially-installed stages)
You write a wide variety of works but it is said that you never write about the wealthy, only about minorities.
That is the society that I was born and brought up in and I can only write about the poor people of humble origins. At times I would like to write something more stylish but I don’t think it would suit me (laughs). The men who lived around me when I was a child were street-wise, but they were also lived and worked hard day to day and enjoyed their lives. They seem cheerful normally but you know that on the inside there is a lot they are dealing with. That is the way that human beings live, and you can’t be unhappy all the time. I think that is how we go through our lives day by day. I think that as we get older we are able to accept the way things are. And, I find that as I have gotten older I feel a stronger need to turn my awareness to social themes.
I was born and raised in a world of contradiction and paradox, or perhaps I should say the paradox or discrepancy of growing up in the “upper-echelon Korean shantytown on the moat wall.” So when I write, it always becomes laden with the contradictions of society. When I just write naturally there will always be people appearing here and there who are the objects of discrimination, and there will be discriminatory expressions. I have been called the writer who uses the most discriminatory language in Japan (laughs). It used to be that I was writing unconsciously about those [discriminated] people, but now I have reached the age where I feel that I have to consciously and properly write about discrimination.

One of the new works you wrote this year on commission from the New National Theatre, Tokyo with the motif of ancient Greek tragedy (Andromache) is Tatoeba No ni Saku Hana no Yo ni, which you set as a story about Japan-resident Korean women working as hostesses in a dance hall in a desolate port town just after the War. They all have their scars from the wartime hardships but they manage to live cheerfully nonetheless. The director Yumi Suzuki said that you write plays that mix tragedy and comedy together. It seems that what is tragedy to some people can be comedy to other people with a different perspective. Wouldn’t you say that tragedy and comedy are reverse sides of the same coin? Just like comedy is almost always based on underlying discrimination.
I think so, too.

The comedy in your plays seems to be in part an effort to give something enjoyable to your audience. Is that largely because you are from the Kansai region, which has always been known for the abundance of its comedy?
That is a strong element in it. We can’t live without laughter (laughs). There have to be at least three gags to make things complete (laughs). I grew up watching Yoshimoto New Comedy so the gags are almost verbose. In my generation Hachiro Oka and Kyo Hanaki were at the peak of their popularity, and I especially liked the Hanaki’s somewhat laid back plays.

When Hachiro Oka presses, “You’re stupid, aren’t you?” Kyo Hanaki comes back with “How did you know.”(Laughs)
For a long time I thought, “This guy is a genius.”

That is a true theater experience.
Yes, it is. And I think it is not just for me but a shared theater experience of all people of the Kansai region. It is the basic pattern of the fool and the needler.

When you write plays do you have the consciousness of deliberately writing in the Kansai dialect?
Tatoeba No ni Saku Hana no Yo ni was set in Kyushu so I used Kyushu dialect, but normally I want to use Kansai dialect. There aren’t many playwrights who write in Kansai dialect and there is a world that can only depicted in Kansai dialect, and I like the easy flow that the dialect can have. The has got to be a world that standard Japanese—as strange as that concept may sound—or shall I say the Kanto dialect, cannot express. So, as when I write in Kyushu dialect when the story is about Kyushu, I want to give a lot of importance to and respect the power of the words, or dialect, of the region where the story takes place. And I think that in fact this is one of the actual core elements of theater.

Besides the easy flow of the Kansai dialect you just mentioned, there is also a rough, even violent side to it as well, isn’t there? Like when someone says an aggressive “Dou ya!” (What do you say to that!) to the other person.
There is definitely a unique strength to the Kansai dialect. In expressions like, “Ondorya!” (You, bastard!). The dialect of the place where I was born and raised was actually closer to the Kawachi dialect, so it was easy for me when I was working the screenplay for Kishiwada Shonen Gurentai (1996, originally written by Riichi Nakaba, directed by Kazuyuki Idutsu).

You have won a acclaim not only as a playwright for the stage but also as a script writer for film. You are on the cutting edge of the Japanese movie scene with works like Kishiwada Shonen Gurentai, which you just mentioned, and with the film that originally made you a name, Tsuki wa Docchi ni Deteiru, and Chi to Hone (2004, originally written Yan Sogil directed by Yoichi Sai).
For me, theater and film are basically one and the same and there is no difference in the way I write for the two. In the end they are both portray the human condition. However the methods of expression are different and there are some things that each can and cannot do as media, so I am conscious of those aspects when I write. In the past I used to have a clear outline of the composition of a work before I wrote, but now I only decide on the beginning and end before I start and then it develops as I write. I am often asked for a synopsis but I resist by saying that I have never written in line with a synopsis and that I am no good at making up synopses (laughs).

Some writers say that they get pictures that come to mind.
In my case, yes, it is pictures that come to mind rather than lines of dialogue. Scenes like a heavy snow falling and someone trudging along pulling a cart. In the case of Tatoeba No ni Saku Hana no Yo ni where the setting was a dance hall, I had a clear image and wrote with a considerable amount of attention to detail, such as the position of a certain set of stairs in the hall. Early on I had worked in stage art, and although I am not very good, I paint as well. And, although I don’t do paintings [of scenes] and give them to the stage art people to work from, I do spend a lot of time talking with them about my ideas. With Boku to Kare to Musume no Iru Basho the stage setting was a movie theater and we spent a lot of time talking about what parts of the movie theater should be used as the stage for the play. If we made the lobby the stage for the play, everything would be too clearly defined and it wouldn’t be interesting, so we decided to use an empty lot at the rear entrance to an old movie theater as the stage setting.

Now that you mention it, a lot of the settings of your plays seem to be open, public spaces.
That may be true. In Korea they have a form of theater called Madang-Theater that is performed in public squares. So, maybe it is the Madang genes in my Korean DNA at work (laughs). I grew up in the isolated environment of the “upper echelon Korean shantytown on the moat” so basically that is the kind of setting that comes to mind.

The search for one’s self or one’s identity is often a central theme in contemporary theater works, but I don’t find that to hold true in the case of your works.
I hate that “search for the self” type of play (laughs). Life has its ups and downs, but we are all alive, aren’t we? The poor don’t have existential crises. They have no time to ask “To be or not to be.”
 
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