The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Yoji Sakate
Born in 1962, Sakate started the Theatre company RINKO-GUN in 1983. He has been in charge of the writing and directing for almost all this troupe's works since that time. Sakate has also engaged in writing and directing outside the troupe, and has issued a number of collections of his criticism and plays. He is Assistant Director of the Japan Playwrights Association and Director of the Japanese Theatre Directors Association. Sakate takes drama as a variety of media and explores social problems from journalistic perspective through themes of the conflict between the social collective and the individual. He has taken up such topics as Okinawa, the Japanese self-defense force, the religion, and so on. At the same time, Sakate has produced a series of exchanges with other genres, such as dance, music, and films, as well as a serial work about Yakumo Koizumi (the Japanese name of Lafcadio Hearn) that incorporates Noh forms. He has also been active internationally, with performances in 15 cities in eight overseas countries, joint works with artists in other countries, and so on. He is the recipient of numerous directing and literature awards.

The Attic
The Attic
Photo by Taku Ohara
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Darumasan ga koronda
Darumasan ga koronda
Photo by Taku Ohara

an overview
Artist Interview Artist Interview
Theater is an experiment in community The world of Yoji Sakate, pioneer in small theater  
One of the characteristics of the genre of small-theater drama, which until recently has been the leading style in contemporary Japanese theater, is that each troupe has had its own small venue to serve as the base for its performances and a place where the creative work could be carried out in a communal fashion to produce a distinct theatrical style. Entering the 1990s, however, younger companies that do not depend on this communal working style have become the mainstream. In light of this trend, Yoji Sakate and his “Rinkogun” theater company can be said to be one of the few groups that have remained true to the small-theater tradition, as they continue to base their creative activities at a 5m x 11m space called the Umegaoka Box in pursuit of a form of theater with a high degree of focus on the performance space and the physical presence of the actors.
The company’s representative play The Attic is a work that deals with the social problem of hikikomori, or solitary withdrawal (from school or society in general) and evolves around a fictional mail-order kit called “The Attic” which assembles into a small box-like chamber for withdrawing from the world. The play itself involves a radical staging in which most of the performance takes place in a small box (chamber) built on a small platform on the stage.
Based on careful research into the problem of hikikomori, Sakate’s play deals with this problem that society wishes to silently ignore, using the theater space and the physical presence of the actors to recreate its tragedy in a way that is inexplicably rich in human interest and humor. In this interview, author Roger Pulvers speaks with Sakate about his theater art. (The interview took place on 28 January 2005.)

“A Freedom that Rocks the Boat”—an interview with Yoji Sakate
by Roger Pulvers

We met in the little space virtually under the elevated railroad tracks at Umegaoka—appropriately called “The Box”—in which “The Attic” was performed. The set had been dismantled for dispatching to the U.S. tour beginning the next week. Yoji Sakate himself was making preparations to depart for the tour’s first venue in Florida. This is what he told me…

I think I approach a narrative in a slightly different way from most other playwrights. I don’t start with a character, put him or her in a story and program the whole thing together. Life to me is more complex than that. Imposing stories on people takes away from my freedom to portray them as I wish. I do have a moral to the story in a play, I suppose, but that is for the audience to decide on after they have seen the play.

So where do the characters get their meaning from, if not directly from the narrative? The primary mechanism for this in theater is the “act of recognition,” which, in short, comes from words. “This person is a human being.” That can only be seen on stage by virtue of the things they say or the things that are said about them. There may be abstract concepts in drama, but I’m just not interested in them. When playwrights strive to assert some abstract concept in a play their intentions become all too visible. They supercede the drama. It all looks too deliberate. My method is to break the whole numbers of drama into factors as much as I can. Let me explain.

I am most intrigued, and have been for as long as I can remember, with the process of transposition, that is, substitution or transformation. What I mean is, an actor playing one character and then becoming another, a person being transported, as it were, into the body of another or into some other thing. And to me it is language that gives actors this cognition, this understanding, the knowledge to do this. Language is the function that frees the actor to explore the possibilities of characters.

Some people might feel this to be a bit anomalous. But this process, of transformation, is at the heart of traditional Japanese theater. In that sense, I am fascinated by Zeami’s “Fukushiki Mugen Noh” style in which you have a meeting of dream and reality. He is still relevant to us today. He is motivated by this consciousness. I wrote my graduation thesis on Zeami. Actually, I must add that I’ve only seen about 10 Noh plays in my life and that I’m really not much attracted to the Noh theater. It’s Zeami’s ideas that move me.

Look, for instance, at apparitions, departed spirits, ghosts in that tradition. This coffee cup in front of me may be my own departed spirit. So, in a way, I may be this cup and it may be me. Which is real? Which is the live representation…which is the apparition? This notion, to me, is the basis of theater. By encountering an apparition we realize that there are two illusions on stage. The expression of this confirms what is theatrical, and that’s what I aim for on stage. This is different from what virtually all western theater, as it has come to Japan, aims for. Those practitioners have their own systems and aims as well, of course. But I am striving to express something different, through words, physical sensations and gestures.

I was born and brought up in Okayama, far from the cultural centers of Japan. There were only four movie houses in my town and we hardly got to see any theater. Up till the time I was 18, I never dreamt that I would someday be a playwright. The first real play that I saw was Ibsen’s Hedda Gabbler at the Haiyuza Theater in Roppongi, Tokyo. I thought, “Why are there so many old people in this play?” Then I saw Kohei Tsuka’s Murder Incident at Atami and was very impressed. I ended up working with Tetsu Yamazaki, but left there and eventually formed my own troupe, “Rinkogun.”
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