The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
A look into the theater craft of Ai Nagai   A leader in the genre of social comedy
The Woman Who Wants Others to Sit Up and Take Notice

by Roger Pulvers

When talking about their culture, the Japanese tend to think in terms of generations. Of course, they are not unique in this. In America, to take one country, there was the Lost Generation. Then, some three decades later, came the Beat Generation.

But in Japan, the demarcation lines are stronger, as if it is almost impossible for someone to cross over and be a part of a generation into which he or she has not been born. Writers are defined by the generation they “belong” to.

Modern theatre, or Shingeki, was revived after the war essentially in the prewar mold. Theatre groups such as Mingei, Haiyuza, Bungakuza and others, mounted productions of western classics and, in some cases, contemporary western plays, as well as well-made plays written by Japanese playwrights. There is really no exact translation of the word Shingeki. It really isn’t just “western-style theatre,” nor is it simply “modern theatre.” Perhaps the closest definition is “naturalistic western-style theatre.”

The 1960s saw the emergence of the first real reaction against Shingeki in Japan. Shingeki, while boasting some brilliant practitioners, was essentially seen as something imported into Japan, not native to it.

The playwrights and directors who formed what became the mainstream of 1960s Japanese theatre—referred to as either the Little Theatre Movement or Angura (for “underground”)—reacted against Shingeki’s perceived orthodoxy of acting style and naturalistic structure. Of course, playwrights and directors in the West, too, were creating their own alternative theatre, though experimental theatre in the West generally never came to symbolize the core of production values as it did in Japan.

Kara Juro, Terayama Shuji, Suzuki Tadashi, Sato Makoto and Betsuyaku Minoru, among others, with their non-naturalistic approach to theatricality, overtook Shingeki as Japan’s representative dramatic art form.

The next generation arose some 10 years later (a generation in Japan lasts about a decade), with the emergence, primarily, of Tsuka Kohei and Noda Hideki, though Tsuka started work a few years before Noda.

All of the above people, by the way, with the exception of Terayama, who passed away in 1983, are still active in Japanese theatre. Just because a generation moves on, it doesn’t mean its former representatives become what is called in Japanese kako no hito (has-beens).

I bring up the cursory outline of generations above to help find a context for the theatre of Nagai Ai. In fact, Nagai Ai does not fall easily into this type of categorization. Another writer, from a previous generation, who defies this kind of generational demarcation is Inoue Hisashi. And, in fact, there are similarities, if coincidental, between the theatre of Inoue Hisashi and that of Nagai Ai. Both writers see their task as writing about ordinary people found in somewhat extraordinary situations. Even when Inoue is writing about famous historical figures such as Dazai Osamu, General Nogi, Miyazawa Kenji or whoever, he invariably concentrates on their ordinary everyday struggles. They are really people just like us who have happened to become celebrities. Nagai Ai, who has not, to date, written a play with a famous person at its centre, is soon to take up the life of Higuchi Ichiyo. Interestingly, Inoue Hisashi, too, has written a play about this famous author of the Meiji Era.

As she pointed out in the interview which I did with her on 21 January 2006, Nagai Ai was late in entering her profession. Most of the Little Theatre Movement writers and directors were doing drama at university or establishing their troupes not long after graduation. As for Noda Hideki, he even dropped out of Tokyo University (it is the ultimate luxury to get into Tokyo University and then drop out) and formed Yume no Yuminsha.

Noda is actually four years younger than Nagai. By all rights, she should have been a “representative” of that generation. But it wasn’t until she was 30 that she felt she had the confidence to go out on her own. She was perfectly ambitious in her desire to enter the theatre, primarily as an actor. But most doors were closed to her. She had no choice but to start up on her own.

But this business of generations has more to it than mere age. Nagai Ai’s theatre, at least as it is constituted today, is very different from that of the people of her own generation. Her plays are plays with a message, whether she sets out to inculcate them with one or not. She said in interview, “I want the audience to sit up and take notice of what is happening to the people in my plays.” Noda’s theatre is largely presentational. He, too, of course wants people to sit up and take notice, but not particularly of what is happening in the lives of his characters, at least not in the realistic sense. He wants people to be overwhelmed by the entire spectacle of word, sound and light.

Nagai Ai is basically a writer in the Shingeki tradition. Her plays have a clear and logical structure which becomes the vehicle for the drama. This structure is, in essence, naturalistic. The characters find themselves caught in a dilemma of one sort or another. How they extricate themselves from or deal with the dilemma (the mechanism of conflict) becomes the driving force of the play’s theatricality.

For this reason, I believe strongly that Nagai Ai’s plays can be produced and understood well in the West. The context of these plays is, naturally, Japanese; and this may not be the exotic Japan that most foreigners are knowledgeable about or attracted to. But Ibsen’s plays often take place in the provinces of Norway, which at the time was a country on the fringe, both geographically and metaphorically, of Europe. Few people outside of Scandinavia had any interest in or familiarity with Norway, its language or its way of life.

Nagai Ai herself, in interview, shies away from any talk of social message. Needless to say, she is not striving in her plays to be political or tendentious. But the social message is at the core of most of her plays. This, too, makes her work accessible to western audiences, who are not only used to but crave such messages in their drama. Nagai Ai’s drama is both very Japanese and truly universal at the same time.

The most recent example of all of this is her play, “Utawasetai Otokotachi.” She won for this the prestigious Asahi Prize in January, 2006. I think that Nagai herself was a bit taken aback by the amount of attention she has been given for this play, which played to packed houses in Tokyo and other cities around the country. Now it is time to recognize her talent, both as playwright and director, and promote it outside Japan.

The story of “Utawasetai Otokotachi” is a simple one. The setting is the infirmary at a high school at the time of the year’s graduation. A teacher named Haijima had refused to sing the national anthem at the previous year’s ceremony, and the principal is trying to persuade him to do the right thing this year. The Ministry of Education has made it clear—and this is based on fact—that the entire school can be punished if a teacher doesn’t sing the anthem. The teacher in question can have his or her salary cut and may even be forced to transfer to a school in a remote district, as a form of internal exile.

The audience may or not be aware of the actual reality surrounding these government rules. In fact, as an issue, the mandatory singing of the national anthem never really captured the public’s imagination in the way that, say, a large-scale financial scandal or gruesome crime does. But to Nagai Ai, this is none the less a scandal and a crime. She wants the audience to “sit up and take notice.” Only then can each and every member in it begin to think about their own role in this, as citizens, as followers, as dissenters, as a silent majority that is ultimately responsible for whatever the society deems “proper.”

This is precisely what the naturalistic theatre of the West purports to do, from Ibsen to Tennessee Williams and, in our day, to David Hare. “Look at the stage”, it demands of the audience. “This may not be you but it is your problem. It concerns all of us.”

Sakate Yoji, whom I have also interviewed on this site, resembles Nagai Ai in the logic of theatre presented. His style may, at times, be more non-naturalistic than Nagai’s; but the driving force of his dramas is, as with Nagai, his social conscience. (He is more explicit about this than Nagai Ai, but in the end they are close in what they are achieving.)

Sakate and Nagai do not easily fit into demarcations of generation. They combine elements of Shingeki and Angura, having absorbed both long ago and very thoroughly at that.

The generational view of Japanese theatre is, in fact, no longer valid. Nagai Ai is at the forefront of playwright/directors whose work overrides such categorization. The upshot of this is that her work has achieved a kind of universality that has eluded even the best of earlier playwrights.

If this brings about a greater recognition of the riches of modern Japanese theatre in the world, all I can say to Nagai Ai is, “Please sing on!”
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