The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
Speaking with Oriza Hirata, a new opinion leader in the world of contemporary theater
Tokyo Notes
Tokyo Notes
(2000, New York Japan Society Performance)
Photo: Tsukasa Aoki
From S Plateau
From S Plateau
(2004, at Komaba Agora Theater)
Photo: Tsukasa Aoki
What was it that made you begin thinking about the drama language you arrived at your contemporary colloquial theater?
From 1984 into ’85 I spent a year studying in South Korea and during that time I began thinking about the unique character of the Japanese language and a variety of things like why the language of Japanese theater became like it is. However, I didn’t really connect that to an immediate effect on my plays. Just as my writing style began to change little by little, I happened to see Ryo Iwamatsu’s production of the play Daidokoro no Akari at the Agora Theater and that work really struck me. It made me think that the directions I had been thinking and working in were not wrong. That was the decisive encounter and with that, I arrived at something very close to what I am doing now.

The way the play is written also surely affects the actors’ acting. I think it can be said that contemporary colloquial theater caused a big revolution in acting technique.
Yes. It is very difficult to explain, but with contemporary colloquial theater the actors will be speaking in a normal way. But that rings up the question of what normal is. In effect, theater had created a fictional in a language that was different from everyday Japanese and within that ambiguity a kind of artistic aesthetic was born, but in our plays using real Japanese became one of the thematic elements. In that sense it was a new world that made it possible for almost anyone to participate. For better or worst, it made it look like anyone could do it.
One point I want to make in regard to acting technique of speaking normally is what I call “division of consciousness.” Speaking is just one of numerous human actions and this makes it essential that the actor be capable of a division of consciousness to include other actions, rather than just focusing on delivering one’s lines. This is probably a new discovery in acting that comes with contemporary colloquial theater. In terms of this division of consciousness, I think that the plays of Toshiki Okada of Chelfitsch use it as a form of expression most consistently.
I have been working with a specialist in cognitive psychology researching the mechanisms of an actor’s memorization for a long time, and we have found that the better the actor the more clearly they remember other things around them while delivering their lines, like the distribution of props on a table for example.
In the case of an Olympic gymnast, for example, they naturally memorize the voluntary muscular actions used in a performance, but at the same time they are also memorizing things like the visual order of appearance of the walls and ceiling during an action like a flip. And such periphery information such as visual and auditory memories is closely related to the voluntary movement of the body. This is true for an actor as well. In fact, when they are saying their lines, it is important to remember what they are hearing—because my scripts often involve several things being said by others at once—and what they are seeing.
It is often said that it is best to rehearse for a play in a place where you can use something close to the actual set. It is not just a matter of getting used to the set. We know now that it is related to this memorization mechanism of the actor. That is why I believe that having our own theater where we could rehearse with a full-scale set was important to developing an acting style that involved the “division of consciousness” I am concerned with.

Are there any playwrights that you consider to be forerunners of contemporary colloquial theater?
Kunio Kishida, Yukio Mishima and Shuji Terayama have long been cited as playwrights who were deeply concerned with the question of how to use the Japanese language. Although, they were not in the majority of the Japanese theater history. And, as the playwrights who have directly influenced me, I would cite Minoru Betsuyaku and Shogo Ota. Betsuyaku grew up in China and the language he uses in his plays could be called something he made up himself. It is a language without place. For me, it was important to experience that kind of language without regional or clear cultural affiliation.
As for Ota, I was very much influenced by his approach to theater and drama. Another direct influence was the plays of Tetsu Yamazaki from the 1980s. In terms of questions like the grammatical order used, I believe that his approach is very close to that of contemporary colloquial theater. For a while, Yamazaki was director for Tokyo Kandenchi, so I believe he also influenced Ryo Iwamatsu, although that may just be an unfounded belief on my part.

Your contemporary colloquial theater has been well received overseas. Has your style that minimizes excessively dramatic developments been a fresh discovery for foreign audiences?
We have given performances in a number of countries, but I believe that I have done the best work in France. I am very grateful for the fact that the people in France have been very enthusiastic about my work. In fact, my new play Chants d’Adieu (Wakare no Uta) is on tour now in France.
Until now, our plays that initially debuted in Japan have been performed in France as plays in translation, including Tokyo Notes, From S Plateau and Citizens of Seoul. But, in the case of Chants d’Adieu, this is a play that was commissioned by Centre Dramatique de Thionville-Lorraine in a small town near the Luxembourg border and it was written for French actors.
The cast consists of five French actors and three from our Seinendan company. Two of the Seinendan actors have most of their lines in French, so they studied French for a year to do this production. But, since they play the roles of Japanese who speak only a little bit of French, there is no need for subtitles.
It premiered in January and I think there were six performances in Thionville. There were four performances in Besançon and now there is a three-week run in Strasbourg and it is sold out. I believe the audience in Strasbourg alone totals about 5,000. After performances in Japan in April it will go to Paris in May.
This play is like a French version of the play 'Cause the Moon is So Bright Tonight (Tsuki ga Tottemo Aoi Kara) that I wrote for Bungaku-za Theater Company and it is the story of a funeral wake. Since it is a warm story, where nothing particularly dramatic happens, older French audiences are enjoying it just like a normal play. Kenji Yamauchi plays a role of a person who can only say thank you at first, but in the later half of the play he starts to speak more in Japanese, so the French audiences are made to listen to these violent outbursts of Japanese that they can’t understand. But it appears that they are enjoying that along with the rest of the play. It may not be my place to say this, but it seems that I have just about made a name for myself as a playwright in France.
One of the reasons I have been recognized in France, I believe, is that aspect of fragments coming together into a comprehensive whole that I mentioned earlier. I am often told that it is like haiku in that respect. It seems that the French especially like the resonance of feelings like afterglow, poignant pauses and moments of silence.
Another reason for my recognition seems to be the difference from Yukio Mishima that I am often asked about overseas. That is a good indication of what a big literary presence Mishima is overseas. Mishima was an importer of Western literature and drama and he was a great genius at translating it into extremely self-made Japanese. That is why even in translation the beauty of his literature was not lost at all. That is especially true in the case of his plays.
When Japanese read his writing, however, we get the feeling that no one could talk like that, only a person of exceptional intelligence could talk like that. In short, the works of Mishima are Western in their format (logic) and Japanesque in their contents.
In contrast, the contents of my plays are global and the format of the communication is Japanesque. For example, during the American tour of Tokyo Notes I was asked why the Japanese characters in the play were always talking about Western artists and paintings. At that time I answered that Japanese didn’t always wear kimono and talk about nothing but ukiyo-e prints. In fact, we are quite global in that the painters that are part of our lives today are Van Gogh and Picasso and Renoir, not Hokusai. That’s why wherever my plays are performed you don’t hear people saying they don’t understand them.
The interesting thing is that while the contents are global, the way of speaking is very Japanese. The subject of conversation tends to shift suddenly and the logic that it follows is very Japanese. My play Tokyo Notes begins with the like, “So what happened to that mayonnaise in the end?” That surprises everyone. Although it is not drama of the absurd, the lines sometimes run off into the absurd by European standards. The French seem to love this.
I always say that even if we reach a point where the whole world is eating hamburgers and drinking cola, the forms of people’s communication will not change that easily. That is why I believe that the job of artists from now on will probably be to depict or accentuate those slight differences.
One of the reasons my work is appreciated in France is that within the large framework of the EU, there are pressing problems of confrontation between people of different races and religions. In the face of the way that market economics tends to flatten all before it into one homogenous world through globalization, isn’t it the role of the artist to express the ways that we are all different as individuals and our how ethnicity makes us different too.

You have said that the manner of speaking of the characters in your plays is very Japanese. What happens when French actors play those roles?
They are particularly interested in the non-word interjections like “Ahh” and “Ooh.” At first their efforts sounded rather strained because they were trying hard to imitate the sounds, but because actors have good musical ears they soon get used to it. I thought it went very naturally and well when Arnaud Meunier directed Citizens of Seoul at Théâtre National de Chaillot and the interjections “Unn” and “Ahh” were made like musical elements between the lines.
Both Meunier and Frederic Fisbach say that it is impossible for French actors to play Japanese characters, so the characters have to become global characters without nationality. That is why for example in Arnaud Meunier’s production of Citizens of Seoul the costumes were very successful, because they were quite abstract in appearance but also had and aspect that could be seen as Asian.
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