The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
Speaking with Oriza Hirata, a new opinion leader in the world of contemporary theater
Citizens of Seoul
Citizens of Seoul
(2006, at Kichijoji Theatre)
Photo: Tsukasa Aoki
Citizens of Seoul 1919
Citizens of Seoul 1919
(2006, at Kichijoji Theatre)
Photo: Tsukasa Aoki
Citizens of Seoul 1929: The Graffiti
Citizens of Seoul 1929: The Graffiti
(2006, at Kichijoji Theatre)
Photo: Tsukasa Aoki
I would like to ask you about the Citizens of Seoul Trilogy as one of your representative works. The first of the trilogy, Citizens of Seoul premiered in 1989, the second work, Citizens of Seoul 1919 came in 2000 and the third, Citizens of Seoul 1929: The Graffiti premiered in December of 2006 to complete the trilogy and then the three were performed together.
The first play of the trilogy is set in 1909, the year before Japan’s annexation of Korea, the second is set ten years later during the time of the “3-1 Movement” and the third one is set in October of 1929, just before the stock market crash that started the Great Depression. In this way, they occur at even ten-year intervals. In these plays we see the prosperity and eventual failure of Shinozaki family and their stationary store in Seoul reflecting very vividly the changing of the Korean political situation during those years. It is an excellent compositional structure. Did you have this [trilogy] structure in mind from the start?

I had no idea at the beginning that it would be a trilogy eventually. I think I was very lucky. I chose 1909, the year before the start of Japan’s colonization of Korea, as the setting. Since the Shinozaki family is Japanese, they are not really citizens of Seoul, but I chose the irony of giving it that title.
Much of the literature and drama dealing with war and colonization tends to follow stereotypes, with evil military or entrepreneur types and the suppressed or victimized common people. In the case of Korean it is always the theme of activists in the resistance. But, if you always allow the ideology to dominate, you are in fact playing into the hands of the powers that be. So, although it was rather vague at first, I thought that I should try writing that looked more directly at real life.
To me, “citizens” are people who have voting rights and other freedoms of choice available to them. If you think in terms of “point of no return,” I believe there’s no such thing in our history. The year 1909 that I chose as the setting was a point where Japan could have withdrawn from the course of colonization, and I made this is a story about a quite liberal Japanese family that nonetheless becomes vehicles of colonial suppression because they are citizens of Seoul.
And, although this may sound a bit haphazard, seven or eight years later I got the idea that ten years later would put them in the year 1919. I had done a ten-years-later sequel with another work, so I thought that I could do the same thing with Citizens of Seoul too (laughs). Of course, when I was writing “1919” I was thinking about the third sequel as well.

You portray the Japanese family as intellectuals and good-hearted within the temper of the times, but in the first play of the trilogy you also have the daughter and others showing a colonial attitude by making statements showing that they look down on Korean culture. Normally one would be quite careful about creating the right context for such statements, but in Citizens of Seoul, which is a work that looks directly at the responsibility of the common citizens, the statements are just blurted out and left that way. What was the reaction like at your performances of the play in South Korea?
In the 1993 performances in Korea I was very nervous. We had all learned Korean and gave the performance in Korean. At the time my company wasn’t very well known and there was no term at the time for our kind of “quiet theater,” and it seemed that no one knew what we were doing. The reaction was something on the level of “Is this theater?” and it didn’t get as far as an actual discussion of the contents.
With “1919” we were fortunate to have the famous Korean theater company “Koripe” led by Lee Yun-Taek performed it in Korean. Actually, I was worried whether or not it would be acceptable to present the 3-1 Independence Movement with such a light touch. And when I asked Lee about it, he said, “It’s all right. I’ll make it even more light-hearted.” I went to see the performance and this time they had the young audience laughing from start to finish.
Lee made about half the characters Korean and made them, for example, Koreans who had been raised in Japan and used excuses in the directing to make them look like they could be from either country. I thought it was very skillfully done. At the time I went to see it there was a conference and a number of Korean critics had gathered for it. I was very glad to hear the comment from them that this was a play that a Korean should have written. Next I hope to be able to take the whole trilogy to be performed in Korea.
Citizens of Seoul is about Japan’s colonial subjugation of Korea, and in any country with a history of colonization of another land, there are always people who want to justify it. When they do that it usually involves comparisons with other colonial powers, saying that their colonization was more benevolent that that of the other powers. But that is simply a case of the quality of the colonization being changed from an asset stripping type to an industry-creating type, but it doesn’t change the fact that they are both cases of subjugating the territory of another country. Japan’s was an assimilation type colonization, which is a strange type of subjugation that caused a distortion of the emotional relationship with Korean people that has still not healed more than 60 years after the War. I believe it is important that the artists of each country give defining expression to the cruelty of such colonial domination.

You are involved in collaborative projects with overseas artists. The production Across the River in May (Sono Kawa wo Koete, Go Gatsu) that you put on at the New National Theater in 2002 was a joint work with the Korean playwright Kim Myung Hwa. And the play you did in collaboration with Lee Byung Hoon was also highly acclaimed and won the Grand Prix of the Asahi Performing Arts Awards.
Also in May of this year performances of your joint Japan-China production Lost Village (Kashuson – Hana ni Arashi no Tatoe mo Aru sa) are planned at the New National Theater, Tokyo. I hear that this production opens in Hong Kong and then tours to Beijing before coming to Tokyo.
I don’t think there are any other Japanese playwrights who have done this much international collaboration.

When Tamiya Kuriyama became the artistic director of the New National Theater, Tokyo, I received a commission for a work. But, at that time I believed that it was not right that the National Theaters be the only ones getting national financing, and so my stance was that I would not cooperate with the New National Theater until public theaters and private companies began getting national funding. However, with the joint Japan-Korea holding of the World Cup of football in 2002, that year was designated a special Japan-Korea friendship year and I was asked to put on a commemorative production. So I accepted that as a special case.
In return, I wanted to do it in a different framework from productions in the past. So I made a proposal that the play be written by both Japanese and Korean playwrights and that it be jointly directed and the actors and staff also be half and half.
More than being interested in international collaborations, what interests me most as a director and playwright multi-lingual theater. I am interested in plays in which there are several languages being used, but in a way that it still comes together coherently as a play. It can be Korean and Japanese, French and Japanese or Chinese and Japanese. The interest is the same.
To do this, however, requires a lot of work at the playwriting stage. But, the subtitle systems are getting good today, so it doesn’t have to be an experimental theater type of production but one where any audience can come and enjoy it. That is the kind of theater I want to create.

Of course there has been multilingual theater before, but I agree that they remained on the experimental theater level. But in Across the River in May there was the essential aspect of having the story about a professor of Korean and Japanese students that made it viable as a play about communication in Japanese and Korean. What was the collaborative work with Kim Myung Hwa that led to this type of device like?
It was very difficult work writing a play in collaboration with another playwright. We talked for three days and three nights and came up with about 24 plot developments. Then I drew some scene sketches. After that we divide up the actual writing, having me do scenes one to ten, Kim Myung Hwa do 11 to 20 and me do 21 to 24. As we wrote, we were also working repeatedly with the outstanding translator Juri Ishikawa. I can read Korean, so I was able to compare the two texts, by Myung Hwa doesn’t know Japanese, so this process was necessary.
We were able to do this thanks to the convenience of today’s e-mail I believe. Once the basic form was complete we got together to spend time working out the final stage script. After that I worked with director Lee Byung Hoon to make it stage-able. In all, it took about one year to produce the joint script.
In the case of the play Chants d’Adieu that we did for the Centre Dramatique de Thionville-Lorraine, I wrote the whole thing, after which we had it translated and then got myself, the translator, an interpreter and the director and worked together on it for about three days. Then I checked with them about how the lines for the French actors sounded according to their sensibilities.
In the case of Lost Village it was a bit different because I wrote about 80% of it and Li Liuyi directed about 80% of it, but when I have worked with the French or the Chinese I write while anticipating what the French or Chinese actors should be saying, so I need a partner to check what I write.
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