The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
Speaking with Oriza Hirata, a new opinion leader in the world of contemporary theater
Across the RIver in May
Across the RIver in May
(May. 2005, at New National Theatre, Tokyo)
Photo: Masahiko Yako
How was it decided that you would do Lost Village as a joint Japan-China project?
When we did Tokyo Notes at the 2004 Hong Kong Arts Festival it was very well received and I was asked to do something in Hong Kong at first. But things developed from there and eventually it was Li Liuyi in Beijing whom I know well that was chosen to work with me and create a work that would be performed in Hong Kong, Beijing and Tokyo.

What is the story about?
I based Lost Village on my own play I wrote in 1992 Isn’t Life More than Goodbyes? (Sayonara Dake ga Jinsei ka), which is the story about a day in the life of workers at a construction camp where the work has been stopped because historical ruins have been discovered under the construction site. For this production I changed to setting to Sichuan Province and make it a story about work being stopped by the discovery of a grand-scale ruins that could change the textbook understanding of history itself. In fact an archeological site implying an ancient culture similar in scale to the Yellow River Culture has been found, but some people say it is all a fake and no one really knows yet what the truth is.
What I consulted with Li Liuyi is that because of the present situation between Japan and China, we cannot avoid the problem of our conflicting interpretations of recent history [the Sino-Japanese War and World War II], and I had no intention of doing that. But if you write about war and invasion, it can easily become doctrinaire, and there will inevitably be things you can’t write about. So I wanted to write something that dealt with a longer scope of ancient history. So I chose as the setting for Lost Village a village that had been manufacturing imitations of valuable ancient relics about 300 years ago and had also become an area of recent archeological excavation.
By creating a scenario in which people were beginning to question whether or not the imitations made 300 years ago might not be actual ancient relics, and raising questions about how arbitrarily people can create so-called history so that it reads one way or another, I wanted to create an history play with an ironic touch that enabled people to look at all the current problems between Japan and China from a longer historical perspective.

Again this time it is a bilingual play with Japanese and Chinese being used. How does it work in this play?
There are roles for eight Chinese actors and five Japanese actors in the play. The Japanese are people in the construction business and archeologists who have come to participate in the excavation project, and two of the five are cast as people who can speak rudimentary Chinese. One of these is a member of our theater company whom I had study Chinese from about a year ago and has now reached a level of proficiency in everyday conversation.

Earlier you said that multilingual theater is very important to you. How did you initially become interested it?
I would rather say that I simply find it more interesting as an artist. In my first serious multilingual play, Across the River in May, we approached it very carefully, doing a workshop for about a week before we began working on the project itself. In the readings, there are two languages being spoken at once in simultaneous lines, so it was quite difficult. But, when it first started going well there were moments when it created beautiful harmonies between the two languages. That was when I said to myself, “Ahh. This is what I have been wanting to do.”
I believe that theater is a form of expression in which we can directly and mutually discover the beauty in each other’s words and the beauty of its reverberations. When two different languages are mixed and become even more beautiful as a result, I find in that a source of hope for the future. In the autumn of next year a production will be mounted at the Centre Dramatique National de Besançon in France that will be created by Japanese, a local French director and an Iranian director. There will be three actors from each of the three countries and the work will be a kind of omnibus with 40 minutes for each nationality. I would actually like to make it a more scrambled composition with simultaneous multilingual dialogue, but that would make the script even more difficult to write (laughs).

In the last 20 years a lot of public arts and culture facilities have been built here in Japan and the amount of public-sector funding has increased while the public policies that influence contemporary theater have changed considerably. What do you feel about these changes?
I think that in general the environment surrounding contemporary theater today has improved. Looking at social conditions over the last 30 years or so, the European countries, and especially Britain, began a gradual process of structural reform from the 1970s in their efforts to arrive at the place they want to be as mature nations. In contrast, Japan was hit by two “oil shocks” in the 1970s and, in the process of working together to overcome these national crises, the structural reform efforts fell behind and soon we found ourselves entering a “bubble” economy.
I believe that if structural reform had proceeded, the consumption habits of the Japanese would have begun to shift in the 1970s from material consumer goods to non-material consumption. Because of the delay in reform, however, we reached a point where we only used money for material consumption and after the Plaza Agreement we began to pump our leftover money into stocks and real estate, which led to the creation and eventual collapse of the bubble economy. This painful mistake led to the consumption slump of our Heisei Period (the 1990s and continuing to the present) when we stopped spending our money.
Also, whereas the countries of Europe have all deliberately sought to build their nations with their own distinct character in the face of American-type globalization, Japan has paid no attention to such a task. And, I believe that this is not unrelated to the way Japan’s cultural policy has changed in the last 10 to 15 years.
The timing of this change just happened to coincide with the start of my artistic activities and I have been grateful that the growth of my company has come at the same time as the growth in Japan’s arts support system. However, I tell the college students now, partly as a kind of warning bell, that Japan is going to go into decline. And I tell them that even as Japan declines, the culture of the regions where they were born and raised will not disappear, so they should value and nurture that culture.
In that sense, my work may be an attempt to depict with affection the people of this declining Japan, just as Chekhov depicted with a loving gaze the people of the declining Romanov Dynasty a hundred years ago. But, since I have some sense of social responsibility (laughs), I also send out messages about what we should do if we don’t want to decline, or what we can do to decline with greater grace if we are going to decline anyway.

You are also the artistic director of a public hall. What is the state of public culture facilities today?
The position of cultural programs in the political system has improved little by little over the last ten years in Japan or so and the quality of the officials involved has also improved compared to the past. Considering these changes, I think the state of public halls has gotten better.However, there are the realities of transfer of personnel authorized by each local government and the fact that these civil servants don’t have the same approach as private sector producers who are will to take risks to do the artistic programs they believe in. In Japan the system has now changed to enable private enterprises or NPOs to operate public cultural facilities (*Designated Manager System), but I don’t think this is going to change things. Under the present system, I think things have gone as far as they can.
Since I consider public halls to be places where art should be created, I believe that you need producers and artistic directors who are not bound to the [civil servant] system. I think that they should be on yearly contracts like the manager of a baseball or soccer team, and if they don’t produce good results their contracts are not renewed. Of course, real results cannot be produced in one year, so I envision three to five year periods of tenure. But, if the system isn’t tough enough that a failure to produce even some results in one year can lead to a termination of contract, then I don’t think it will be effective.
At the Fujimi City Municipal Culture Hall KIRARI FUJIMI where I serve as artistic director, we receive no public funding from the city. We operate strictly on the income we get from facility rentals and ticket sales and what we can get in terms of support money from external sponsors. The budget for our theater activities totals less than 30 million yen (approx. 255,000 USD), so we mount one production a year by soliciting works by young playwrights and choosing the actors by audition. We provide a budget of 3 or 4 million yen for the young playwright, and pay some money enough for them to live on for a couple of months, and we build a set in our small theater where rehearsals can be held for two or three weeks.
In the Greater Tokyo area alone there are about 100 public halls, and if each of them did one production a year like this, I think that would ring about a big change in Japan’s theater scene. This type of production is something that can be done at any hall if the people just try, but no one tries. In fact, it is usually due to a lack of production capability that they are unable to mount such productions even if they want to, but if people try to make the changes little by little, I believe that Japan’s theater environment will get better.
That brings us to the question of who should be serving as artistic directors. I believe that we should give that opportunity to more young people. For the seasonal theater festival that is held at the Agora Theater we asked Toshiki Okada to be festival director, and he is a young man born in 1973. He has done a very good job and has matured a lot as an artistic director.
I once asked my college students what kind of program they would put together if they were made an artistic director and given a budget of 100 million yen. They all came up with balanced programs that used about 10 million yen for their own production and allocate the rest for a few more conservative popular-audience productions and one overseas production. If they actually did become artistic directors I believe that they would work hard on the research, go out and see plays they had never seen before and come up with well-balanced programs with good public appeal and community value.
There are few artistic directors as such in Japan today and young people tend to be shunned because no one knows what they may do. So people with long careers and accomplishment are given these positions like honorary posts. But, in fact, young people are more likely to study the field seriously with honest intentions, so I think that we have to start by getting more young people involved if we want things to change.

In closing this interview, I would like to ask your opinion about today’s theater scene.
We have seen the emergence of new talents like Toshiki Okada of Chelfitsch, Shiro Maeda of Gotandadan and Daisuke Miura of Potsudo-ru theater company, but the question is what kind of movement will be shaped by this. They certainly each have an atmosphere of their own and they have some issues that make them deal with themes of violence or grotesque eroticism, but I don’t think they themselves have found what their uniqueness or originality is yet. If they can find the rationale in what they are doing, I believe that they could form a movement to be the next thing after our “quiet theater.”
However, I also feel that the way information outruns everything with the development of the Internet and the fact that commercial funding has reached even into the small-theater scene, the consumption of talent has accelerated greatly. To rationalize a new form of expression requires that the artist face a solitary period of contemplation that is a necessary rite of passage in an artist’s maturation. In today’s world, however, I am afraid that there is no longer time for this process to take place. The only courses that seem to be available today are to become a theater company for the theater freak who gather on the Internet or to go commercial. Especially in the case of our “contemporary colloquial theater,” if the work is well made there will inevitably be invitations from commercial investors. I saw one playwright telling a young playwright like “If you keep pitching your work like that you are going to get pitcher’s elbow.” In short, it has become very difficult today for artists to stick with their ideals and methodology.
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