The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Minoru Betsuyaku
Minoru Betsuyaku
Born in 1937 in the former Manchuria (present northeast China), Minoru Betsuyaku is a playwright, novelist and essayist. He attended Waseda University and studied in the Political Science and Economics department but ended his studies before graduation. Influenced by Beckett’s theater of the absurd, Betsuyaku formed the Waseda Small Theater with director Tadashi Suzuki. His play The Elephant (1962) drew critical attention and he went on to win the 13th “New Theater” Kishida Kunio Drama Award for his plays The Little Match Girl (1966) and A Scene With a Red Bird (1967). In 1971 he won the Kinokuniya Theater Award for Machi to Hikosen (a town and a blimp) and Alice in Wonderland. The following year he won the “New Artist” award of the Ministry of Education’s Selected Artists Encouragement Awards for Soyosoyo Kazoku no Hanran (revolt of a gentle family), and in 1987 he won the Yomiuri Literature Award for his collection of plays titled Shokoku wo Henreki Suru Futari no Kishi no Monogatari (tale of the foreign travels of two knights). In 1988, his play Giovanni no Chichi e no Tabi (Giovanni’s journey to his father) won the Minister of Education Award for the Arts. In 2007 Betsuyaku wrote his 130th play. Besides plays and children’s stories, Betsuyaku is known for his humorous essays like Mushi-zukushi (a world of full of bugs) that overturns biological commonsense and Mononoke-zukushi (a world full of ghosts), which comments on the true nature of ghost in ancient and present-day Japan. With other books of this –zukushi series including Kemono-zukushi, Tori-zukushi and Sakana-zukushi, he won a name for himself as a nonsense genre writer. Another work that shows the breath of Betsuyaku’s creative and intellectual interests is his criminology essay Hanzai Shokogun (criminal syndrome) in which he analyzes the darker mechanisms at work behind sensational crimes with an astute eye.
A to B to Hitori no Onna (A and B and a Certain Woman)
Premiere: 1961
This is a work that depicts a fight resulting from unfounded animosity and feelings of inferiority between two men A and B who deride each other and refute with an exchange of long monologues. A tells B that he is balding and has a bad leg. B says that he hates himself because he is stupid and a freeloader and grovels that A should tell him to his face to quit living such a depraved life. He finally implores A to kill him. As the dialogue proceeds, however, there is a turn in direction and it turns out that it may be A who actually has a bad leg. Finally with rancorous relationship swings a full 180 degrees and B ends up killing A.

Match Uri no Shojo (The Little Match Girl)
Premiere: 1966
One night a woman pays a visit to the home of an ordinary middle-class elderly couple. She says that she used to sell matches on the street corner as a child and lift the hem of her skirt to show herself [to customers] for the length of one match’s light. Then she accuses the elderly man of being the one who taught her to do that. Of course, the man objects that he doesn’t know what she is talking about. The woman brings her younger brother to the home and even invites some children in and gradually impinge more and more on the couple’s life. It is a work that harshly criticizes the “postwar commonsense” attitude of pretending that the tragic cruelties and shady events of the past had just never happened.

Zo (The Elephant)
Premiere: 1962
This is the story of a patient who is a victim of the atomic bombing and has a strange desire to show people on the street the keloid scar on his back and use it as a way to win sympathy and applause. His nephew tries to stop him from such actions and convince him that people neither love nor hate or are repulsed by the atomic bombing victims. People are just unquestioningly kind and understanding, so we victims of the atomic bomb should be strong and suffer our pain in silence, he tells his uncle. From the contrasting feelings of these two characters we sense the estranged world these victims have fallen into and, by extension the existential anxiety that the entire world must bear. It is a work that deals with these questions in style strung taught with silence.
an overview
Artist Interviewアーティストインタビュー
The unending quest of Minoru Betsuyaku, the playwright who has laid the foundation of Japanese drama of the absurd
Since his debut play A and B and a Certain Woman in 1961, playwright Minoru Betsuyaku has written some 130 plays while also writing children’s stories, essays and critique, and in the process he has established his position as one of Japan leading playwrights and thinkers. His plays have laid the foundation of Japanese “theater of the absurd” (Fujori-geki), connecting to Kafka and Beckett with works based on nameless characters labeled A, B and C, sets that consist of little more than telephone poles and stories that depict the absurdities hidden in the everyday lives of the common people. In this interview we spoke with this leading figure of the first generation of Japan’s small theater movement emerged in the student political revolts of the 1960s, asking him about his career and his latest thoughts about the works with which he has continued to influence younger playwrights today.
(Interviewer: Hirofumi Okano)

May I begin by going back quite a way to ask what your first contact with theater was?
When I was in high school I wanted to be a painter but all of my relatives opposed that idea, saying I would never be able to make a living by painting. I rethought things and decided to become a newspaper correspondent and entered Waseda University with that intention. So I went to Waseda and on my first day there I was told by an upperclassman that I should go into theater and that I could be an actor because I was tall. I listened to him and let myself get signed up to join the Jiyu Butai (free stage) drama club. At the time, I was one of about 100 new members of the Jiyu Butai, which was a large-scale club of about 200 people in all. Within it were a number of sub groups such as a “Social Science Study Group” and other politically oriented cells that gave it a highly energized atmosphere. I was immediately swept up in that powerful energy.

It was there in Jiyu Butai that you met the director Tadashi Suzuki with whom you would later start the Waseda Sho-gekijo (Waseda Small Theater company) and work in collaboration for some time. How did you come to write A and B and a Certain Woman, which would be your first play and the first work you would collaborate with Suzuki on?
There was a period in 1961 when I took a leave from my theater activities and concentrated on the protest movement to stop the establishment of a military base on the island of Niijima. When I returned from that hiatus, Suzuki and his friends were wanting to do their own play apart from Jiyu Butai at the Waseda Festival, but they didn’t have a play to perform. So, I ended up writing one. That was A and B and a Certain Woman.

It is a play in which we see man B, who feels a sense of inferiority regarding man A, continue to be derided by man A in a discourse that approaches monologue until suddenly the tables are reversed and B kills A. Although this was your debut play, it already contained so much of the characteristic “silence” and “irresolvable conflict” and even the lofty articulation of lines that we see in your later works. How did you learn to write play?
At the time, films were our only real source of artistic stimulation and inspiration. A and B and a Certain Woman was inspired by the movie An Eye for an Eye (directed by André Cayatte/France-Italy/1957). It is the story of an Arab man’s revenge against an European doctor, but the reason for the revenge is based on misunderstandings and the ensuing course of events that befalls bother the perpetrator and the victim of the vendetta is hopelessly twisted. I wanted to try to give expression to the process of that kind of senseless, unstoppable conflict.
Another thing was the appearance of Beckett. It was a time when people were beginning to see the limits of “realism theater,” especially the kind of social realism that we were doing. In other words, I was tired of the kind of theater that was bound by a political agenda and only had social revolution as its end game. I wanted to find some way out of that suffocating condition. It was just at that time that Beckett appeared. Personally I had been absorbed in Kafka prior to that, so for me it was a case of moving from Kafka to Beckett as my influence. It was as if I had discovered a sense of liberation in the realization that rather than the social-political agenda we had been bound to until then, theater could be based on the internal dramas of the individual like Beckett’s plays.
It was also very stimulating to see the way that Beckett would stage his works in a space that might be defined by a single tree on an otherwise bare stage. The norm in theater at the time was to have the three sides of the stage walled with panels to create a set that could be called a type of institutionalized space and then characters who were defined and restricted by that environment (system, institution) would appear. So, the kind of “naked space” where no set is created and a poor-looking “raw character” about whom we know nothing comes out on stage and the play begins from there, that kind of “Beckett space”—that is what I came to call it—was very attractive to us, and I believe that Juro Kara and Makoto Sato and the others at the time were all influenced in some way by it.

Besides this “Beckett space,” wasn’t the dramaturgy of “theater of the absurd” as exemplified by Waiting for Godot also a shocking development for you?
It wasn’t such a big shock in terms of dramaturgy. In Europe’s Modern era, efforts to eliminate things that might be considered the absurd were one of the clear directions, so the appearance of a dramaturgy such as theater of the absurd must have been shocking. But Japan had not reached such a level of Modernization and on the individual level Western style individuality had not really been established either. Furthermore, I don’t believe that the idea of the absurd was really that new in the East. I think you could say that due to the long-standing Eastern concepts of the human being as an unfathomable entity, the acceptance of the transience of all things and the protean natural of the world, there was already a natural understanding of a sense of the absurd.

There have been several major changes in style of your works over the course of your long career. First of all there were the earliest works that you presented in your “Waseda Small Theater” period with Tadashi Suzuki directing. Works from this period that stand not only as perceptive depictions of the Japanese and the Japanese condition but also as statements about the “souls” of the individual, were epoch-making plays in Japanese contemporary theater. For example, The Little Match Girl with its story about the peaceful life of an elderly couple gradually being invaded by a young sister and brother caught up in the hardships of the immediate postwar, or The Elephant which takes as its main character a victim of the atomic bombing who wants to show people on the street the keloid scar on his back as a way to win sympathy and applause. These works depict people who are struggling to endure hopeless solitude or isolation.
It is true that there is an aspect of solitude or isolation, but at least for those of us with anti-establishment sentiments in the 1960s, our motivation and concern was the feelings of “animosity and agony” aroused by the conditions of the times. The moment we understood that it is a solitude resulting from animosity and agony, that solitude could become a weapon. But, as the times changed this animosity and agony faded away. Even though the social conditions or quality of life wasn’t getting any better, the increasing availability of information broadened our viewpoints and “animosity and agony” got lost in the concern for verifying solitude as solitude. By the 1980s it was almost completely gone, and with that [when expressed in terms of the Chinese characters for individual “ko” and isolation “ko” that make up the word (with the same pronunciation) solitude as in Japanese] it seemed that the individual aspect of solitude ceased to be part of the question, leaving only the isolation. I feel that the individual as a complete entity disappeared and what was left was only human consciousness as a “point.” With that, the works must naturally change too. When you try to give form to the active consciousness of isolation that exists as a “point” in this way, the only tangible form is in relationship to someone. That is why it became a theater of relationship rather than one of the actions of the individual.
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