The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
Weaving a thread of the supernatural into the daily lives of the young generation The world of playwright Tomohiro Maekawa and his theater company Ikiume
Ikiume Sampo suru shinryakusha
(Strolling Invader)

(Sep. 2007 at Aoyama Round Theatre)
Photo: Aki Tanaka
Sampo suru shinryakusha
Play of the Month
You bring elements of science fiction, horror and the occult into your plays. For example, your latest work is a four-part omnibus titled Toshokan-teki Jinsei Vol. 2 Tate to Hoko (A Library-like Life Vol. 2 Shield and Lance). In that title, there are Moja (The Dead) in which the [spirits of the] dead waiting on the shores of the river to the other world are forced to do menial labor by a middle manager-like demon in order to get into heaven, and Kaiseki (Ceremonial Meal) where a couple takes in a young man who has been assaulted by thugs and because of their inherent goodness allow themselves to come under the control of the youth, and Kofuku (Happiness) where aliens plan to take over the world with a secret weapon (when people look at it they are overcome with a bliss that is ultimately fatal), and Teio (Emperor) about a man whose emotions are expressed not as facial expressions but as relations that move the muscles of his whole body. All of them are full of unique Maekawa essence.
    This isn’t something I was doing consciously from the beginning, and I guess I didn’t recognize it until people around me pointed it out. Looking back, I definitely was a kid who liked ghost stories and monsters, and I liked the atmosphere of temples and shrines. I especially liked Shigeru Mizuki’s Yokai daihyakka (Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Demons). The 110-year-old elementary school I went to had a lot of stories about ghosts haunting it, and I edited a “Ghost Newspaper” as a kid when I was at the elementary school. My interest and preference for these things are definitely at the root of my works.

Science should be able to explain most of the natural phenomenon of the universe, but we are not yet at the point where science can explain it all. There are still things that can’t be explained, and it is very interesting when you look at ghosts and the occult from that perspective.
    I think so too. Religion just takes over where science leaves off, or the unexplained realms are just explained with the occult logic of the devil and curses. And doesn’t that mean that you can use your imagination and make up your own explanations for things in the realm that science can’t explain? That’s why when we formed our company Ikiume, I wanted to create works in which I could insert lots of my own interpretations of the things that everyone finds mysterious in stories made of those explanations. I thought that would be a really adventurous and rewarding form of writing. I though it would be great if I could write things that would make people say, “Yes, that is a wild but possible explanation or interpretation. In other words, writing stories that I could fill with believable lies.

But if you are taking that kind of approach consciously, don’t you reach a point where it becomes a form of limitation to your creativity?
    That is an element that does indeed come out. When I say that I like science fiction and the occult, there are actually not such a large number of things in those genre that I really like. And now that I have been writing that way for two or three years, I am now feeling that I have already touched on a lot of the things that interested me. Until now I have been writing more or less in a style based on ideas of what I think would be interesting as an [unexpected] occurrence in a story, but now I am thinking that more can be done with those same ideas, rather than just writing something as a horror story, I could write it in a way that connects more to the real world.

You were born in 1974 and are thus of the same generation as the playwright/directors Keishi Nagatsuka and Daisuke Miura. What do you feel are the traits that characterize your generation and its social background?
    The education our generation got at school was always focused on individuality. It was as if we were constantly being told to find ways to express our own individuality and I believe that we are a generation for whom that kind of individualistic approach to life was being forced on us unnecessarily. That’s probably why there is a tendency for our generation to be obsessed with pursuing a creative lifestyle, or reacting by not going anywhere and becoming a NEET, or to constantly be changing jobs in search of a career that better suits their own nature. I am interested in the consciousness of our generation and the way we view ourselves.
    Also, there are so many crazy incidents like the recent multiple killing spree by a man of our generation in the Akihabara [geek] district of Tokyo are happening around us. But, no matter how much you watch the coverage on television you don’t get a picture of the background behind such incidents. There have also been a lot of incidents of deceitful labeling of foods by companies that certainly weren’t corrupt when they started out, but somewhere along the way they crossed a line and ended up engaging in these unbelievable illegitimate practices, or incidents, as in the case of the Akihabara man, caused by some build-up of stress of frustration causes people to cross a line and commit these acts. I am very much interested and concerned about the backgrounds of these incidents where people cross over into unforgivable actions, and I am now involved in gathering data about them.

The word ikiume in your company’s name is said to be a name that comes from the concept of getting glimpses of the other world [the afterlife] while still alive. From the word ikiume we can also get a sense of a stifling era where people are “buried alive” in the restrictions of society. What exactly does the “other world” (higan = “the other shore,” or Buddhist Nirvana) in this concept imply or express? Is it the relieved happiness of a Buddhist heaven (seiho jodo = Paradise of the West), or is it a hell of punishment?
    No. It is neither a heaven nor a hell. It is called the “other world [other shore] exactly because there are no words besides “other” to describe it. If one was forced to choose between heaven or hell to describe it, it is closer to heaven perhaps, but not in the sense of a joyous or pleasurable world. Rather in the sense of “a place of importance.” It does not carry a religious significance but it does imply a sense of the most important and final goal of life.
    Through my stories [plays] I want the audience to have an encounter with that idea. I don’t care whether you call it, but I want the people who come to the theater to have an experience of touching, if only for a moment, the underlying essence behind our lives that make it as it is.

One of your works, Sampo suru shinryakusha (Strolling Invader), which premiered in 2005 and you also rewrote as a short novel, is about an alien that is able to enter the bodies and minds of humans, and in order to research the human race, the alien gradually removes certain concepts, such as “family” and “laughter,” from the minds of people it meets. And through this device, you depict people who have been possessed by the alien and people who deteriorate as they are stripped of various concepts and the truths that are revealed in this process—all of which you present in a comical style. What kind of “other world” did you attempt to portray in this work?
    I began writing that work out of an interest in what type of existence a person who had been possessed by an alien would have. The human being that has become “pawn” of an alien invasion retains his memories in the form of information in a body into which the alien has been installed like a form of software. He continues to function as a human with the information he has acquired in his life up until that point, but that becomes meaningless as the alien that has entered him robs other humans of concepts and in doing so gradually changes their character. And then finally, when the concept of “love” is taken from them they realize what the true nature of the human being is…. I wrote this work with the desire to think about what makes human beings human.
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