The 19th EU-Japan Fest Program
“the 18th Sibiu International Theatre Festival: theatre company support”
The decision to play Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s “Keisei Hangonko” came in 2010. Though I did not at all foresee it at that stage, in 2011 we would tour Romania, including an appearance at the Sibiu International Theater Festival, with this piece, and that tour would be an opportunity to rethink Japanese culture and the nation of Japan.
On June 2 Yamanote Jijosha Company enjoyed the honor of performing at the Radu Stanca State Theater, the main venue of the Sibiu International Theater Festival in Romania. Simply being invited three years running to this festival with its rigorous screening was in itself something to be justly proud of. For a Japanese company that seldom catches the eye of the world’s theater people, the chance to perform at its main venue, packed with Western and Japanese critics and festival directors from many different countries, is one that never comes around again.
In our first appearance at the Sibiu festival two years previously we played Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus”, and last year the Greek tragedy “Oedipus Rex”. These found favor well beyond our expectations, and this year I felt it was time to see how we could do with a Japanese piece.
It has seemed to me for some time that overseas performances of the Japanese classics are all too scarce. At Yamanote Jijosha we try to keep our performances of Japanese pieces and ones based on Western originals roughly equal. This has to do with what I would call my sense of balance. On the one hand we take on Goethe, Maeterlinck and Tennessee Williams, while on the other we have adapted such works as “Botan Doro”, originally a rakugo storytelling piece; “Funa Benkei”, originally a Noh piece; and “Sayogoromo Oshino Tsurugiba”, which is now no longer performed either as kabuki or as bunraku puppetry. All this has underlined my view, which of course has something to do with myself being Japanese, that in dramaturgy Japanese work must not yield to Western work.
When Japanese companies perform overseas, it is overwhelmingly Western pieces that they offer and only a handful of Japanese ones. And no Western company ever brings a Japanese piece to Japan. This trade imbalance is one that has persisted ever since the rise of Shingeki (“new drama”) of the late 19th century that followed the Meiji Restoration. The plain truth is that Japanese theater people have ever since received the theatrical movements and works that arrive from the West with grateful reverence.
My aim is to nudge the theater’s balance of trade towards equilibrium, if only a bit. It was coincidentally just as this notion took me that, entirely unexpectedly, in autumn of 2010 the Radu Stanca requested a Yamanote Jijosha performance in recognition of the quality of our work over the previous two years. I told Radu Stanca general director Constantin Chiriac that I would like to schedule it for 2012 and that I would like to perform Chikamatsu’s “Onnagoroshi Abura no Jigoku”, and happily he agreed completely. The background to the selection in 2011 of “Keisei Hangonko” is that I wanted to bring about a situation in which Chikamatsu’s work would, like Shakespeare’s and Chekhov’s, always have a place in the repertory of a theater somewhere. While I think there are many other dramatists also deserving of presentation overseas, my idea was to start with making the people of Romania aware of the appeal of Chikamatsu as the leading dramatist of the kabuki, the Japanese dramatic form known to all theater people everywhere in the world.
We had a rough time with the subtitles for this performance. There were no Romanian-language versions of Chikamatsu. Although some of his work has been translated into English, not even that was available for “Keisei Hangonko”, which is no longer played from beginning to end. To start, the text Yamanote Jijosha uses is my “translation” of the original text into modern Japanese. I again reviewed and revised the modern-language version that I first produced about ten years ago. This went for translation to a Romanian with a good command of both Japanese and English. Since the festival audience would consist not only of Romanians but of many people from other countries, we would need English subtitling as well. The English and Romanian translations were reviewed by different experts. So far, so complicated, but since subtitles entail a limit on character counts, to craft translations that both conveyed the sense of the original and maintained its quality required us to repeat this procedure over and over.
For example, take the following line.
I earn three thousand koku salaries for a year, who do not bow but to my master, look.
While kabuki fans may recognize the epithet Nagoya Sanza, most Japanese would blank on it. It refers to a legendary figure said to have pioneered kabuki dance, together with Izumo no Okuni. When appearing in kabuki, he is a white hat who does battle with Fuwa Banzaemon for the hand of Kazuraki. The line above is when Sanza, having cut down Fuwa Banzaemon, expresses his gratitude to people who had a hand in resolving the issue.
Although the line is not one that Japanese viewers would fail to understand altogether, it does make for difficult translation. First, the translator seems to have mistaken rokudaka for a place name rather than the samurai’s stipend, so I revised it to indicate more clearly Sanza’s remuneration or salary.
How to translate 3,000 koku? Perhaps as a store of value. If so, denoted as yen or as Romanian lei? Would it be enough to say simply “an amount of one koku and two in his hands”?
Did we convey the extent to which lowering the head brings into play a samurai’s honor? Unless we found a tidy solution for each of these, it would impact the translation as a whole. It was a challenge to our translation policy. The subtitling staff would discuss questions with me in the rehearsal hall and then hash it out with the translator.
As is evident from the term keisei (“courtesan”) in its title, “Keisei Hangonko” is set in a red-light district. Such districts have their own conventions and customs, which vary in complicated ways not only between Kyoto and Edo, but also over time. How to handle these in translation? It takes a high character count to explain any one of the terms nenki ake (the expiry of a term of engagement), chaya (teahouse), shinzou (a prominent man’s wife),kamuro (a young girl attending a courtesan), tayuu (a courtesan of high rank) or yarite (an older chaperone to a courtesan). You have to stop somewhere.
We also had trouble with the names of the characters. The protagonist is Kano no Shirojiro Motonobu, and his follower Utanosuke. Depending on the scene, the former may be called Kano or Shirojiro or Motonobu, and to render them individually would be confusing as well as fiddly. Closing our eyes to the delicate nuances, we settled on simply Motonobu for the former and Uta for the latter.
There are two things I had to rethink. One is that we experience the same confusion when reading translations of Western texts. Recall how difficult it is to get comfortable with the characters in Chekhov. Take Ranevskaya, the protagonist of “The Cherry Orchard”. Depending on the scene, she may be called Lyubov Andreievna or by the nickname Lyuba. As much time as I spent learning about the conventions that Russians would take as entirely natural, and thought that I had understood them, I realized that my understanding of the play might possibly – no, quite likely – hang on a considerable confusion on my part.
The other is the realization that the Japanese who matter, myself included, know hardly anything of the world of Chikamatsu Monzaemon. The disasters of March 2011 cued in me a rethinking of Chikamatsu. In expressing my gratitude for the support and encouragement of Romanian audiences in the wake of the disaster, here is how I explained myself.
In the upheaval following the disasters, there was no civil disorder in Japan. We hear that the orderly conduct of the Japanese generated much wonder and admiration overseas. It would not have been unusual even in a developed country for all manner of discontent and anxiety to erupt at once into urban rioting when struck by a major earthquake or tsunami, with lifelines cut off and the supply of goods disrupted. Various embassies called on their nationals to evacuate out of concern that such things would in fact occur.
Japan may be reckoned materially wealthy, and its people to experience little anxiety or discontent. That is certainly part of it. However, I think that’s not the whole of it.
There was a French poet called Paul Claudel. He served as ambassador to Japan in the 1920s and was the brother of the sculptor Camille Claudel, whose work is on show at the national museum in Bucharest. Many may know of Camille as the pupil and lover of Rodin. In 1943 amid gathering signs of Japanese defeat in the Second World War, Paul Claudel is said to have spoken thus to the poet Paul Valery at a soiree in Paris:
“There is one people I have no wish to see ruined. This is the Japanese. I know no other people who have such an interesting civilization from ancient times. The tremendous recent development of Japan is something I find not in the least odd. They are poor, but they are noble.”
Europe has chivalry, and Japan bushido. To simplify, one must not behave in an underhanded way, one must not be a coward. Chivalry was chiefly a code of the nobility, not an ethical system that bound the general population outside the nobility.
The 270 years beginning around 1600 are in Japan called the Edo period. It was a time of national isolation, during which Japan would have almost no dealings with other countries. With no foreign wars nor any major internal conflicts, it was a time of peace unusual in the history of the world.
During the Edo period, bushido spread beyond the samurai class to the commoners. It was a time when education flourished. With no wars, a man could not make his way in the world through force of arms, and so everyone turned to studies. The literacy rate is said to have been perhaps higher than in Europe. The legacy of samurai ethics becoming those of much the entire population – i.e. one must not behave in an underhanded way, one must not be a coward – is that this thinking has seeped deeply into the psyche of modern Japanese, which I consider to be a major factor in the lack of civil unrest when the recent disasters struck.
And kabuki and bunraku played an important role in the spread of this ethical system. People would learn from watching kabuki and bunraku how it is that people should live. What should be the relationship between leaders and subordinates? Between parents and children? Between friends? The stage was also a textbook for how people should conduct themselves in apology, in praising someone, in anger. Observing the way all sorts of different people from all classes of society that appeared in these dramas lived their lives, our ancestors learned which ways of living were admirable.
Chikamatsu is the preeminent dramatist in kabuki and bunraku. He was born a samurai. To become a dramatist at that time required him to relinquish the privileges of the samurai, and I find this indicative of how much the work of the dramatist appealed to him. He depicted society always from the perspective of the vulnerable. His genius may have seen that universal passions lie dormant among the vulnerable in society, and he may have reckoned that one could not depict human vulnerability from a samurai standpoint.
As a director in the modern theater, I have staged Shakespeare and the Greek tragedies and the like, and I consider Chikamatsu, Japan’s finest dramatist, fully their equal. I want to expose more people to the allure of his work.
Our first performance at the Sibiu International Theater Festival banished my anxiety. The audience crowded into standing-room-only space not only on the first level, which goes without saying, but on the second level as well. They kept us for four curtain calls. After the performance, Chiriac said to me, “It was a stunning piece. Last year’s ‘Titus Andronicus’ was good too, but this was a great achievement.” George Banu, Romania’s most influential theater critic, offered unanticipated praise: “The best piece in this year’s festival. Yasuda is counted among the top three directors invited from outside the country over the 18 years of the Sibiu International Theater Festival. I want him to stage this work in Paris.”
The front page of “Applause”, the daily paper that is the face of the festival, ran a review featuring a color photo of “Keisei Hangonko”. Below is an extract, quoted at some length.
The cherry blossom is a symbol of Japan. It is made an analogy to life and so loved for its fleeting beauty. The simpleness of Japanese thinking, the generosity of its way of seeing things or of understanding them, is a cause, I think, of the acceptance of supernatural phenomena without the fear that comes from unforeseeable anxiety. This way of thinking about life and death seems, to Westerners, primal and so unnecessarily shocking. The dead become spirits, roam freely through the air, abide near their loved ones.
Yamanote Jijosha are now regulars at this festival, and now they have shown the audiences of a different cultural background gathered at the national theater in Sibiu a performance, in the “yojo-han” style advocated by director Masahiro Yasuda of a representative Japanese tale. A principle of acting embodied by the players calls for frequent short stoppage and movement, almost as though acrobats, and to stop all movement while someone is speaking. And all the characters cluster together in one place on the stage. Their costumes bear the influence of Japanese tradition: the high-status heros wear spacious kimono, and the peasants shabby ones rudely tailored.
The stage art and sets do not disavow the the traits of Japanese theater. This is minimalism. Namely, the set consists of three noren curtains lined across the rear of the stage, of which the middle one alone is placed perhaps a meter behind the others. This provides the players a way on and off. Images of pictures and scenery are projected onto these noren. The reason is that the protagonist is an artist.
The artist’s name is Kano Motonobu. This character is an actual person who lived from the 15th to the 16th century. He falls in love with a high-class prostitute and, while promising to marry her, ends up for economic reasons marrying a girl of noble family. The prostitute succeeds, on the day of the wedding no less, in borrowing her husband from the artist’s future wife for 49 days. In fact, however, the prostitute is already dead at this point. Motonobu comes to realize that he has been living with the ghost of the prostitute revived after death. Tales of the fusion of love and devotion are characteristic of Japanese culture, as are honor and fealty the two important norms for samurai. The commission of harakiri to preserve honor would be a fact accentuating a corrupt surrounding reality.
What is distinctive in the Japanese theater is the complicated relationships among dramatis personae of different social classes. The intellectual geisha who is obliged to sell her body and the girl of noble family rebuked as lazy by her many chambermaids are in the same tale both heroines and rivals. Women belonging to the polar extremes of the same society become the one happy and the other unhappy by a quirk of fate. Ironically, each occupies her own place in the heart of the one man they both love. The prostitute who passes a limited time with the artist. And the noble girl who undertook to yield the first days of her marriage. The balance of victory tips to the side of the noble girl, who in the end has her marriage for life. Even so, the finale devised by the director casts the shadow of a question over the “eternity” that awaits the two couples. True love, like a cherry blossom, may last but a few days. It may be that things of beauty have but a short life.
The audience in Turda, the next city on our tour, reacted differently to the performance. Ours was the first by a Japanese company in this small city of just 70,000. Among those who turned out was the mayor, a theater fan. The hall we played was actually a casino with a stage grafted on and very good acoustics. Unfortunately, it was not fully equipped as a theater and lacked fixtures and such. However, the staff had exceptional expertise and worked earnestly to address the lack of fixtures. Since the audience exceeded the 400 seating capacity, 50 or so extra seats were put out.
When the performance started, you could sense the excitement among the audience. A big round of applause followed the opening dance, and more applause at the interval after the next scene as though it were an intermission at the opera. The applause at the end was so great that the actors missed their cues. After the performance we were awarded five standing ovations. One of the joys of an overseas tour is a reaction that we would never receive in Japan.
The tour closed out in Bucharest, where we performed in a wonderful venue called the Odeon Theater. Built 100 years ago and located in the center of town, the Odeon has an upscale structure that includes, since its opening, a ceiling above the audience seating that opens and closes electrically. Audience seating is in four levels, box seats on the second level and a gallery on the fourth. The theater had a distinct atmosphere, lush and stately, that had soaked up the emotions of Bucharest audiences over many years.
The occasional sighs and light laughter during the performance indicated that the audience was grasping the work. The standing ovation afterwards was enthusiastic, the applause kept up for five minutes, and the cast took a curtain call.
Emil Boroghina, artistic director of the Shakespeare festival in Craiova, had come to see us, and what he said was most welcome: “I want you at the 2014 festival. Play anything you like, I’ll open space for you.”
In December 2011 I was back in Sibiu for a week or so to select the cast for “Onnagoroshi Abura no Jigoku”. I conducted daily workshops of three hours or so for actors who everyday were appearing in other parts, running through everything from training in the basics to script readings.
Though I spent only a short time with the actors, two things in particular struck me. One was a difference in attitudes to the theater, the other differences in drama education that follow from this.
I’ve discussed elsewhere this difference in attitude. In a nutshell, the notion is so pervasive as to be taken for granted that the theater and theater people are a national trust and should be supported with tax monies. This thinking is well established in Europe, and unfortunately an attitude that is far from planting itself in Japan.
The difference in drama education that struck me on this visit was the discovery that they are ill at ease conforming with other people. What comes naturally to them is to “not do the same thing as other people”. Turning it around, it seemed to me that it is perhaps a Japanese forte, one we can even take pride in, to “behave the same as other people”.
The response to my Japanese coaching to voice as though drawing in breath was that they’ve “always been told to let the breath go in voice production”. The European practice here is exactly the opposite of ours.
I am now in the process of making extensive revisions to the text and considering casting in light of the workshops. We begin rehearsals in June this year (2012) and have our first performance in September. My intention with this performance is to present European theater with a major challenge, one that I must now gradually elucidate.
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