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Asian Theatre Journal 17.2 (2000) 303-305

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Half a Century of Japanese Theater I: 1990'S Part 1. Edited by Japan Playwrights Association. Tokyo: Kinokuniya, 1999. 496 pp. 5000 yen

This welcome book, funded by Japan's Agency of Cultural Affairs, is the first in a series of translations of contemporary Japanese plays. The six playwrights chosen for this volume exhibit thematic concerns and distinctive styles which might surprise those who imagine that modern Japanese theatre is "imitation Western drama." All are the leaders of major theatrical troupes.

The insightful general introduction by Hasebe Hiroshi is translated by Mari Boyd. Hasebe sketches the forces affecting Japanese theatre during the last decade of the twentieth century. He notes the bursting of the economic bubble of the 1980s and Japan's subsequent recession, the end of the cold war, the death of the Showa emperor (closing any possibility that he might accept responsibility for wartime atrocities), Japan's financial complicity in the Gulf War, the political ambitions and deadly sarin (poison gas) attacks by followers of the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo, the fall of the Liberal Democrats after thirty-eight years in power, and the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, which resulted in more than six thousand deaths and the destruction of much of Kobe.

While responding to chaotic social upheavals, the playwrights also rebelled against their mentors by rejecting both the dark theatrical experimentation of the 1960s and 1970s and the wordplay, madcap comedies, and sci-fi parodies of the 1980s. Instead they sought truthfulness in quotidian anomie or by reexamining taboo aspects of Japanese history. Hasebe says: "What arose . . . in the 1990's was the desire to give theatrical expression to what it feels and means to be alive. This does not mean that the realistic theatre has regained its voice, but that the theatre of the 1990's is focused on raising the question, 'What is (the nature of) the real?'" One response was "quiet theatre"--most prominently the plays of Iwamatsu Ryo (translated for the next volume). Iwamatsu maintains that "from the sheer amount of detail, the sense of the 'extra-ordinary' (hinichijo) should paradoxically emerge within the illusion of the ordinary." In the current volume, "quiet theatre" is represented by Suzue Toshiro's Fireflies (Kami o Kakiageru, first performed in 1995) and Hirata Oriza's Citizens of Seoul (Soru Shimin, first performed in 1989).

Suzue Toshiro (b. 1963) draws characters suffering from emotional impotence. Fireflies was translated by David G. Goodman. Mari Boyd translated Kuki Yoko's introduction. Three intermingled couples are paralyzed by their inability to relate to each other or express emotion. As though to slake some unquenchable thirst, they constantly drink watery liquids. Many cannot sleep for loneliness. One impersonates a horse to relate to his girlfriend. Another is forced onto balconies to smoke. He is a member of the "firefly tribe" (hotaru-zoku): displaced smokers on distant balconies waving lighted cigarettes reminiscent of darting fireflies. A middle-aged couple, suffering from the death of their child, walks along the river impersonating fireflies by putting flashlights in their shirts. Real fireflies, nostalgic reminders of less complex days, are now seldom seen. The overall mood is one of quiet desperation [End Page 303] in which ordinary people seek impossible relationships at the margins of sanity.

Hirata Oriza (b. 1962) evokes "the minute oscillations within the individual who does not notice or does not want to notice what is happening around him." Citizens of Seoul was translated by John D. Swain, who also translated Senda Akihiro's introduction. Lines intentionally overlap, sentences are incomplete, characters cut each other off. Hirata instructs his actors to speak in a normal voice, often with their backs to the audience, disregarding the fact that their lines may be inaudible. The play takes place in Seoul during the summer of 1909, a year before Japan forcibly annexed Korea, depriving Koreans of their own names and language. A sense of cultural superiority pervades the inconsequential chitchat of a wealthy Japanese merchant family. Typical imperialists, they disdain Koreans...