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TDR: The Drama Review 44.1 (2000) 85-96

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Images of Armageddon: Japan's 1980s Theatre Culture

Uchino Tadashi 1


Contemporary Japanese Performance


IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= The end of Japan's "bubble economy" around 1990 created a new version of neonationalism. 2 Cultural producers have been desperately attempting to create a narrative connecting the failure of Japan's once invincible economic power to its unexpected downfall. Was it global capitalism made in the USA that undermined "our" healthy desire for prosperity? Or was it some deep-rooted "national" character flaw that ended "our" own global economic hegemony? Everywhere in Japan, from daily televised talk shows to representative serious literary magazines, these questions are discussed and debated in the interest of redefining Japan's "national" character and what "we, Japanese" should do in this critical stage of Japan's modern history. 3

Yet in the process of redefining Japan's "national" character, it is what I call the "Aum-esque" that is eliminated from Japan's discursive space. 4 I say "eliminated" because the Aum-esque is surreptitiously implied by both the political Right and the Left. Those who are familiar with the Aum Shinri-kyo's terrorist gas attack in 1995 might be surprised to hear this, as more effort has been spent on trying to "explain" the Aum phenomenon than on the disastrous outcome of the Hanshin-Awaji great earthquake earlier in 1995. It was as if there was nothing to explain about the earthquake because it was a "natural" phenomenon, while what the Aum attempted to "achieve" through their poison gas attack had to be explained.

Toward this end, a recurring Japanese narrative relying on the idealization of a homogeneous Japanese identity has been resurrected. In this narrative, the dichotomy of "outside" and "inside" is unanimously employed so that Aum cult members and their actions are of those exceptionally sick outsiders with criminal minds. They are labeled as such precisely because there is something obviously disturbing about them. The Aum-esque thus has been successfully "bracketed" within Japan's cultural memory. Within the narrative of Japan's new national character, the Aum-esque is fully understood and therefore already vanquished.

The same kind of manipulative displacement of Japan's cultural past can be detected in the construction of the narrative of 1990s theatre culture. Mainstream theatre journalism has taken up the notion of shizukana engeki (quiet [End Page 85] theatre) as the representative style for the 1990s. Major critics unanimously praise quiet theatre practitioner Hirata Oriza 5 as a major artistic voice in the post-bubble Japan. Politically conservative and artistically innovative, quiet theatre practices have been successful in drawing unreasonably emphatic media coverage and younger audiences. This success, however, is predicated on conservative journalists designating 1980s theatre culture as not a quiet theatre, precisely by not referring to it. Thus in affirming the quiet theatre practices of the 1990s as better and more appropriate, Japan's theatre culture of the 1980s--as well as the Aum-esque--has become something "fully" understood, therefore already overcome.

Historically speaking, the year 1982, when the first Toga International Arts Festival was held, was an important point of departure for theatre culture. As the festival was a rare occasion for postwar avantgarde theatre artists both from the East and the West to present their work, it was an important point of departure for Japan's theatre. Audiences, including myself, were very excited by the sumptuous display of diverse and provocative visions, and were led to imagine theatre arts in the future tense. For critics like me, at least, the festival signaled the coming of an age of truly intercultural theatre.

The festival was organized by Suzuki Tadashi, the director of SCOT (Suzuki Company of Toga). Prominent European and American avantgarde artists such as Robert Wilson, Meredith Monk (both of the US), John Fox (of the UK), and Tadeuz Kantor (of Poland), along with Teraya Shuji, Oota Shogo, and Suzuki participated. It was the first international festival in which mostly avantgarde theatrical works were presented to Japanese audiences.

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