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Modern Western plays in Japan

Many Western plays, from those of the Ancient Greek theatre to William Shakespeare and from those of Fyodor Dostoevsky to Samuel Beckett, are performed in Tokyo. An incredible number of performances, perhaps as many as 3,000, are given each year, making Tokyo one of the world’s leading theatrical centers.

The opening of the replica of the Globe Theatre was celebrated by importing an entire British company to perform all of Shakespeare’s historical plays, while other Tokyo theaters produced other Shakespearean plays including various new interpretations of Hamlet and King Lear. The Globe Theatre, located in Shin-Ōkubo in Tokyo, now belongs mostly to Johnny’s Entertainment and the promotion of pop idols in the acting field.

Yukio Ninagawa is an internationally known Japanese director and playwright who often turns to elements of Shakespeare for inspiration. In 1995 he performed the “Shakespeare Tenpo 12Nen”, an interpretation of the wildly popular British theatre Shakespeare Condensed: all of Shakespeare’s plays in two hours. Famous actors such as Natsuki Mari and Karawa Toshiaki were involved.

Japanese modern drama in the early 20th century, the 1900s, consisted of Shingeki (experimental Western-style theater), which employed naturalistic acting and contemporary themes in contrast to the stylized conventions of Kabuki and Noh. Hōgetsu Shimamura and Kaoru Osanai were two figures influential in the development of shingeki.

In the postwar period, there was a phenomenal growth in creative new dramatic works, which introduced fresh aesthetic concepts that revolutionized the orthodox modern theater. Challenging the realistic, psychological drama focused on “tragic historical progress” of the Western-derived shingeki, young playwrights broke with such accepted tenets as conventional stage space, placing their action in tents, streets, and open areas and, at the extreme, in scenes played out all over Tokyo.

Plots became increasingly complex, with play-within-a-play sequences, moving rapidly back and forth in time, and intermingling reality with fantasy. Dramatic structure was fragmented, with the focus on the performer, who often used a variety of masks to reflect different personae.

Playwrights returned to common stage devices perfected in Noh and Kabuki to project their ideas, such as employing a narrator, who could also use English for international audiences. Major playwrights in the 1980s were Kara Juro, Shimizu Kunio, and Betsuyaku Minoru, all closely connected to specific companies. In contrast, the fiercely independent Murai Shimako won awards throughout the world for her numerous works focusing on the Hiroshima bombing, which were frequently performed by only one or two actresses. In the 1980s, stagecraft was refined into a more sophisticated, complex format than in the earlier postwar experiments but lacked their bold critical spirit.

Tadashi Suzuki developed a unique method of performer training which integrated avant-garde concepts with classical Noh and Kabuki devices, an approach that became a major creative force in Japanese and international theater in the 1980s. Another highly original East-West fusion occurred in the inspired production Nastasya, taken from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, in which Bando Tamasaburo, a famed Kabuki onnagata (female impersonator), played the roles of both the prince and his fiancée.

Sho-Gekijo
The 1980s also encouraged the creation of the Sho-Gekijo, or literally, little theatre. This usually meant amateur theatrical troupes making plays designed to be seen by anyone and everyone — not necessarily as meaningful in nature as they were simply entertaining.

Some of the more philosophical playwrights and directors of that time which are still active today are Noda Hideki, Shōji Kōkami and Keralino Sandorovich (a pen name for a Japanese playwright).

Popular sho-gekijo theatrical troupes include Nylon 100, Gekidan Shinkansen, Tokyo Sunshine Boys, and Halaholo Shangrila.

Recently, new generation of Sho-Gekijo artists who are labeled as the “Generation of the Lost Decade” or the “Generation of 2000s” are emerging. Principal artists among this generation are: Toshiki Okada, Shiro Maeda, Kuro Tanino, Daisuke Miura, Tomohiro Maekawa and so on.

(Source: Wikipedia, “Theater of Japan

See Kansai Theater for a rundown of the arts and theater scene in Kansai

And TIMEOUT’s Tokyo theatre venues

Further readings at Shakespeare in Hollywood, Asia, and Cyberspace
edited by Alexander Cheng-Yuan Huang, Charles Stanley Ross

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There is a lot of great theatre in Tokyo, but most is in Japanese. NNTT, Bunrakuza, Shiki geki dan for musicals, Kanagawa PAT in Yokohama, and lots of small avant garde theatre going on — in Japanese.
There’s Tokyo International Players and Yokohama Theatre Group for quality community theatre – but the biggest hub for English theatre in Japan is actually Nagoya
See Japan Times which also hosts an international play festival in the autumn.
Some locations for catching Shakespeare and other performing arts acts:

See TIMEOUT’s Tokyo theatre venues

Rising Sun Theatre

Nagoya’s expat drama troupe debuts in Tokyo with a Macbeth set to death metal
Japan’s expatriate theater scene has seen a remarkable period of fertility in recent years. The dean of the lot, the century-old Tokyo International Players company, has been revitalized and three new expatriate theater groups have emerged to give it competition.

As shown by the failure two years ago of the Tokyo Globe, big-budget production English-language theater is still a dicey proposition in Japan. But TIP and the new Tokyo-based companies, Intrigue Theater and Sometimes Y (see Agenda), have been drawing steady and devoted audiences to their small-scale productions.

Now comes a new, Nagoya-based troupe to upstage them with an innovative production of the Shakespeare tragedy Macbeth at one of Japan’s premier venues. “I’m not one to take no for an answer,” explains Australian actor/director Dwayne Lawler, about how he was able to get his company on the bill at the prestigious New National Theatre, Tokyo.

Lawler, who also plays the title character, has adapted the macabre story of the hapless Macbeth for Japan. He’s both simplified the story to emphasize the conflict between Macbeth and his rival Macduff, and created a set with Japanese elements. A 5-meter-high torii (Shinto gate) is the centerpiece of the stage, while the three witches wear noh masks and Lady Macbeth uses a wara ningyo (straw doll) to conjure up evil spirits.

Lawler has also used music by New Orleans band Shakespeare in Hell, who cleverly set Shakespeare’s words to death metal rhythms. “Rising Sun’s signature method of presenting Shakespeare is to present it with music, but I didn’t want to use traditional Japanese music as I felt that death metal was more suitable for the Scottish play. Admittedly, some people are a little shocked when they first hear it.”

The ambitious Lady Macbeth, who eggs on Macbeth to seize the throne with disastrous results for both of them, is played by British actress Alice Hackett, who has toured the US, Europe and Asia with productions of Shakespeare.

A professional actor with a decade of experience in his native Australia, Lawler relocated to Japan four years ago to teach drama and pursue his interest in Japan. The current production comes as part of his master’s thesis, titled “Staging Macbeth in Japan: The Chameleon Approach.”

Sep 22, 7pm; ¥4,500 (adv), ¥5,500 (door). New National Theatre, Tokyo; The Pit. Tel: 03-5352-9999.

credit: Rising Sun Theatre

Tokyo International Players

Tokyo International Players present ‘Romeo and Juliet’
EVENTS FEB. 03, 2014
When: Feb 27 – March 2
Place: The Pocket (Nakano Station)
TOKYO —
Tokyo International Players (TIP) presents “Romeo and Juliet” at The Pocket (Nakano Station, JR Chuo Line), Feb 27 and 28 at 7 p.m.; March 1 at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.; March 2 at 3 p.m.

Directed by Wendell T Harrison, this marks the first time in its 117-year history that TIP will perform this play.

Romeo and Juliet is the classic story of two warring families, and their children who manage to find love. One major change to this production is taking the fabled “star-crossed lovers” out of Verona, Italy and transporting them to Dejima, off the coast of Nagasaki. In 1639, tensions were high between the Japanese and the Portuguese settlers, who were all but exiled to the artificial island. TIP’s production revisits this brief moment in Japanese history to shed light on the future of Japan, with an original twist where the Capulets are Japanese and the Montagues are expatriates, speaking in both English and Japanese.

This show will also break new ground for TIP. Last year, their production of Waiting for Godot was the first to use Japanese subtitles. Romeo and Juliet will expand the use of Japanese subtitles and will also use English subtitles for the Japanese lines.

“Our fresh re-telling of this classic and timeless story will explore what it means to love without boundaries in a society that has trouble accepting it,” says Frances Somerville, TIP Box Office Manager, “a concept which remains relevant today.”

The cast includes TIP veterans Brian Berdanier, Sarah Macdonald, Rika Wakasugi, Rodger Sonomura, Paul Howl, and Ra’Chelni M. Weir II and stars newcomers Sal Randazzo as Romeo and Tomomi Kikuchi as Juliet.

Founded in 1896, TIP is a theatrical organization comprised primarily of the Tokyo foreign community, which provides quality English-language entertainment for international audiences.

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Tokyo Globe

Shakespeare In Tokyo
By SUSAN CHIRA, Special to the New York Times
NY Times,May 31, 1988

The neighborhood of Shin-Okubo, nondescript and seldom visited, is an unlikely spot for a grand cultural experiment. Yet here, in full sight and sound of the railroad tracks, stands the Tokyo Globe, a reconstruction of Shakespeare’s theater that opened its first season with a series of his history plays – in English and without translation.

Other offerings this season will include productions of Shakespeare’s late romances by Britain’s National Theater and a visit by the Royal Dramatic Theater Company of Sweden, presenting Ingmar Bergman’s production of ”Hamlet” and Strindberg’s ”Miss Julie” in Swedish.

In an age when Japan has vaulted to the top in trade and finance, the ambition, even the vanity, of the Tokyo Globe project is somehow fitting. ”It says something about Japan,” said Michael Pennington, joint artistic director of the English Shakespeare Company, the British troupe that performed the Wars of the Roses cycle beginning with ”Richard II” and ending with ”Richard III.” ”If you imagine an expensive new theater opening in the middle of London and the first companies invited are two Kabuki companies and then Ingmar Bergman,” he said, ”eyebrows would be raised.” ‘Most Popular Playwright’

Yet the Globe’s producers are confident of Shakespeare’s appeal to Japanese theatergoers. ”If you ask who is the most popular playwright in Japan, we would have to say Shakespeare,” said Seiya Tamura, senior managing director of the Shinjunku-Nishitoyama Development Company, the real estate concern that built the Tokyo Globe as the price for being allowed to construct condominium apartments on Government-owned land. ”Shakespeare is universal,” Mr. Tamura said. ”He does express the character of human beings. We feel that the current century is a time of big changes similar to the time between the Middle Ages and the modern age, and in that kind of time, Shakespeare’s plays are important.”

Shakespeare scholars here agree. ”There is no one else here comparable to Shakespeare,” said Yushi Odashima, a professor of English at Tokyo University and perhaps Japan’s foremost Shakespeare translator. ”There are 15 productions a year of plays I have translated. So I think it’s natural to have a balance, one theater mainly for Shakespeare.” #3 Historical Sources The theater’s planners decided to model the Tokyo Globe on the second Globe theater, opened in 1614 after the first burned. The architect for the project was Arata Isozaki, who designed the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Palladium discotheque in New York City. Mr. Isozaki and the Japanese Shakespeare scholars who advised him drew upon three historical sources -a sketch of the second Globe from the outside, a sketch of the interior of another Elizabethan theater, the Swan, which offered clues about seating arrangements and stage construction, and a contract for the building of the 17th-century Fortune theater, which specified that many features of the Globe be copied. To these Mr. Isozaki applied his imagination and his own interest in the neo-classical principles of much Renaissance architecture.

He came up with a 24-sided near-circle, complete with Shakespeare’s thrust stage jutting into an audience seated in three tiers. Mr. Isozaki has pointed out that in some ways, the Elizabethan stage resembled Japan’s Noh theater (dating from the 14th century), with a thrust stage with pillars only partly roofed over. He also discarded some conventions – the Tokyo Globe is not made of wood and is not partly open-air. And he added some distinctive touches of his own -the Tokyo Globe is salmon-pink on the outside, high-tech gray on the inside, with grids and portholelike windows. The new theater, which seats 650 to 700 people, cost $16 million. The Audience Prepares

Coming attractions include a Japanese opera production of Salieri’s ”Falstaff” and an original Japanese musical production.

As part of their program, the members of the English Shakespeare Company mounted a stylish, modern-dress production of ”Henry V,” which alluded, among other things, to the British war in the Falklands as a parallel to the zealous nationalism that infused Henry’s centuries-earlier invasion of France. Mr. Pennington said the company decided to make no concessions to the Japanese audience, and indeed, some of the characters spoke with appropriate, although to Japanese ears probably unintelligible, Welsh, Irish and Scottish accents.

The audience sat attentively, several following along in Japanese-language texts of the play and listening to earphones that gave a few seconds’ synopsis in Japanese between scenes. With a seriousness characteristic of the Japanese approach to both work and culture, many said they had read the play carefully. Several in the crowd said they were Shakespearean scholars, university professors or English teachers.

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Other Shakespeare-related locations in Japan:

Shakespeare countrypark in Chiba

The Shakespeare Country Park and Rosemary Garden have been developed by the Township of Maruyama with the help of grants from the Prefectural Government, as a tourist attraction along the Flower Line Road – a route along the sea shore popular with day trippers from Tokyo.

Completed in 1997, the Park displays a range of buildings and landscapes characteristic of Elizabethan England. Among them are replicas of the original Mary Arden’s House and Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon; conjectural recreations of the original Stratford Market Cross and of ‘New Place’, the house in Stratford to which Shakespeare retired at the end of his working life; and a full size wind-mill. The buildings are grouped round a village green with duck pond, stocks and maypole.