My theatre company SCOT is based in the village of Toga in Toyama Prefecture, 600 km from Tokyo. It is a mountainous area facing the Sea of Japan, and Toga Village is 600 meters above sea level and stretches 23 kilometers from east to west and 52 kilometers from north to south. The current population is 500, and many of the young people have moved out to the cities, so most of the residents are elderly. We started performing in this village 44 years ago in 1976, leaving our small theatre in Tokyo.
There are now four indoor theatres and two open-air theatres in a part of the village, but in the early days when we moved, we worked only in one theatre space, which was converted from an old house.
I would like to talk briefly about why I chose to work in this place. There are two reasons for this. The first is to create a theatre that is suited to my philosophy of theatre, and the second is to establish my ideal acting style for actors.
Looking back on the history of Japanese physical culture, most of the things that arose in the pre-modern past and survived to the present are those in which the body retains a close relationship with space. Theatre, dance, tea ceremony, sumo, and Buddhism, the physical cultural activities produced by these Japanese peoples, claim their existence as ritualistic acts that are uniquely integrated with space.
To take theatre as an example, Noh and Kabuki, both recognized as traditional Japanese theatre, also perform in a unique space (theatre). From a different point of view, Noh and Kabuki are created as ritualistic physical activities associated with these unique theatrical spaces and can be seen as asserting their own individuality. In other words, the uniqueness of the architectural space is an inseparable element of the theatre known as Noh and Kabuki.
My theatre is a space built in a past architectural style that cannot be found in today's Japanese cities. These spaces, or houses, were built in the days before Japan was a modern nation and were used by the farmers of the snow country to live with their large families. These old houses were not only used for daily life but also for work. In today's Japanese society, the family system and the economic activities that support family life have changed, so these large space buildings have become irrelevant. I have reclaimed it into a space that fits my philosophy of theatre and theatrical practice objectives.
This building is commonly referred to as the gassho-zukuri style. If you try to create such a space in contemporary Japan, you will be faced with a great challenge. This is because these spaces are all created from plants, mainly trees. Not only because the materials are hard to find, but also because the artisans to create these spaces are hard to find in Japan today. Even if it were possible, it would take a lot of money and time to make it happen.
The wood for this space is cut from the slope of the mountain. The wood is bent in various parts due to the weight of the snow, and there are no straight lines in the shape of the wood. The thickness of each piece of wood is also different. It takes a lot of time and technical ingenuity to combine these different woods into a living space. Since this is a two-story building, there are a number of pillars supporting the ceiling. However, because the pillars are not of uniform thickness, the spacing between them is not the same. Naturally, the interstices between the pillars are not the same size as that of the tatami mats, made from rice stalks, placed between those pillars.
The gassho-zukuri style of architecture, which was built before the modernization of Japan, is completely different from the modern way of thinking about space composition. The gassho-zukuri was not built based on theory or blueprints, but rather on the materials available in the natural environment in which people lived and worked.
Since this was before the modernization of Japanese society, there was a limit to what materials could be gathered in the heavy snowfall areas of the mountainous country, and the geographical range of such materials was limited. People had to rely only on animal energy (= human power) and the ingenuity of how they used that energy, since it was in an era where non-animal energy (electric and thermal power) could not be used. And the space of a structure that could withstand the weight of heavy snowfall was composed of wood and plants (roofs are made of stems of Miscanthus sinensis). Therefore, the process of completing a space was a struggle between materials and animal energy, or, to put it another way, a gathering of coincidental products created by nature and combining them as if they were an inevitable encounter. The construction sites in those times became a continuous process of trial and error.
The French cultural anthropologist Lévi-Strauss proposed the concept of bricolage in his book. The term refers to the work of mingling what is already there and devising something new to emerge. To borrow his term, the gassho-zukuri can be seen as the very space created by the bricolage.
This space is characterized by a series of smaller spaces that cannot be measured by a uniform standard. Therefore, different levels of darkness are created throughout the space. It is a space where no matter how you light it, there is always a shadow somewhere.
If you brighten a certain place, you create dark shadows in direct proportion. If you try to keep the whole thing equally bright, you have no choice but to dim the whole thing. It is a non-homogeneous space where brightness and darkness live together at the same time. If we are talking about a completely homogeneous brightness, then we have no choice but to make the space dark with no light source anywhere. I felt that the characteristics of this space provided possibilities for my new conception of theatre.
I believe that the hallmark of a theatre being a theatre is the presence of actors. But when I say the word actor, I am not implying an opposing entity to the language. I use the word actor by giving it the meaning of a body that vocalizes words and comes into contact with others. I use it in the sense of someone who vocalizes the words being thought or written in silence, and in doing so establishes a relationship with others = audience, activates the thoughts of others, and acts by being engaged in a dialogue.
And this human being, named an actor, is the owner of an individual body that refuses to share it with others. In other words, he is a person who establishes a collaborative expressive activity with others via his body, claiming individual differences. From a different point of view, each actor possesses in his body a secret, or “incommensurable,” that cannot be shared with others or a darkness, or the “unknowable.” An actor with a singular life history as an individual speaks a language that he can share with others in front of an audience while showing his own unique body.
The encounter between the body and the words is accidental at first. The process of making that coincidence seem inevitable - this is the actor's job. And it is through this process that the director conveys to the audience a unified perception of the world of a collective. I think this is the job of the director working with the actors.
My work as a director begins with confronting the unmeasurable secrets and darkness of the individual human being. Therefore, the rehearsal process for the completion of a piece is a process of trial and error, similar to the process of building a gassho-zukuri house with non-homogeneous actors. I think of the stage work that comes out of this process as a form of bricolage.
The term “universal space” is used in modern architecture. It refers to the space created by the German architect Mies van der Rohe's architectural philosophy and is also known as a homogeneous space. A typical example of this is the office buildings that have emerged in modern times. Every place is the same, and there is no qualitative difference between them. Most contemporary Japanese theatres are built on the premise of this homogeneous space. It is a space dominated by the idea that it is better to pay as little attention as possible to the personal secrets of history and the invisible darkness of the human mind, in other words, to the singularity of the individual.
My theatrical practice is a critique of this modern thinking, the thinking that evaluates people and space from the perspective of homogeneity. I believe that theatre has been needed by many people because it has existed as an act of confirming that human beings are heterogeneous and cannot be visibly measured by the same standards. Based on this fact, I believe that theatre has appealed for the establishment of common rules for the coexistence of human beings.
If I have to articulate the raison d'être for the existence of theatre in simple words, it is a cultural device that seeks to find out how to confront difference and sameness, coincidence and necessity for human beings, as well as how to confront a group of peoples and nations.
It is this way of thinking that has led me to build not only a gassho-zukuri style theatre, but also an open-air theatre in the wilderness, where unpredictability is the essence of nature, and to present multilingual stage productions with actors from many different countries.
Next, here are my thoughts on the existence of stage actors.
There are four things that an actor must be aware of at all times. They are the center of gravity, breathing, energy and voice. I believe that an actor's abilities are proportional to the degree to which he has developed a stable center of gravity, oxygenation through breathing, energy burning, the voice that is emitted, and concentration on these. In everyday social situations, if these physical abilities are developed, the range of action and the ability to adapt to a changing environment and to reach out to others is increased, as well as the safety of life support. Many people, however, are not particularly aware of these, unless they become ill.
The professional conduct of a stage actor = the excellence of his performance depends on the intensity of his concentration, developed through conscious training in these necessary things. The training of concentration on these is essential for the actor who presents his body and utters his voice from the stage to the audience.
Let me emphasize again here. The word body is generally used to refer to the visible body, which is made up of a visible face, torso, hands and legs; all of them are also made up of muscles. When I say the body, however, I am referring to the center of gravity, oxygen, energy, and speech that is uttered as invisible words.
My training for actors was devised out of the need to know how to make the invisible that reside inside this visible body feel like as if the former are out there for us to see, and how to make the superiority of his concentration on them a standardized value system that can be shared among the collective. As a director, I wanted to have an impartial standard for judging an actor's ability, an objectivity that the members of the collective could agree on.
It's akin to a medical doctor and patient doing CT scans and blood tests to observe the inner workings of the body and share the idiosyncrasies and deficiencies of that individual. Stated differently, it's an exercise in diagnosing what it takes to excel and which aspects need to be further developed in order for the audience to feel that a great mind and body are present in front of them.
What are my advantages and what are my flaws and weaknesses when I am trying to achieve what I consider to be a high standard of performance? There may be flaws and weaknesses, so I created a place to ask questions about how to overcome them. I think it is fair to say that I created a place to encourage the creativity of the stage actors.
Obviously, the flaws and weaknesses that appear as obstacles in the process of accomplishing a goal are different for each person, and the process of overcoming these obstacles is different for each individual. There is no general answer for overcoming them. The only way to do this is to find your own unique way to achieve that goal. My training is to help you do that.
I recently had the opportunity to go to Tokyo. I was surprised when I got on a train for the first time in a long time. It was daytime, so there were not many passengers, and I was able to see the entire train carriage. Nearly everyone in their seats had their smartphones in their hands and were concentrating on the screen; about 30 percent of the people had earphones in their ears and were listening to something. A while ago, I would have seen one or two people reading the newspaper or the weekly magazine, but none of them were.
I am no stranger to the lives of younger members of my company, so I am no stranger to the fact that smartphones are becoming a necessity in our lives. What surprised me, however, was not that they were obsessed with their smartphones, but that when the train stopped at the station and passengers came and went, not one of them looked up and looked at the newly arrived passengers. This scene made me think that if a criminal or terrorist walked in and carried out a random murder, few people would be able to respond instantly.
Maybe I have been in the habit of staring at other people's presence and their movements for so long as a director that I am overly sensitive to the movements of others. Maybe it is an over-observation based on my own professional experience, but a group of people who are so unaware of other people's presence seemed uncanny to me.
As a matter of fact, a while ago, seven people were killed one by one by a car and a knife in a crowded area of Tokyo. It happened in a very short amount of time.
When I learned of this incident, I was very surprised. How one person could kill so many people in an instant. I wondered if the people killed were texting and listening to music on their smartphones and were oblivious to what was going on around them until just before they were killed by the car and the knife. I used to wonder about that.
With the advent of computers, we can talk to each other while looking at the other person's face, even if our bodies are not in the same place. In this form of communication, only a small amount of animal energy is used. Computers have diminished the opportunities for humans to meet each other directly, to interact with each other using a lot of animal energy, and to promote mutual understanding. Even when such opportunities exist, there are more places where non-animal energy has come to mediate between people.
A society in which humans are dependent on computers and the heavy use of non-animal energy to establish communication is accelerating the trend toward de-embodimentality in all areas. In such a society, what kind of raison d'être for theatre and its activity can be given in the future? I think this is a serious question posed to theatre professionals.
The French philosopher Merleau Ponty wondered what the essence of a thing is, and said it is that which persists in any variable situation without being subjected to change. Considering this point of view, we must say that the essence of theatre lies in the presence of the actors.
Theatre has been an expressive activity for more than 2000 years since the times of ancient Greece, based on the presence of animal energy that emanates from the body of the actor. And it has continued to expose the various problems that humans encounter that force them to constantly form groups and live together. I believe that theatre is a wonderful means of expression that, by basing it on the body, still possesses the ability to critique the deficiencies of civilization that maintain and control society by using non-animal energy.
I would like to conclude my lecture by hoping that theatre will continue to exist powerfully in the future.
Today I’d like to talk about what I consider to be the three most pressing issues facing theatre artists in our current environment of globalization.
The first issue concerns how the U.S. market economy model has expanded to encompass practically every corner of the planet. Systems designed to streamline operations and increase profits permeate the globe. Along with adopting U.S.-style capitalism as a blueprint, nations worldwide are digitizing masses of information through the use of computers and the Internet, which is quickly becoming the dominant form of human communication. One characteristic of this digital revolution is the automatization of jobs to increase labor efficiency and drive profits, a process that favors the use of non-animal energy (nuclear energy, electricity, gasoline, oil and the like) over human or animal energy. Digitization and automatization have subsequently led to outsourcing, whereby corporations isolate segments of their business and allocate them to third parties, sometimes overseas, instead of employing individuals within the corporation. The fact that outsourcing has now become standard practice in most economies proves that the globalized world values financial wealth over human individuality. Naturally, every single human being is multi-faceted, unique and possesses a distinct ethnic heritage. Nevertheless, these variances are becoming more and more disregarded as globalization advances.
If we use this globalized business philosophy to evaluate the theatre, it seems an extremely inefficient activity—a large group of people coming together for an extended period of time to create a single product, which is usually unprofitable and wasteful. What’s more, decisions in the theatre are often made by committee, taking into consideration individual differences, and working through these frictions to generate an end result. Managing all the interpersonal relationships involved in a production can be burdensome, and sooner or later the theatre’s social value starts to come under question. For me, however, in a society that prioritizes economic efficiency, we should place even more value on products created by human beings, over time, using their innate animal energy while being mindful of each other’s differences. Armed with these convictions we must, as artists, reaffirm the theatre’s critical role in the age of globalization. This, above all, must be our main objective.
The second issue concerns how globalization has standardized systems and homogenized lifestyles the world over. Nowadays, at first glance, it is hard to differentiate between Chinese, Korean or Japanese youth based on fashion or behavior. Similarly, when I taught in Russia and the United States, I had the impression that students there behaved in more or less the same way. From a political standpoint, however, each group exhibited a clear bias toward their respective culture, with each individual proclaiming their own country’s uniqueness. When asserting such differences, there tends to be a stress placed on concepts such as love for one’s homeland or a national spirit of solidarity. I am wary, however, that politicians have started to take advantage of these inclinations by using historically significant art and culture to capture public support for their agendas. The fact is, regardless of how much globalization homogenizes lifestyles or prioritizes economic growth above all else, the language, religion, history and traditions of each country will remain distinct. By overemphasizing the culturally specific aspect of the arts, government leaders can create a deceptive rhetoric of national identity and thus galvanize a mandate to justify their actions and policy. This is the paradox of globalization. Of course, ideally globalization creates a world where everyone lives in equanimity and a universal commonality of thought facilitates human communication. Still, the more unified the world becomes, the more people will seek to express the singularity of their heritage and confirm which country, religion, ethnic group and history they belong to. This is not necessarily a bad impulse, but it does portend that art and culture will increasingly be presented in a setting where people are searching for a national identity, with politicians looking to capitalize on that need.
Despite the growing appropriation of art for political purposes, the theatre and all other cultural activities still provide a way for people to collaborate while appreciating differences in nationality and ethnicity. Dating back to ancient Greek drama, the theatre in particular has a tradition of engaging foreign culture to examine issues of co-existence. Driven by this history, many theatre artists continue to actively investigate how people from different cultures, religions and national identities function together in society. It is our duty, as artists, to re-engage this vital mission of the theatre in today’s world.
The third issue I want to address scares me somewhat. I of course love the theatre, and being a director who has worked in many different countries, I know the joys of collaborating with people who have a different set of values from my own. On the other hand, while international exchange has flourished in our time, a frightening phenomenon generated by the global accumulation and sharing of data has also developed. Data, by its nature, is de-physicalized. In other words, it’s not something accumulated in the body or on paper, but stored digitally in a computer and then shared worldwide. In the case of terrorism, this information can be gathered by crossing national boundaries, identifying and then monitoring certain individuals in order to prevent violence and maintain global order. Led by the U.S., many countries are now taking steps to globally pinpoint and track potentially dangerous individuals this way. Even as I speak, the ideas certain people express and the actions they commit are recorded in the databases of digitized societies and then shared through myriad networks. In the past, suspects would be singled out only after a terrorist action occurred. Now, however, more emphasis is placed on preventive screening. I wouldn’t be surprised if we start to see governments across the globe using this accumulated data to identify and restrain individuals based simply on their daily behavior, before any kind of crime is committed. This is the onerous double-edged sword which the U.S. has brandished in the age of globalization. While this “sword” does have a positive, beneficial side, the negative side could be immensely destructive.
Due to the nature of our work, there is a likelihood that theatre artists, more than artists in other fields, will be increasingly targeted and monitored by the authorities. This is partially due to the fact that, in the theatre, we can use dramatic texts to express our political dissent in venues where people with differing philosophies, sensibilities and objectives congregate. What’s more, the act of improvisation, though based on a script, allows actors the freedom to say anything in a public forum. Theatres have, in fact, been under government surveillance in many countries for some time, as has been the case in Japan, Russia and the United States, to name a few. Now, however, the individual information gleaned from such surveillance is much more easily shared internationally, and in ways that are almost impossible to trace. This trend could eventually inhibit the free exchange between theatre artists. I don’t believe it will necessarily affect all of us, but I do think there is a risk that working with people from certain countries, and perhaps even the act of collaborating internationally at all, will be viewed with growing suspicion. Obviously, terrorism is a crime, and there is merit in doing everything possible to prevent it. In the process, however, there is a danger that governments will develop a bias towards individuals based on race or nationality, which in turn could spawn widespread prejudice between people. Thus, as we continue to participate in global collaborations, we must strive to cooperate and create environments free of discrimination, where people can make work that enriches the lives of everyone involved.
Over the course of my career, in many different cultural contexts, I have tried to consistently make work that stimulates a new perspective on the world we live in. However, with the onset of globalization, I sense a climate where theatre artists may have a progressively difficult time working in any context that is not rooted in commercialism. To prevent such narrowing of our artistic scope going forward into the 21st century, we must focus on the three principle concerns that I’ve expressed here. It is with these challenges in mind that The 5th Theatre Olympics in Seoul convenes, bringing together some of the most forward-thinking minds of our time to reinvent a vision of the future.
Next year will mark a decade since I first began to make theatre in the village of Toga in 1976.
What led me to Toga was not a pressing desire to leave Tokyo. Indeed, at the time, I had every intention of continuing to work there, and the notion of permanently withdrawing from Tokyo never crossed my mind. Still, when other theatre professionals and journalists in Tokyo first learned of my plans to take the company to Toga, they teased me quite a bit. Was I planning to start a religious cult, they asked, or perhaps going on a Transcendentalist pilgrimage into the primordial wilderness to commune with nature? Even the local papers were dubious about how long I would last in Toga: wasn’t this, perhaps, just a momentary fling? And wouldn’t all our imported urban culture throw this little mountain village into disarray? In fact, when some of the villagers first spotted certain members of our company arriving in beards and jeans, they wondered if we might be a Japanese Red Army unit which had rented some of their old houses for basic training.
Of course, it was only natural they should react this way. Since none of the villagers lived in the immediate area around our facilities, we trained and rehearsed late into the night, knowing we would disturb no one except the foxes and raccoons. Whatever suspicions we may have aroused, either in Tokyo or Toga, our decision to relocate was not intended as a secret escape into egocentric, esoteric pursuits, but rather as a defiant public statement criticizing the social and cultural centralization of the country around the capital. One might think that, with the goal of protesting this trend, any place outside of Tokyo would have served our purposes. In fact, the reason we ended up in Toga was more or less the same reason that, years earlier, we established the Waseda Shogekijo on the second floor of a Tokyo café. It was not because the café space fit our ideal image of a 100-seat black box theatre, but rather because it gave us the opportunity to take one more step, however small, towards our artistic ideals.
Being all too human, we often believe it possible to exercise our free will and choose as we please. The reality is that most of the time we cannot. We are forced, instead, to make decisions based on a set of specific, limited circumstances. For me those circumstances were determined by the 1960s Tokyo environment, where I formed part of a generation dissatisfied with the direction in which the country was going as it experienced unprecedented economic growth on a global scale. A side effect of this boom was a “bigger is better” mentality in just about every field, with national policy regionally disseminated by the authorities in Tokyo, much the way parents impose restrictions on their children. As such, the central government gave little credence to the opinions and ideas of local or prefectural authorities, who often understood their particular problems on a much more detailed and practical level. This Tokyo-knows-best mindset had its effect on cultural policy as well. In the theatre, this resulted in the construction of unwieldy large-scale theatre complexes across the country, with no real plan as to how these facilities would be sustained and no artistic vision driving them.
Searching for a way to realize my artistic vision, I rejected those trends, determined to find a way to produce my work without sacrificing my ideals and thus founded the Waseda Shogekijo company. With this group, I was able to create a place where artists who shared this same critical, even defiant point of view on society could work independently of the dominant theatre company structures of the time, without compromising their principles. By fostering an environment clearly focused on artistic and philosophical goals, we were able to overcome all manner of obstacles and diversity, achieving more, in the end, than we ever predicted. As the rest of society, in fact the rest of the world was following the credo of “bigger is better,” we sought to return the theatre to its origins. We did not believe that high budgets, immense venues and large audience turnout naturally led to artistic success. On the contrary, it was apparent to us that increasing the financial, physical and social scale of a production often severely diluted its artistic quality and impact. I found that to understand the world, both a central and a marginal point of view were necessary. The Waseda Shogekijo space, in contrast to the centralized commercial theatres, provided me this marginal perspective, which I used as a springboard to investigate the issues of our time with a small group of uncompromising artists. Focused on the specific objective of restoring a dense, rich intensity to the theatrical act, we wanted nothing less than to cause a revolution in the hearts and minds of our audience.
In this sense, the move to Toga from the Waseda Shokegijo space was only logical. In order to intensify our marginal perspective, we had to make it as dynamic as possible, and see where that would lead us artistically. By coming to Toga, a place that could not be more decentralized from Tokyo, I have been able to create from perhaps the most extremely marginal point of view available, deeply influenced by the daily challenges of living in such a place.
Throughout history, theatre professionals have persistently been confronted by various shifting conditions. We may have ample money one time but too little the next; our performance spaces may range from vast to tiny; our audiences may be large or small; reviewers may praise or condemn us. Yet, whatever our production circumstances may be, as long as we have the basic resources necessary to stage our work, we can advance toward our artistic goals. If, along this journey, we remain committed to our choices, sooner or later they will yield tangible results. Will we keep what we discover? Will it have value? Whatever the answer, I am convinced that any progress we achieve depends on our ability to be continuously inspired and enriched by each new experience. I continue to focus on what I learn in Toga because I recognize its vital role in my worldview. However, this was not so clear to me when I first began.
What caused my perception of Toga to change? Apart from the marginalized social perspective I gleaned from being there, Toga’s dynamic natural environment also impacted me profoundly. Just as I was intrigued by the revelations we made about acting in the intimate Waseda Shogekijo space, Toga’s thatched-roof houses engaged me through their inherent symbiosis with the expansive, ever-changing mountain climate, relentlessly challenging me with a new sense of space. The vital, protean quality of Toga inspires me still, and I will doubtless continue to make work there until I die. This staunch conviction stems from the fact that, in today’s Japan, it would be nearly impossible to devise a performance environment more closely suited to my philosophical and artistic sensibilities. Of course, limiting the discussion to the theater building itself, I wouldn’t object if some wealthy patron suddenly appeared willing to construct a theater to my exact specifications. Being incurably ambitious, I’d like nothing more than make Toga a headquarters from which I could expand my theatrical vision to New York, Paris, or even the North Pole, building theaters tailored precisely to my artistic sensibility!
My company does occasionally perform in commercial spaces like Tokyo’s Imperial Theatre and Iwanami Hall, despite the fact that they don’t reflect my ideology. Obviously, I am grateful when these theaters ask me to make as few compromises as possible. Nevertheless, when working in such venues, I invariably open myself up to censure. At Iwanami Hall, for example, the critics chide me for enslaving my originally wild iconoclastic nature to academicism. At the Imperial Theatre, on the other hand, they reprimand me for having sold out to commercialism. The fact is, no matter what the field, the industrial mentality in Japan persistently lashes out at anything attempting to go beyond that which has gone before, or interrupt the status quo—as if such groundbreaking work were completely irrelevant. Likewise, the attitude of my critics towards innovation reveals their misguided priorities. They forget that even when theatre becomes “enslaved” to academicism or “sells out” to commercialism, the artistic quality and integrity of the work must be valued above everything else. If theatre that reaches new pinnacles artistically also garners the attention of academic or commercial interests, more power to it!
In any case, no matter which standard we use to measure commercial success in the theatre, our activities in Toga inevitably fall into the red. My company, comprised of roughly forty members, is bound together by a kind of volunteer spirit that would normally characterize a religious group. We work in a village whose inhabitants are struggling to make a living and have no leisure time for the theatre. No matter how many months we might perform, we could never sustain ourselves economically on local audience support alone. The village itself is far from self-sustaining. Even though Toga’s annual budget is over seven million U.S. dollars, the national government subsidizes ninety-five percent of this. Like my theatre company, the village must attract money from authorities in Tokyo to survive.
The salient point here is that in a highly capitalistic society like Japan, every individual and organization must operate within the commercial system. There are people who imagine it might be possible to survive without doing so, but such conjecture makes little practical sense. It would be akin to believing I could maintain my operations in Toga with nothing more than an enthusiasm for its unique performance spaces.
Another issue, which must be considered in analyzing our presence in the village, is the fact that Toga is a textbook example of Japan’s post-WWII urban exodus—a phenomenon whereby many rural villages have experienced a drastic and consistent drop in population. While I don’t pretend to be a government official or political scientist, I can see clearly that people are leaving Toga—so quickly, in fact, that I wouldn’t be surprised if Toga soon has problems justifying itself as an independent municipality. Villages all around Japan seem to be thinning out in this manner. Since no tactics have succeeded in quelling the exodus, the few enduring residents in Toga now find themselves inhabiting a sizeable expanse of land. It would seem that this depopulation of the countryside was particularly striking in our recent period of high economic growth. As a result of the postwar energy revolution, Japanese society has become fully industrialized, and the ensuing prosperity has triggered a migration to urban areas. In the process, Japan has grown greatly dependent on oil, electricity and gasoline, causing the villagers who once provided firewood, coal and charcoal to lose their livelihoods.
Conversely, as the city populations have swelled, secondary and tertiary industries have expanded, so that villagers no longer employed by the primary industries of farming and forestry have converged on the cities to seek work. The development of mass transit networks and global communications systems have also contributed to the urbanization of the villagers’ mentality, encouraging an even greater withdrawal. Now that the era of rapid economic growth has more or less come to a close, the benefits of urbanization are being re-evaluated. Still, the depopulation of the countryside persists, and villages such as Toga continue to shrink.
Geographically, Toga occupies an area 500–600 meters above sea level, running twenty-three kilometers east to west and fifty-two kilometers north to south. About four percent of this area is suitable for housing, yet at this time only 332 functioning households remain, with a total of about 1,200 inhabitants. The principal sources of income for these families include the village office, a forest and agricultural cooperative and a public contractor. Indeed, the village office remains the largest employer, providing jobs for nearly 100 people. With little work to attract young people, the village is naturally growing older. The only chance the population has to grow is when a young woman marries into the village, but this is very rare. The fierce weather, too, makes life for the aging villagers more difficult. In winter, the snow accumulates to a depth of at least three meters, reaching as much as six meters when snowfalls are heavy. Each year, slabs of packed snow and ice slide down from the rooftops with such force that several people are killed. Such dangerous environmental conditions (particularly in winter), coupled with the lack of caregivers in case of illness or injury, compel many elderly villagers to move in with their sons and daughters living in urban areas, despite the strong desire they have to stay. Homes abandoned by such families dot Toga’s hillsides. With each passing winter, these houses disappear one by one, crushed by the weight of the snow. It is hard to describe the sense of hopelessness this creates. Of course, when I first came to the village I knew nothing of all this. When the youthful members of our company arrived in Toga, the first thing they wanted to do was tell their parents to come and build houses in the middle of this beautiful natural setting with its splendid thatched-roof houses.
During my university days, twenty-five years ago, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre had an enormous influence on my generation. As articulated in his theories on phenomenological existentialism, Sartre believed that mankind, in the face of a hopeless future, should battle on with the pride of the defeated, and that each individual, by choosing to live in this way, could realize the universal in the singularity of a human life. I was particularly inspired by Sartre’s insights into the temporal, futile nature of human existence and his conviction that human beings, by tirelessly, consciously battling against all odds for what they believe in, get closer to understanding the meaning of life.
In youth, people generally harbor many dreams about their future. As they become adults, however, these dreams, through betrayal, undergo a transformation. The result is a detachment from one’s ideals, and a feeling of remorse. Nevertheless, there are some who cannot endure living their lives this way. For them, Sartre’s way of thinking, extolling the spirit of the defeated, is very encouraging. His words remind us that human beings all want to live passionately dedicated to something. This will to pursue our ideals is what makes our lives unique. If we truly understand this as the basic human condition, then it follows that we will want to, from the beginning to the end, consciously manage our lives. It was this fight for conscious, willful control that Sartre proposed. His credo was, “Don’t regret failed actions, only the failure to act.” In other words, the worst that humans can do is do nothing.
Although Sartre created his philosophy in a context that was distinct from my simply humanistic one, I assimilated his way of thinking into mine, and interpreted his words in the following way. Modern man is defined by his deliberate attempt to understand his humanity. There are no guarantees, however, that he will find any consistent response to his inquiries. On the contrary, human life is constantly confronted by the arbitrary, the unexpected. It is multi-layered. In striving for consistency we often aim to eliminate risk or reduce the myriad aspects of life to a single dimension. Yet, even if we make such efforts, we can never willfully control our future and approach it like horses racing down a single straightaway. What we can do is develop a consistent awareness of our actions—actions that in turn must persistently be governed by a determination to ask our own questions, motivated by our personal worldview. To put it more simply, we must strive towards our life goals with a clear understanding of our circumstances in connection with the rest of humanity. Is not the essence of human life comprised of such endeavors?
When I see the villagers who have stayed in Toga, I view them as men and women who are actually living out Sartre’s struggle of the defeated. Yet, I also know that at some point they too will be forced to leave. Even if their situation improves, with the rigors of the environment and worries over education, medical care and the lack of recreational facilities, they too will eventually be attracted to urban life as they imagine it. Looking at the everyday conditions of the village, there is really no way to stem the thinning of its population. In the primary school, for example, there is roughly one student per grade. Ten students, representing all the grades, huddle together in a single classroom to do their work. No wonder the woman who has moved up from the city to marry into the village feels such an inevitable sense of loneliness when she sees them. The more they learn, the more foolish it seems. Even if one argues that such an environment gives students the freedom to accelerate their curriculum and get ahead of their peers studying at another school in a standard setting, with such a bleak future awaiting them in the village, there seems little reason for them to develop their intellect.
For the mayor of a village like Toga, the highest priority is developing a plan that keeps the number of people leaving to a minimum. Starting with the Toyama Prefectural Office, followed by the Ministries of Construction, Agriculture and Forestry, he goes from one government agency to another, petitioning for subsidies. As mayor he knows that, even if all his petitions are successful, they still won’t be enough to solve the larger problem he faces. Yet he cannot sit idly by and lament the situation. As long as one person still wants to live in the village, it is his duty to improve the conditions there as much as possible. He must not wait passively for the circumstances to change but instead actively try to change them. Several consecutive village heads have, in fact, succeeded in diminishing the rate of exodus to a degree, but none has been able to stem it entirely. From an outsider’s point of view, the mayor’s efforts resemble those of Camus’ Sisyphus, or of a bicycle rider who’s stopped moving forward but still must keep his bike from falling over. Since the whole village’s welfare is his responsibility, the mayor, more than anyone else, must dedicate his life to fighting the fight of the defeated, in the face of impossible odds.
As such, the mayor’s psychological burden is enormous. Any kind of news or information that might affect the village is transmitted directly to him before anyone else. No doubt, much of what he learns can never be shared with the villagers. His must be an incredibly isolated and lonely existence.
In his essay, The Appearance of a New Mass Society, scholar Yasusuki Murakami hypothesizes about the relationship between the general public and the government in Japan. He argues that as Japan continues to prosper economically and individualism becomes more widely entrenched, people will inevitably become more aware of their personal needs and start to seek emotional fulfillment through an increasingly self-centered lifestyle. A greater emphasis on short-term values will surface, with less value placed on such matters as fidelity, hard work, and other collective concerns focused on benefiting the current and future generations. Still, as long as society continues to rely on rational logic and industry to function, the importance of far-reaching, communal values cannot be disregarded. As a result, a major rift will develop between a Japanese public that prioritizes immediate gratification and an administrative elite that governs them via a rational, efficient and posterity-oriented agenda. Stressed by the burden of this schism in values, the governing officials will find themselves more and more psychologically isolated. As the short-term-focused social initiative of today’s Japanese public continues to grow, the administrative authority of the governing elite will be more difficult to justify and thus eventually will deteriorate.
This thesis seems accurate, especially when one compares Japan to the twentieth century communist model where, even when the economy flourishes, the central government remains powerful.
The mayor often jokes that his village is a “consumption co-operative” since its main function is to spend government funds. Still, all joking aside, I am sure that this man, who every month spends half of his time on the train taking petitions to Tokyo, must feel a terrible emptiness in his heart. After all, how did he come to assume the immense burden of looking after this tiny bit of countryside, this microcosm of the entire Japanese society, torn apart by the forces of rapid social change?
As I started working in Toga, I began to experience the contradictions inherent in the structure of modern Japanese society and so came to share this sense of isolation that the local politicians feel. For this reason, I did everything I could to cooperate with the mayor and his policies to help reduce the depopulation of the area. Of course, I never intervened directly in any of the village’s political activities, which would have been overstepping my boundaries. Still, I tried to do what I could to help curb the urban migration and perhaps even bring about an influx. In making such efforts, the presence of my theatre company was indispensable. It was quite clear to me that if the population declined any further, we could no longer function in Toga no matter how ideal the environment might be for our work. At some point, the minimum population threshold would be breached, so that even the village’s basic operations would come to a halt. If any of the financial aid or local tax subsidies were to shrink, transportation facilities and snow removal services would be reduced, low-cost housing would no longer be available, and our theatrical activities would be directly impacted.
To give a more specific example, in the village there are currently no lumberjacks and only two or three carpenters. Still, with the mountains so full of trees that anyone may fell, one might think that the price of lumber in Toga would be quite reasonable, but that is not the case. Indeed, the cost of erecting a new structure is prohibitive unless lumber imported from the United States or Southeast Asia is used. This paradox stems from the fact that even though raw timber is easy to obtain, there is no sawmill in the vicinity to process it, so any timber collected must be carted off to another region for processing. As the costs of additional workmen and transportation mount, the price per board foot of lumber skyrockets. Naturally, if there were sufficient demand for wood a sawmill could be built in Toga, which in turn would attract lumberjacks and transportation service workers. But who would want to build a house in a village like Toga, littered with empty houses left behind by its former inhabitants? In short, there is simply no market for lumber in Toga. Which is why, when we need wood for sets and such, we must travel forty kilometers to reach the nearest supplier. Finding carpenters can also be problematic. The bottom line is, in places like Toga, these kinds of complications crop up in every aspect of daily life, so that as the population shrinks, ordinary tasks become more and more tedious and everyday life in all its aspects becomes extremely burdensome.
In the end, my theatre company cannot run itself as an independent entity. If the village of Toga ceases to exist our work there must also end. Such is the interdependent relationship between company and village in a region like ours. In Tokyo, on the other hand, most theatre professionals cannot fathom the idea of the city disappearing, even if it were put forward as an abstract proposition. The word “disappear” itself would be meaningless to them. Such ideas are entirely remote from their daily reality. I believe, however, that not only Tokyo, but all of Japan as we know it may very well disappear one day. There is certainly a strong possibility that Toga might vanish altogether. I am surrounded everywhere by evidence of this, from the practical problems I experience firsthand to the statistics I read in print.
Understanding the situation as I do, I cannot limit my activities in Toga to the theatre alone. If the village is really in danger of disappearing, I must do my best to help solve these problems—which are indeed national problems—with the same energy I pour into my theatre productions. With this mindset, I can accomplish something of real, integral value. Even though it may come across as audacious, I believe my company’s presence is an indispensable component of the Toga community. Moreover, I consider myself, along with the mayor and those who really love the village, to be one of those who will, in the face of almost impossible odds, endlessly battle on to save it.
By choosing to live this way—struggling against innumerable obstacles and pushing forward at whatever cost—it may seem like I'm promoting traditional Japanese concepts of martyrdom. But there are real differences. In many ways, the life of a theatre director actually does resemble the life of someone like the mayor of Toga, in that we always want to try new things. Even when the human resources at our disposal seem limited, we put everything we have into what we do.
Without the villagers, the mayor would not exist. Similarly, without actors, the director does not exist. The function of a theatre director is not like that of other artists in other forms, where the final product takes on an independent visual or textural form. Rather, the theatre director’s essential job—at least for a founding leader of an ensemble that works in a continuous context like mine—is to stand at the junction of various intersecting artistic endeavors and manage to strike a harmony among all of them. He can never rest on his laurels, but must tirelessly re-invent his company to face new challenges while also maintaining their relationship with the constantly changing outside world. Simply put, the director’s job requires him to discover the best way to develop his company and then obtain the means to do so. He must relentlessly renew his vision, then strive towards it on a trial-and-error basis. To facilitate this, he must also generate a shared way of working with his company that allows each individual to undergo a continual transformation both as artists and individuals. Finally, on the basis of those transformations, which are difficult to stop once set in motion, he must devise a communal hope for the future.
As the director executes his work over time, not only do his goals evolve but he also experiences personal changes, while his creative impulses manifest themselves in new, unpredictable ways. He must constantly make choices regarding casting and, in certain circumstances, the text and performance venue as well. In my case, as a founding director, I am also responsible for the economic welfare of my company. I cannot simply make decisions based on some personal whim. I must observe changes in our audience, even in society itself, and base my agenda on what I ascertain. I cannot simply amuse myself with my work in some narcissistic fashion. I live in the world, and as such tenaciously make connections with everything around me. To what extent should I try to wrestle with these connections? This is the enigma facing the director, and herein lies his most demanding task. Put another way, connections inevitably accumulate between a theatre director and the society in which he abides. The director who is aware of the influences acting upon him can use that knowledge to make artistic choices that will consistently engage his audience. Such continuity validates his work, ensuring him a genuine vocation.
Perhaps, in another sense, the very notion of continuity or consistency in theatre work is outdated. One might even argue that such an idea runs counter to the creative impulse, which spontaneously springs up and then vanishes as quickly as it came, and that from this very impermanence emerges the true theatrical moment that transcends time. I agree that a continuity of the creative impulse can never be anticipated. It is, like human life, essentially ephemeral—here one moment, gone the next. Thus, the theatre director, or any artist for that matter, can never consistently predict how and when inspiration will surface. However, what artists can do, in fact what we must do, is create continuity in the environment that surrounds us. For me, this has meant maintaining a group of people that shares a common worldview and collaborates over long periods of time in the same context. Without this continuity of artistic infrastructure—space, theory, training, company, artistic vision, philosophy, and the like—the creative impulse cannot blossom. However spontaneous and inspired such impulses may feel in the moment, there is simply no accumulated history to support them, and hence no way for this spontaneity to become inevitability. In the world of competitive sports, great, inspired plays are only able to take place because the athletes have spent years continuously preparing for such extreme moments. We often think of inspiration as something that happens in the beginning of a creative process. But for me, true inspiration only happens after a long period of training, when such impulses can be processed in a skillful way. Take the case of acting. In an environment based on continuity, improvised or spontaneous impulses cannot help but be connected to all the work that has gone before, in dialogue with the performer’s own instrument, the other artists, and the physical space. Under these conditions, the creative impulse inevitably leads the artist closer to his or her ideal state of being, where he or she may experience freedom. At such moments—be it with music, literature or theatre— artists open a window through which they can clearly transmit their singular point of view and stimulate the audience’s imagination. It is for this reason that, until my death, I will continue to focus my efforts on exploring the innumerable artistic possibilities that exist within the continuity of human actions.
Whatever their views on artistic continuity may be, theatre professionals in Japan face a grave dilemma because the scope of their discourse is hermetically sealed within the realm of purely theatrical concerns, while the larger philosophical and sociological aspects of the theatrical act go unaddressed. As a result, these so-called artists have not integrated the theatre into their own spiritual lives, and thus fail to experience the passion that drives true artists to brave impossible odds. Their attitude is rather one of capitulation toward both life and art. With no greater purpose propelling them, they have conceded to a theatre bereft of spontaneity and risk, where they, like children afflicted with attention deficit disorder, strike serious and gloomy poses for their own amusement, creating little that transcends the boring and the tedious. They do not engage the historical legacy of artists who have tenaciously pursued their ideals. They have never discovered the joy of challenging themselves to do the impossible, which in turn galvanizes a commonality of spirit with their audience. Rather, these artists have, through their apathy, fallen into fragments of individual interests, concerned with nothing more than their own satisfaction. At best, their work has a cramped and febrile sense of purpose. The theatrical diversions they create, one after the other, simply wound and betray their original artistic dreams. Instead of confronting the travesty of this trend, they evade it in a fit of denial. For this reason, they can never see how feeble their dreams, through neglect, have become.
The shallowness of these artists’ goals grows increasingly prevalent day by day. The spiritual laziness—lacking the interest or will to transform the situation—is perhaps the most alarming feature of this trend. I simply can’t imagine making theatre that doesn't incessantly catalyze new perspectives about the world we live in. Often we hear acting referred to as a form of play. But we must be careful how we define “play” in the theatre. For me, this “play” is not simply an attempt to amuse oneself or others, but a way to make people think critically of the world we live in and struggle to ponder the ways we might improve it. In the case of professional sports, when an athlete plays, he or she is striving to set new records. The athlete concentrates, unwaveringly, on a specific goal and makes maximum effort to attain it, prepared for success or failure. The actor uses this same sense of play to focus on a fiction and then strives, always risking failure, towards discovering a collective epiphany with the audience. This is the theatrical sense of making a “new world record,” which of course never lasts for very long, soon something even more interesting happens, but it is the effort that is critical!
Unfortunately, most theatre-makers today perceive “play” as a form of entertainment, and so their efforts rather attempt to avoid risk and vulnerability. They work within the parameters of a course that has a guaranteed audience response, perpetuating an environment that lacks discovery. While many of these artists begin their careers with lucid, far-reaching goals that have social impact, along the way they become distracted by their personal fears and desires. Such artists do not fully realize the symbiotic relationship of failure and success nor the vital need for risk-taking. Their fear of failure traps them in the lukewarm sphere of mediocrity, preventing any possible transformation of themselves or the audience. Having lost sight of their original ideals, they often feel a sense of remorse and so mollify their regret with the opium of work that is comfortable and copacetic.
The fear that drives these artists into mediocrity is unwarranted. We must never forget that, in the end, we are all only mortal human beings. However powerful we may feel we have become, in the end we are never able to change very much. The theatre, too, has a limited impact on the world we live in, however revolutionary and influential our work may seem. We must have courage then to continue pushing forward without doubt, despite the fact that we will never achieve what we set out to do. This is the essential, existential paradox that lies at the heart of the artist’s life. We must pursue our ideals until our dying day. In fact, it is this link between the ephemeral quality of both the theatre and of human life, this common relationship with time, which binds them so inextricably together.
If I had to choose one thing I am most thankful for since having come to Toga, it would be the opportunity to encounter certain courageous individuals who understand that, despite whatever desperate conditions they may face, they must continue the quixotic pursuit of their impossible dreams. Armed with this knowledge, these spiritually enlightened artists have achieved a self-awareness that allows them to lead fulfilling lives. To paraphrase Sartre, I have finally been able to see at close range a few individuals who truly understand that life is a futile, passionate play; who are nevertheless driven by the desire to battle on, fighting the lonely fight of the defeated, in the face of hopeless odds.
In my opinion, a cultured society is one in which the perceptive and expressive abilities of its people are cultivated through the use of their innate animal energy. Such animal energy fosters the sense of security and trust needed for healthy communication in human relationships and the communities they form. The distinguishing characteristics of an animal-energy-based society essentially differ from those of a society sustained by non-animal energy, such as electricity, petroleum and nuclear power. Most people would automatically consider this society reliant on non-animal energy to be the more civilized. For me, however, a civilized society is not necessarily a cultured one.
If we consider the origins of civilization, we can see that its rise was intrinsically tied to the bodily functions. Its development may even be interpreted as the gradual sensory expansion of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin. Inventions like the telescope and microscope, for example, arose from the human aspiration and endeavor to see more, radicalizing the sense of sight. Over time, the accumulation of such achievements has come to be called civilization.
Consequently, when we analyze the kind of energy required to realize such aspirations, the issue of modernization inevitably surfaces. In fact, a criterion some sociologists in the United States apply to differentiate modernized from pre-modernized societies is the ratio of animal to non-animal energy employed in production processes. Animal-energy here refers to the organic physical energy supplied by human beings, horses, oxen and the like; while non-animal energy again refers to electricity, petroleum, nuclear power, etc. According to the theory, one way of determining a country’s level of modernization is to calculate the amount of non-animal energy it consumes. In many countries of the Near East and Africa, for example, the amount of non-animal energy consumed is very low compared with such countries as the United States and Japan, where non-animal energy predominates in virtually all production processes.
If we apply this criterion to the theatre, we notice that most contemporary stage productions are modernized and rely heavily on non-animal energy. Electricity powers the lighting, sound equipment, stage lifts and turntables; while the theatre building itself is the end product of various industrial activities powered by non-animal energy, from the laying of the concrete foundation to the creation of props and scenery.
Japanese Noh, on the other hand, survives as a form of pre-modern theatre that employs almost no non-animal energy. In the case of music, for example, most modern theatre utilizes digital equipment to electronically reproduce pre-recorded or live sound through amplifiers and loudspeakers, whereas in the Noh, the voices of the principle actors and the chorus, as well as the sound of the instruments played on stage are projected directly to the audience. Noh costumes and masks are made by hand, and the stage itself is built according to pre-modern carpentry techniques. Although electric lights now illuminate the Noh stage (which I still object to—in the old days it was done with tapers), this is kept to a minimum and never resembles the elaborate, multi-colored light designs of the modern theatre. In its essence, Noh is pervaded by the spirit of creating something purely out of human skill and effort—so much so that it can be thought of as an epitome of the pre-modern theatre. It is an endeavor driven by animal energy.
In both Europe and Japan, the theatre has developed along with the times and thus, in an effort to increase its audience appeal, has employed non-animal energy in nearly every facet of production. Paradoxically, this shift to non-animal energy has caused considerable damage to the art form. Just as the eyes’ natural capacity to see has been diminished through the invention and use of the microscope, etc., modernization has severed our natural organs from our essential selves, entrusting an increasingly larger portion of their workload to non-animal energy. The automobile replaces the act of walking. The computer takes the place of directly seeing and hearing. In vitro fertilization eliminates the need for sexual contact. In truth, all innovations created for the sake of civilization’s progress are the material result of efforts to minimize the use of animal energy. As a consequence, the potential of the human body and its various functions has undergone a dramatic downsizing, weakening the communication between people that is based on animal energy. Regrettably, this trend has also taken its toll on the expressive skills of the actor.
To counter this debilitating modernization of the actor’s craft, I have strived to restore the wholeness of the human body in performance, not simply by creating variants of such forms as the Noh and kabuki, but by employing the universal virtues of these and other pre-modern traditions. By harnessing and developing these enduring virtues, we create an opportunity to re-consolidate our currently dismembered physical faculties and revive the body’s perceptive and expressive capacity. Only by committing to do so can we ensure the flourishing of culture within civilization.
I. To act, one must have a point of view.
“Acting” is the formal act or experiment that tries to convey a particular point of view, derived from an investigation of human behavior and relationships. It can also be seen as a kind of game that intrinsically motivates us—visually through the human physique and aurally through the spoken word. Dating back some 2,500 years to its origins in ancient Greece, the rules of this game have come to differ vastly depending on geography, history and culture. Yet this “game” is not something people undertake simply for recreation and pleasure. Acting is an art form, creatively examining how human beings exist within the systems and groups that maintain social life.
It follows that an actor’s performance is driven by a desire to make others re-evaluate the world and perceive it anew, both collectively and as individuals. Thus, either for their own sake or on behalf of a particular group, the actor incarnates the written word via a physical and vocal exploration that follows a specific set of rules. If this effort succeeds in sharing a unique point of view on the written text with many people, we call it acting. In this way, performance is based on the presence of the “other”, and the higher the actor’s need to involve others in achieving his or her goal, the more intense their actor’s awareness becomes.
Although acting’s origins can be traced back to religious rituals that emphasized commonality, it was the presence of the non-believing “other” that galvanized theatrical acting into an independent, deliberately artistic form. The Ancient Greek and Nô traditions are good examples of this sort of evolution, not unlike what a child experiences as it grows up and separates from its parents, gaining a deeper sense of itself through encountering conflicting social structures and belief systems. Ultimately, acting is derived from a similarly developed evaluation/awareness of society that is both artificial yet organic and unique—an ongoing epiphany that sheds light on how and why we choose the relationships we have with particular individuals and groups.
II. For acting to begin, one must have an audience.
A heightened awareness of displaying one’s body and communicating written language can only be achieved when another person observes it. Even though actors may not be able to see themselves or the others sitting in front of them, they can still be aware of a presence—be it human, animal or god—that is watching their movements and hearing their language. Once actors perceive this presence outside of themselves in space, they quickly form a desire to communicate their point of view, stimulating this presence with a written text made flesh through physical and vocal craft. When the accumulation of these efforts is distilled into a clear, effective form, acting begins. Thus, for performance to take place, the presence of the other is indispensable. Nowadays this other’s existence is referred to as “the audience”.
III. To sustain acting, an awareness of the invisible body is required.
The human body has certain essential needs that must be met to support life. An infant can survive without any kind of body-awareness, but it heavily depends on the help of others. Even though its heart beats automatically, it must still be given food. For the infant to become independent, it must learn to consciously control the key physical functions required to achieve its daily needs, the most important of which are (1) energy production, (2) breath calibration and (3) center of gravity control. Since none of these phenomena—energy, oxygen and center of gravity—can be seen with the naked eye, they do not receive a lot of attention in our daily life. However, as soon as we have problems with any one of them, it becomes difficult to maintain our health and participate in modern society. This is due, in part, to the interdependency of these particular functions. The more energy the body produces, the more oxygen it needs, which in turn intensifies the breathing. When the breathing intensifies, it challenges the body’s balance, or center of gravity control. Training exists, then, not only to grow our capacity in each of these functions independently, but also to deepen and fortify their interrelation. The more we are able to fluidly expand the process of producing energy, taking in oxygen and maintaining balance with our center of gravity; the more variety of movement becomes available to us, which in turn increases the stability and sustainability of life. Essentially the same principle can be applied to acting on stage. Through disciplined, integrated development of these three parameters, the body gains strength and agility, the voice acquires range and capacity and an awareness of the “other” grows. Such work develops the expressive potency needed to transmit the actor’s point of view. It follows, then, that the core requirements for the art of acting lie in disciplines created to deepen an awareness of these three crucial, interrelated, “invisible” phenomena.
The current trend of contemporary society, in this so-called age of globalization, can be characterized by two commonly used phrases. In other words, one can easily say that our way of living is strongly prescribed by a system symbolized by these two terms: market economy and digital communications. First, it is possible to estimate all forms of human activity on the basis of their economic worth. Even the location in which they take place and the time that they encompass are regarded as a form of economic activity known as consumption, to say nothing of the products resulting from such activities. All our actions and even our very existence are from the start open to valuation in terms of monetary worth. This is the hallmark of the market economy system that prescribes our contemporary life, now caught in the maelstrom of globalization.
Second, our means of perceiving the world increasingly depends on the agency of non-animal energy sources (such as electricity, petroleum, and nuclear energy), while at the same time we rely more and more exclusively on our sense of sight when placing value on things. Even concerning the actions individuals take in their private lives, there is a tendency to be guided more and more by situational judgments made solely on the basis of visual recognition. It is getting more and more difficult for us to use all of the five senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste) in conjunction when sizing up a situation, taking action, or forming human relationships. The way we now communicate by email or text messaging is a case in point.
Of course, it is quite possible—even with people on opposite sides of the globe whom we have never met directly, i.e., by means of simple animal energy, never shared a common place or time together—to live in harmony as lifelong friends or, conversely, to slaughter each other. Indeed, the drive to establish an order that depends on non-animal energy and visual recognition is the hallmark of digital communications systems.
This tendency to maintain a collective order reliant on the digitalization of these economic and communication systems will not merely expand around the globe; it portends the eventual deterioration of the nation state, one of the principal frameworks of group formation that humankind has developed over the ages. Whether, with the aid of these systems, the search for a way for nations and people to coexist will result in peace, or whether it will precipitate conflicts of interest between nations, feelings of hostility between people, and environmental devastation leading to a worldwide crisis threatening the very survival of the human race, nobody has the faintest idea. And yet, there’s no denying we’ve reached a point where theatre specialists like ourselves must take steps to thoroughly examine the state of theatre to decide what must be abandoned, what must be preserved, and what must be created anew.
What sort of future is in store for theatre, a cultural activity that has endured for two thousand some years? If the cultural activity known as theatre is to have any raison d’être for humankind in the future, what would that be and what sort of hardships must we overcome in order to achieve it? Taking these issues into account, allow me to offer my thoughts on theatre.
Theatre as a form of expression is generally said to have its roots in ancient Greece. Moreover, this Greek theatre focused attention on ineluctable human conditions and basic issues which the state, family, and individual had to face in their continued survival, and thus demanded that people consider how to cope with such issues. These include religion, family, sexuality, war, and politics, that is, matters concerning the rules and codes of conduct of a collective in which the effort or judgment of a single individual has no sway. Why is it that Greek theatre focused not on the hardships of life or on the troubles of individuals in their everyday lives, but rather dealt with incidents and human relationships that brought about the collapse of families and nations? I believe it is because the Greeks of that era were most concerned with those rules that determined the formation of group order and the rules by which the order of the group was maintained. As evidence of this, one may point to the fact that most of the protagonists of Greek tragedy have committed the crime of murder. The act of murder is the ultimate enemy of public order.
Oedipus, Medea, and Orestes, as well as the Greek soldiers in “The Trojan Women” and the Maenads in “The Bacchae”, are therefore, as a matter of course, murderers. Even though the reasons that led them to the act of murder all differ, and they all were admittedly of the mind that their actions were fully warranted, there is no question that each of them would be put on trial as a criminal under our modern legal system. In other words, setting aside whether such events actually occurred or were simply imagined as possible, it was in any case theatre artists who furnished an overall picture of crime to the general public, providing material for discussion on what to make of it. And the location where this took place was the public facility known as the theatre. In this sense, one can say that theatre artists were those who discovered meaning in every possible sort of human action and the events ensuing therefrom, who thought of how that concerned the group, and who made their views publicly known.
Allow me to present my case by offering a concrete example. Among the protagonists in the works of Euripides—one of the three great Greek tragedians—there is a young man named Orestes. This Orestes kills his mother for having murdered his father, a warrior, and then, due in part to the censure of the citizenry and in part to the severe anguish he feels from the guilt of his crime, turns half-crazy, wandering from country to country. Yet this Orestes, when his mother’s father denounces the deed as an unjust crime, insists, on the contrary, that what he did was not unjust at all but simply an ill-fated, unfortunate act and, in the end, a righteous deed. In justification, he argues that if a woman were to murder her husband and the child took pity on her and pardoned her simply because she was his mother, any woman could go ahead and kill her husband whenever she liked, as long as she could come up with something suitable with which to accuse him. And since through killing his own mother Orestes prevented such conduct from becoming custom, he claims that what he did constituted a service to Greek society as a whole.
It is not wholly impossible to appreciate Orestes’ argument on a gut level. If the perpetrator of the murder of one’s father managed to survive, he argued, it is only right that one should seek vengeance. So why should that act be considered unjust? In response to this, Orestes’ grandfather, whose daughter had been killed, insists that she should be punished for her crime by due process of law, not by some kind of personal revenge. Arguing that it would result in a never-ending chain of retaliation, he suppresses both the sympathetic voices pleading Orestes’ innocence and those calling for his banishment and instead incites his fellow citizens to execute Orestes. This development, however, can be read as Orestes’ grandfather, lamenting his daughter’s murder so much, using the law as a pretext to fulfill his own personal revenge.
If one considers the way arguments develop and events unfold in the story of the fall of the house of Atreus—in which a single murder sets off a chain reaction of murder after murder—in light of the seemingly endless string of international conflicts in the modern world, the story is so familiar that it is hard to believe it was written more than two thousand years ago. Looking at the twentieth century as a historical example, it would be difficult to assert that the repeated slaughter of different ethnic groups during wartime in the name of lawfulness and justice faithfully followed modern legal systems made up of dictates for maintaining order. Rather one can hardly deny that these acts were underpinned by the feelings of discrimination and vengefulness of the powerful, whipped up to the level of mass hysteria.
When I first read this text of Euripides’ it struck me as strange. The words Orestes speaks in rebuttal to his grandfather are uttered not in the present but in the past tense as if spoken from some future standpoint. I encountered here an entirely different type of stage language from that of dialogical drama, in which a play is composed of words that reveal the current psychological or emotional state of the characters. This is what Orestes says: My actions served society by preventing the murder of husbands by their wives from becoming customary.
When a criminal’s own deeds are put on trial, it is common for him to insist that his behavior was justifiable and not illegal. However, it is not so usual for a criminal not only to insist on his own righteousness but to contend that his own action and thinking transcend his own interests and offer a service to society as a whole. Moreover, I’m sure it would be quite unusual for anybody to incline an ear to him when he insists that the grounds for his exoneration lie in the future, that history will vindicate him. In order to survive a time and place where this sort of thing is realized, that individual must, to some degree, have a real feeling for and take pride in having lived in an age associated with a changeover in the values of an entire society. Apart from those whom one might call political criminals of conscience, it is a scenario from life unlikely to visit upon the majority of people who live in peaceful circumstances.
For killing his venerated father and for being treated poorly, a young man who had been leading a peaceful life kills his mother. Such an incident may have actually taken place in ancient Greece. But it is inconceivable that any person who was actually party to the crime would insist immediately afterwards that he had prevented the custom of killing husbands, calling upon a future society for justification of his deeds. It seems to me that if there were a young man who had actually committed the same sort of murder as Orestes, he would either lament the ill fate and misfortune he had been dealt or reflect deeply on the righteousness of his own feelings which led to the deed—not the deed itself—and fall into deep silence. The words placed in the mouth of the character named Orestes are in fact the words of the playwright Euripides who, after some passage of time, interrogated the true feelings of the murderer as well as the meaning of the deed, feelings which had sunk into the silence of the past. It was a past that Euripides wished to relate directly to the people of his same era.
Through my encounter with these words in a play of Euripides’ I discovered once more the power of this form of expression known as theatre along with its raison d’être. So what does an audience feel when they see the character Orestes actually enacted on the stage? When an actor playing Orestes recites the words of the script I have been talking about, there are three levels of time and space—call them three societies—which the spectators encounter. One is the level in which the murderer named Orestes lived, the second is that in which Euripides lived, and the third is that of the actor performing on the stage in the present moment. By experiencing these three levels of time and space, the audience is able not only to perceive the historical circumstances they themselves reside in but also catch a glimpse of a future time and space as well. Even if the conclusions reached are founded on a set of values and standards of judgment different from one’s own nation or ethnic group, in the commonly shared form of expression enjoyed globally at present, that very dissimilarity may stir the imagination and invigorate one to think of human existence in a universal way.
For any nation, the people and incidents of its past never remain unchanged matters of historical fact. Things that are reinterpreted or modified to suit each political purpose or to justify the actions of a particular group are forever referred to as past historical fact. Time and again we have witnessed the revision of historical fact by political power-holders or religious figures bearing malicious intent. However, Euripides once again reminds us how theatre makes possible a variety of interpretations of past reality, making it a powerful weapon for enabling the individual to participate freely in the creation of history.
I stated at the outset that our contemporary society is prescribed by rules generated by two kinds of systems by which order is formed. These two systems, that of the market economy and that of digital communications, are both based on rules having clear aims and standards of worth. And they are each systems that tend to form a society dependent on non-animal energy.
The first of these systems posits the value that making a profit and achieving economic prosperity are the highest aims either an individual or a community can pursue. The other holds that providing all information rapidly and wherever possible in visual form and sharing it with many people as possible is the ideal. All human activity, even physical and mental conditions, are quantified in monetary terms and rendered as visual information as a means of fulfilling the aims of a particular group or nation. The global society propped up by these systems and spreading to all corners of the earth differs utterly from the society which human beings had established up until the mid-twentieth century, which had cherished principles of group formation and systems of communication in which animal energy was utilized and refined. At first glance, they may appear to be systems of society that embrace a diversity of values, but in fact quite the opposite is the case: Because their goals are so singular they give rise to a tendency toward standardization based on the value inherent in the activities and mental states of human beings. For that reason, nations that have established a democratic political system or achieved high economic or educational standards are not necessarily most able to adapt to these systems. Nations ruled by political despots, economically impoverished countries, or groups sustained by feudalistic human relationships much more swiftly appropriate these aims, and their people are much more likely to succeed in adapting themselves to such systems.
In such an epoch as this, there is no doubt that theatre as a form of communication will dwindle to a minor cultural activity enjoyed only by a small number of people. Because theatre cannot be experienced without sharing a common space and time, no matter how excellent it may be, the impact it has on contemporary society is pitifully small compared with other media that utilize non-animal sources of energy. And yet, one must not forget the fact that theatre has survived for well over two thousand years unbowed by the changing circumstances of any age. What is more, it was in order to reconfirm the meaning of human existence that people forged and tempered this animal energy that is the theatre and held such an unflagging belief in its power.
Throughout human history there has never been a time without actors who discovered a reason for living in the passionate expenditure of animal energy in an attempt to deepen the understanding of the human condition, or without dramatists who forged their reason for living into words in the hope that it could be shared with as many people as possible. And if one imagines, over these two thousand some years and in regions all over the face of the earth, how very many people have experienced this form of communication compared to other forms of communication which have come and gone with the times, one can take great pride in the fact that theatre is yet prevailing, even if only a small number of people may now enjoy it. In the future, if theatre is indeed to survive and still be needed as theatre, it can do so only with the help of people who feel that this longevity itself is a marvelous thing, and who, no matter what changes the times may bring, strive to maintain a consciousness through this form of communication that enables individuals to participate in the creation of history.
As I was born in Japan, the principal stronghold of my endeavors as a theatre artist has been Japan. However, I have collaborated with innumerable artists from outside of Japan in a variety of theatrical enterprises, through which I have come to the conviction that for any artist, home is not a matter of where one was born or operates. Rather, there exists a home within the heart, joined by powerful emotions and in solidarity with others, where human beings can find repose. Now, at my advanced age, I can say without hesitation that having this conviction is the main reason I have been able to remain active in theatre for so many decades. And although I may not have many years left, I would like to end my speech by asserting in front of you all that with this conviction I will continue my endeavors in the theatre to the very end.