Three Attempts on Meaning After 3.11


/ article published by FellSwoop Theatre at Festival / Tokyo ’13, Blog Camp at F/T

Travels in Narratives” is the focus of Festival/Tokyo this year. Asserting a return to “narratives” is polemical in the face of the current situation of Japan. Previous year’s edition – and 2009 in particular – focused on how to access the “real” on stage; “towards a new real” and “beyond the real” were the prime ambitions of the two festivals that year.

Artists at F/T in 2013 have the difficult task of trying to represent what we now singly designate as “Fukushima”. Finding the right way to do so is, we can imagine, rather difficult. Their attempts however symbolize the ambitions of a whole generation of artists to express this invisible threat which a majority of people and even experts, find hard to comprehend. Naturally many Japanese and international artists turned towards the people who had been the most affected by the disaster: they collected interviews, pictures and recordings to look at the problem from up close in order perhaps to understand it before attempting to find its most sincere way to represent it. In theatre, I would argue that documentary (or verbatim) theatre’s ambition to present “real” events on stage is misguiding. In my view, the artist necessarily mediates the material presented on stage. Although they are “real” spoken words, the final performance cannot claim to be any more “real” than other forms of theatre. Verbatim theatre is the victim of its initial “reality” claim over “fiction”. Theatre, and art in general, can only show one or several aspects of the world we live in -not all of it.

Attempting to be “all-encompassing” about the Fukushima event, or indeed about any event at all is therefore a doomed project (even with the so-called documentary theatre form).  This cul-de-sac dilemma of the limitations of an artist to represent something “real” on the stage actually provides an opportunity to find original solutions, namely that the artist can attempt to overcome this frustrating impossibility through his praxis.

Knowingly or not, Toshiki Okada wisely takes a different path. In Current Location, he looks at the 3.11 events through the lens of a ‘narrative’ and in turns reconsiders what post-Fukushima fiction in theatre can achieve. People living in a same town begin hearing rumors that the place where they live is going to disappear. None of the fictionalized events occurring on stage directly refer to Fukushima; but it is evident that this sci-fi tale of the mysterious “glowing blue cloud in the sky” has a lot to say about what is currently happening in Japan.

In this seesawing between fiction and reality, Okada also presents three of his female protagonists standing on a mountain cliff and looking down on their village below. They start comparing the people to “toys” when one of the three friends says, “Sometimes we need to do things like this. We need to take a step away from our daily lives, and look at our daily lives from a distance.” Similarly to those three women standing on the mountain peak, Current Location itself takes place in a fictionalized town, allowing us therefore to also “step” back and to take the necessary distance to reassess what has happened for the last two years in Fukushima and beyond. From our audience seats, characters and situation are indeed less “real” – they may seem like “toys” compared to the victims of the real events but this mini-fictionalized version of Japan on stage undoubtedly allows us to see more clearly some of the larger implications of Fukushima on contemporary society.

Another interesting attempt to get closer (or ironically, like Okada’s characters, further away) to Fukushima at F/T this year is Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s explosive adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek’s piece Prolog?, written in the aftermath of the tsunami, earthquake and nuclear disaster. Until now known primarily as a visual artist, Ozawa opens Prolog? with an art exhibition of his own paintings and photographs (inscribed, literally, with the Japanese translation of Jelinek’s text) which is quickly disrupted by the intrusion of a performer wearing a gorilla outfit who dances his frustration and brings the corpses of dead cows out of a pit to be dumped amongst the standing spectators. (I must admit that the whole experience felt slightly unsafe; as if a political activist had taken hold of the festival performance).

This clash between what began as a very “civilized” art exhibition event and the aggressive performance of the gorilla was a powerful attempt to confront us – “civilized, arty” audiences – directly with the sheer violence of the tsunami, as well as the dangers of radioactivity. Showing the beaches of Fukushima still bearing the scars of the tsunami on a huge screen was an important reminder of the proximity of those beaches, only a few hundred miles away from Tokyo, and perhaps an important call for action. In Ozawa’s piece, the curtain-wall were eventually lifted, revealing the bareness of the theatre space. Illusion no longer seemed to matter for Ozawa. The outside world was calling and seemed urgently more important than watching theatre.

Ozawa’s hesitation of choosing one form of expression over another in this performance and his attempt to synthesize the distinct art form is a confrontation an artist cannot avoid when creating a piece on Fukushima. One form does not indeed seem to suffice; words are perhaps lacking and another new hybrid form (or what indeed feels like a Cerberus monster form) needs to be found in order to address those issues on stage.

Shu Matsui’s original take on Oedipus Rex was yet another attempt at F/T to use a narrative to conjure up the traumas of Fukushima and perhaps see what is awaiting beyond. In contrast to the original narrative of the Greek classic, no one dies at the end of Matsui’s The Long Field Trip. Rather, Nobu (the character representing King Oedipus in this play) regains his sight and goes with his daughter towards an alternative world in which they can carry on living together, despite their incestuous bond.

Questioning Matsui on the ambiguous ending of his play, he says that “it is for us to decide” whether this is a pessimistic ending or not. Giving the audience the ability to “decide” for themselves is a significant statement – especially in tragedy, in which audiences are usually given no alternative but to follow the tragic fate that the main characters are heading towards.

As the characters leave the stage towards the utopia Nobu’s “pet” has found, this open ending gives us a sense that something else might indeed happen beyond this luminous door. There is hope at least that people may be able to reclaim their otherwise tragic fates and that “what’s done” can be “undone”. Japan is no longer doomed and can escape, like young Japanese theatre scholar Josh Goulding once said in an essay on Makoto Satoh, the “continuum of history”. This attempt to escape Japan’s tragic fate is also present when Nobu’s old mother delivers her monologue on Hiroshima and its “grey landscape”. This parenthesis in the performance offers the audience the possibility to reflect not only what is happening now but also what happened then.

Similar perhaps to those three women in Okada’s Current Location, Chiyoko’s reverted and distant gaze towards yet another disaster in Japanese history allows the spectator to consider Fukushima in a greater line of historical events. This powerful monologue helps the audience consider – in an almost cathartic way –  how people at that time managed to keep on living in the face of the absolute desolation and horror of the 1945 atomic bombings.

Despite the irrationality of the events and the difficulty to represent it in clear coherent forms, each artist I have described successfully manages to deliver further meaning on Fukushima. This search for meaning is comparable to the 1960s, when the Angura (underground theatre movement) artists took to the streets of Tokyo. A whole generation of artists who felt deeply affected by the catastrophe of the double atomic bombings strove to find new modes of expression in order not only to understand what had happened, but also to start afresh with a new vision for Japan.