Current Isolation – by Josh Goulding
On March 18th 2014 at the Japan Foundation in London, FellSwoop Theatre will stage the premiere of Current Location. The work of its writer, Toshiki Okada, has long been popular at theatre festivals in continental Europe; his plays having appeared at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels and the Festival d’Automne in Paris, where audiences evidently understand the importance of the unique theatrical discourse apparent in Okada’s work: his preoccupation with the identity of contemporary Japan. Indeed, Okada coined the name of his theatre company, cheltfisch, as a mispronunciation of the word ‘selfish’ by a child in order to evoke “the social and cultural characteristics of today’s Japan.” With recent tragic events in mind, such as the catastrophe that took place in Fukushima province in March, 2011, this bears great relevance for his Japanese audience. However, Okada’s work has been somewhat neglected by English theatres, where revivals rarely occur, perhaps because of the specific primacy they give to the state of the Japanese nation. Despite this, the playwright’s work exhibits great potential for new meaning when positioned in a transnational context, inspiring FellSwoop Theatre to produce Current Location, their second instalment in a trilogy of Okada’s work that started with the acclaimed Five Days in March in 2012: the debut of an Okada play in the United Kingdom.
As dramaturg for Current Location, it is my task to gain some insights into the play and, as such, I will be writing a series of articles to coincide with the run-up to the production in order to furnish both myself and you, the reader, with some understanding of Toshiki Okada and his theatrical language.
In 2011 Okada said in an interview, “I am not interested in realism anymore, or to put it another way, I have little interest in realizing my own imagery on stage.” In the context of the Fukushima disaster which took place that year, and its subsequent collateral damage, the last three years have clearly been a transitional period for Okada; one in which the everyday verisimilitude of Five Days In March (2004) has been replaced by the otherworldly Noh-revivalism of Ground and Floor (2013). Toilsome as it is to begin a piece with clichés like ‘realism’ – so often misused or misunderstood and subject to the credulity of the reader – it would be an injustice to the intelligence and extraordinary ability of Okada as a playwright to interpret his use of the word in a literal sense. Instead, realism for him is his own “imagery on stage,” as opposed to an attempt to render the ‘truth’ of reality mimetically on stage. Stylistic devices such as the use of multiple actors to play one character; hyper-colloquial dialogue; and the non-hierarchical configuring of bodies on stage (the actor speaking is rarely physically centre) seen in all his work are the methods used by Okada to realise his theatrical vocabulary. Since this break with ‘realism’, Okada no longer writes about scenarios in the recognisable everyday, but of worlds conjured inside his imagination, which brings us to the play in question.
Current Location (2012) is stamped with the same dramaturgical trademarks seen in the entire Okada repertoire, but continues his withdrawal from Earthly realism by being set in a non-descript village in an unspecific outer space, highlighting the irony of one meaning given to the title. The villagers are characterised by a passive indecision and exclusion in the face of an uncertain disaster: an ominous cloud which may or may not signal the end of their society. Despite living in a netherworld already removed from other semblances of civilisation, the characters Okada creates additionally speak of a self-inflicted exclusion from everyday life: “We need to step away from our daily lives, and look at them from a distance.” A dual physical and psychic removal Okada evidently sees in the state of the Japanese nation as a whole, and which can arguably be diagnosed as a symptom of the current technological-surveillant revolution taking place all over the developed world. Not least in the UK.
An extreme manifestation of this isolation can be seen in the Hikikomori phenomenon that has recently arisen in Japan and elsewhere. This refers to adults and young people who, disenchanted and detached from the society they see around them, decide to ‘pull inward’ (‘Hikikomori’) and withdraw themselves from an active existence into a state of extreme seclusion, often isolating themselves in rooms without the intention of ever leaving. Though not an explicit theme of the play, the Hikikomori provides us with a cogent metaphor to apply to Current Location and, therefore, Japan itself, in which our village setting becomes one of the non-places an Hikikomori confines themself within. By expanding our metaphor we can see the same psychic isolation of the Hikikomori as being suffered by an increasingly isolated Japan. Further, perhaps this sense of removal has rendered nation-states elsewhere inactive and/or counterproductive in the face of problems with an international impact. It seems an unironic reading of ‘Current Location’ positions itself at the margins of existence; looking uncritically from a distance without motive for decisive action or, indeed, the premonitions of death one inevitably encounters when faced with the traumatic events of contemporary life.
The theatrically ‘strange’ aesthetics of Okada are ideal for portraying the inactive bodies of the Hikikomori. The geography of the director’s dramaturgy now relies less on the rearrangement of bodies in physical space to reorder meanings and relationships. Instead, the spoken testament of the characters jumps between the actors: it is clear that embodiment is no longer needed for an individual to communicate their subjectivity, referencing perhaps the most extraordinary consequence of our current technological revolution and the dataveillance, electronic chips, and online profiles now used to assert who we are. As such, a coherent interpretation of our title, dear reader, is perhaps futile. We can no longer locate ourselves in our surveillance-ridden, virtual world, but only the currents along which we flow. It would not be injudicious to begin to understand why the Hikikomori place themselves in such small confines when considering this, or even empathise with their cause.
Certainly in the light of recent political changes in Japan, a cold reaction to the behaviour of Okada’s characters, and the verbose inarticulation (forgive my hypocrisy) of his plays, begins to thaw. The recent passing of secrecy laws approved by a prime minister whose nationalist leanings resemble something much more sinister by the day, and what many see as an ineffective response to the March 2011 catastrophe, has seen demonstrations and upheaval amongst young left-wingers. Okada’s disenchantment with clear reality is a tactical withdrawal from a world rapidly losing all traces of transparency, with both his characters and his plays stepping back from the opacity slowly clouding over us (the spaces cleared by whistle-blowers – albeit slowly being filled with smoke – aside). Okada seems to be seeking some kind of solace in a place which he cannot locate and only define as ‘out-there’: those isolated spaces of clarity found in the minds of the Hikikomori which, even when found, display conflictive symptoms of identity so often suffered in solitary confinement.
It is this conflictive quality that makes Current Location a necessary play, one imbued with huge theatricality. The inner conflict of characters is rendered to such an extent that it even manifests externally in the work’s self-referential moments. The characters ‘forget’ their lines and misattribute others, whilst openly discussing what costume would be appropriate for each other. It seems even our esteemed playwright cannot decide who these identities are, or how they should act in the face of imminent tragedy, itself unspecified. This wilful ambiguity eventually comes to a head at the end of the play, when the reader is offered a choice regarding the outcome. Infuriating perhaps, but Okada would risk hypocrisy if he provided us with a definite resolution in the uncertain narratives and indecisive characters he writes about, to the extent that he relieves himself of the responsibility. Instead, the decision is left to us. Though the play has themes intentionally specific to the cultural and political uniqueness of Japan, it is universal in its questions of identity conflict and the uncertainty of the world we live in now. This is the reason FellSwoop have decided it should be staged, and these are the questions which must be asked when coming to understand the inaction of stagnating nation-states, the Hikikomori, and the characters themselves. But first, we must face these questions ourselves. Ultimately, Current Location asks us: Where are we now?
(An other article by Josh Goulding will soon be published on our website.)