Hikikomori come out of the shadows in Tetsuro Shigematsu’s Kuroko
Tetsuro Shigematsu, creator of the acclaimed shows Empire of the Son and 1 Hour Photo, returns with a new production, Kuroko, running November 6 to 17 at The Cultch Historic Theatre. Diving into the word of hikikomori, extreme recluses who withdraw from society, Kuroko features Maya, who has spent the past six years locked in her bedroom, interacting with the world through virtual reality. The story follows her quest to save her father’s life. Billed as a dark comedy, Kuroko is directed by Amiel Gladstone, director and co-creator of the hit musical, Onegin. Produced by Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre, the show features John Ng as Hiroshi, Manami Hara as Naomi, Kanon Hewitt as Maya, Lou Ticzon as Kenzo, and Donna Soares as Asa and multiple characters.
Kuroko – world premiere
Historic Theatre at The Cultch
1895 Venables St, Vancouver
tickets and info: thecultch.com/events/kuroko
presented by Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre
Bulletin Interview: Tetsuro Shigematsu
Our elder daughter just returned from two years in northern Japan, where she was teaching English, which has given me a renewed interest in Japanese culture, of which I am woefully ignorant. I was curious to see that you had chosen to explore the world of the hikikomori in your new show, Kuroko. It’s one of those wonderfully/terribly Japanese phenomena that is hard to fathom. What exactly are hikikomori, and what drew you to this subject matter?
Hikikomori are Japanese young people who experience a setback on their road to maturation. Maybe it’s bullying, or failing their entrance exams. Whatever the cause, they retreat to their bedrooms and never leave, not for years, sometimes even decades. They spend all their waking hours online, enabled by parents who don’t know what to do apart from leaving trays of food outside their doors. The first generation of hikikomori are now middle-aged. Which begs the question, what happens when their parents die? There are over three million hikikomori in Japan. And while this may seem like a bizarre, culturally specific social phenomenon, I think hikikomori might be providing a glimpse of our collective future here in the West. Who isn’t guilty of spending too much time staring at a little screen and not enough time making eye contact with those around them? I know I fall into that trap every day.
The vast majority of hikikomori are men, yet your protagonist is a young woman, Maya. Why did you choose to focus on a female character?
We’re already pushing the envelope by having five Asian Canadian actors on stage. That’s even more than Kim’s Convenience! And yes, Ins Choi’s extraordinary accomplishments are the measure by which all Asian Canadian theatre artists measure themselves. (laughter). As you mentioned, hikikomori tend to be male, it’s about an 80/20 ratio, but a male hikikomori would be a straight-up otaku, a super geek who is obsessed with computers or manga at the expense of his social skills. He’s a joke we all take pleasure in laughing at, a racially inflected punchline. So with otakus already perceived so unsympathetically in pop culture, my head fake around that was to have my hikikomori be female. It’s like gamers, who tend to have a bad rap, and sometimes deservedly so, but a female gamer? That’s a whole different story. Audiences are ready to be empathetic towards any character that subverts stereotypes. Ultimately, North American audiences are more conditioned to be accepting of Asian females than Asian males – that’s because of something called Gendered Race Theory by the way – and because this character is hikikomori, they need all the help they can get in order to make that connection through the fourth wall that is theatre.
I ran kuroko through Google Translate and it came up with beauty spot, prompter, black figures, mite, dark mole, stagehand, and face mole, depending on how it’s written. What meaning are you using?
Literally translated, kuroko means black child, or child of darkness, a rather poetic name for the stagehands in traditional Japanese theatre. When I saw my first performance of kabuki in Japan, I annoyed my companion by repeatedly pointing out, “hey, what’s that ninja doing on stage again?” In fact, this is where “the look” we associate with ninjas come from. Clad entirely in black, audiences in Japan claim not to see them, because they occupy a culturally specific blindspot, the same way that Western audiences don’t pay attention to the strings of marionette puppets. For me, the kuroko functions as a metaphor. These shadowy figures enable players to achieve feats of virtuosity, and the otherwise impossible.
What kind of research did you undertake to prepare for writing the script? Did you contact any hikikomori, either online or in person?
Believe it or not, the initial experience that sparked my interest in the subject was autobiographical. When I was preparing for laser eye surgery recently, I knew I’d be out of commission for a couple of days, so I loaded up my iPhone with hours and hours of audio books. The experience of lying in complete darkness with black out curtains, not knowing if it was day or night, and spending all my conscious hours within imaginative worlds, gave me a glimpse of what I believe our future might be like. As my body atrophied in the darkness from lack of exercise or movement, I was accumulating experiences as vivid as any memories from real life. In a way, I didn’t want to leave the unlimited darkness of my bedroom.
From the outside, it appears to be such an extreme response to the world, to lock oneself away from IRL human contact, yet maybe there’s not as much that separate “us” from “them” as we like to think. Did researching and writing the show change how you see these people, or even how you see yourself?
I tend to have a sympathetic view of hikikomori. I think of them as canaries in the mineshaft, highly-sensitive individuals who are unusually attuned to societal ills. If they refuse to participate in the rat race of our late capitalist society, is that really so crazy? There’s a quote that has been attributed to Bernie Sanders, but I’m not sure of its provenance. It goes something along the lines of, “Instead of removing the conditions that make people depressed, modern society gives them antidepressant drugs. In effect, antidepressants are a means of modifying an individual’s internal state in such a way as to enable him to tolerate social conditions that he would otherwise find intolerable.” It’s been observed that we’re the only species on this planet that has to pay to live here, to remain alive. I’m not saying hikikomori have the answer, but their refusal to participate is something we should all be paying attention to.
You’ve performed in your last couple of shows, but you’re sitting this one out – is it strange to be standing on the outside, looking on as the show unfolds before you?
It is strange. For one thing it’s a lot less pressure! For my last show which was about internment, 1 Hour Photo, I was rewriting right up until the very last minute before the world premiere. Plus I had to memorize and perform all that new text. So I won’t be a part of the cast this time around. That being said, in the tradition of Alfred Hitchock Presents, I will be introducing the show every night on stage, and then hanging out afterwards to chat with anyone who wants to hang out, or who would like their latest issue of The Bulletin to be autographed.
What’s next for you? Do you have any other projects lined up?
My next play after Kuroko will be another solo work. I’ll be exploring toxic masculinity, but it won’t be a downer. It’ll be a intoxicating elixir of humanity! In other words, be prepared to laugh. A lot. I intend to be very, very funny.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
If anyone out there wants to support what I do as a Nikkei theatre artist, my digital cap on the sidewalk is at patreon.com/tetsuro. And know this, because I only have a couple of supporters, I’m REALLY good to them. Whatever my patrons I ask for, I give them. Seriously.