PuSh PreView : Toshiki Okada
Playwright Toshiki Okada was born in Yokohama City in 1973. While attending Keio University, where he graduated with a business degree, he discovered an affinity for live theatre and was soon writing and directing his own plays. In 1997, he established his own company, chelfitsch, taking the name from a child’s mispronunciation of the English word “selfish.” He has gone on to win a number of awards and prizes for his work, including the 49th Kishida Drama Award for his work Five Days in March, which will be mounted at the 5th annual PuSh Festival (January 20 – February 8, 2009)
Five Days in March takes place over a five day period spanning the two days prior to and two days after the US-led invasion of Iraq. The characters are comprised of a number young people, two of whom, Minobe and Yukki, meet at a live performance club in Roppongi and go straight to a love hotel in Shibuya, where they spend five days. Minobe’s friend Miffy meets Azuma at a movie theatre. The final characters are two young men, Yasui and Ishihara, who are taking part, somewhat half-heartedly, in an antiwar march in Shibuya.
As the Performing Arts Japan Network website says, “This work, which has no real plot or notable incidents occurring, is an attempt at a serious exploration of ‘present expression.’ First of all it removes the deceptive theatrical element of how skilfully actors can ‘act out a role,’ and then it tries to eliminate the artificiality that always exists to some degree in lines spoken by the actors when they are clearly from a drama-like script. As a work born at the end of a quest for the most sincere form of expression in the present, Five Days in March skilfully juxtaposes the grand-scale event of ‘War’ and what can be called the almost insignificance of real daily life, to succeed beautifully in giving form to the ungraspable sense of the present held by Japanese young people.”
Interview with Toshiko Okada
You came to theatre in a round-about way—you were initially interested in making films, even though you were attending business school—what caused you to shift your focus to live theatre?
Back when I was in high school I felt partially guilty about the fact that I was interested in art and that I wanted to be a film director. So instead of studying art or film, I ended up studying economics—but my extracurricular activities involved being in the film society. And to be honest, the main activities of that film club were actually more oriented towards theatre than the cinema. That’s how I just naturally started being active in theatre. Before that, I had never been interested in theatre. Of course at the time I wouldn’t have had the ability or experience to produce films in our film club either. I myself cannot clearly answer why I didn’t pursue film production at the time, or why I have continued with theatre for this long.
What have been your influences in terms of your approach to theatre?
One very significant influence has been Bertolt Brecht. Another is the Japanese playwright Oriza Hirata, who is a generation ahead of me. Hirata proposed a new form of Japanese theatre that was based on colloquial language, and I believe that this system renewed the precision of what we call naturalism. I’ve been very much influenced by his work.
The name of your company, chelfitsch, is based on a child’s garbling of an English word, and not only that, you have used a word that has negative connotations. I also read that your work has been acclaimed “for the skill with which it brings out the insubstantiality of present conditions in Japan.” I’m getting the impression that you have a fairly jaundiced view of Japanese society today. Do you see it as a situation affecting only the young, or does it permeate all of society?
I actually don’t think of myself as taking a cynical point of view. I am just trying to create a theatre based on the way of life my generation has chosen, the kind of language we speak, and the feelings we have. However, there have been several times when I have been told that I view myself too analytically. That probably is indicative of my cynical side. I named my company chelfitsch in 1997, and it’s been over a decade since then. At the time, I really thought of myself as a spoiled, childish human being. I don’t think so anymore, but, the company name remains.
Japan seems to be going through a period or wrenching change in terms of its values. Do you think that there is an appetite among people to look at what’s going on and try to address the various issues or is there a sense that there is no use?
I think both sentiments exist. I believe that for us, the future looks unmistakably bleaker compared to before. But there’s also a sense of strength in the fact that we’re in a process of having to accept and adapt to change.
Your play is populated with couples from what is sometimes called Generation X or the slacker generation, an age demographic that you fit into. You yourself have called it “the lost generation.” Is there a way for it to find itself, do you think?
Yes, of course.
Your play Five Days in March will be performed in Vancouver and it has also been presented in other English-speaking countries. Are you finding that non-Japanese audiences can relate to your characters, that the issues facing Japanese youth are universal??
Cultural specificity and universality are not diametrically opposed, in fact works of art with profound universal resonance usually also possess strong unique specificity. For the creator, it is possible to create something with cultural specificity in mind, but it’s actually impossible to consciously make something that will have universal appeal, asides from hoping that it will. I make my work from my feelings and observations from my everyday life in Japan, but I cannot know with certainty whether this would be perceived as something universal.
In your scripts you use something being called “super-real verbal Japanese”, which I gather is dialogue that is largely inarticulate, like real speech often is. Is this difficult for the audience to understand? And why do you use this, rather than more traditional theatre dialogue?
For those who are of my generation and area, the language in my script should be extremely familiar. For those who are not, or for those who uphold the writing styles used in traditional scripts as the standard of dramatic writing and who cannot accept texts that deviate from them, my circuitous writing style is probably impossible to understand or even maddening. There’s a part of me that thinks that the way we speak to each other, with its unnecessary tangents, departures and repetitions, is richer that organized text and phrasings. That’s why I use this language in my work. Also, I use a style of story-telling directly to the audience instead of conventional fourth-wall dialogue – this is a clear Brechtian influence.
Your company has been called “the most talked-about theatre company in Japan,” so your subject matter must be striking a chord with audiences. Do you think theatre can be a vehicle for actual change, or do you think it is simply a diversion from life??
A strong performance has the power to bring the audience into its unique time and space. For me, nothing can beat that. In other words, the fact that the audience can actually live through the unique experience that is created by the time and space of one particular theatrical production – that alone holds a significance equal to that of changing the world. I would even go farther to say that from my point of view, theatre IS actually changing the world.
Have you made any changes to the play to accommodate western audiences, apart from supplying English surtitles?
Not at all.
Five Days in March
January 21 – 24, 9pm, Performance Works
Post-show Talk January 22
Tickets at Tickets Tonight