Eri Watanabe and Hana Kino

女々しき力プロジェクト 序章 Girls’ Power Project by Eri Watanabe

(c) Brianna Santellan / Unsplush

Eri Watanabe is an all-rounder in Japan’s entertainment world. A leading playwright and theatre director, a TV commentator and a popular actress on both screen and stage, she is also renowned for her role as an endearing middle-aged woman in 1996’s smash-hit ballroom dancing movie, “Shall we Dance?”

Yet despite all that, Watanabe still longs to fulfil an ambition she’s had since she was a promising young dramatist writing, directing and acting for her own Theatre Company 300 in the 1980s. That is to organize a drama festival especially featuring female playwrights, with works by a wide range of creators presented one after another.

That dream first took shape in her mind in response to the extent to which Japanese theatre has always been, and remains, male-dominated despite the spectacular achievements of some talented female playwrights and directors.

Back then, when Watanabe was prominent in the 1980s–90s’ small-scale theatre movement of socially engaged young dramatists, she shared that dream with her contemporaries, the women writers Koharu Kisaragi and Rio Kishida — but due to their early deaths, nothing came of it.

In summer this year, though, Watanabe had planned to finally present that women playwrights’ festival of her dreams, with a roster featuring many of today’s famous writers. But then came Covid-19, which stopped most theatre activity in its tracks. In response, Watanabe instead decided on a smaller scale festival comprising just three live programs, with several performances streamed online.

First in this lineup is Watanabe’s new play, “Sarusuberi Corona no koro” (“Indian Lilac in the Corona Period”), a poignantly topical piece she will direct and perform with her close colleague, Hana Kino, together with musicians playing violin and bass, at Za Koenji theater in Koenji, Tokyo, from August 5–9.

For the second program, Watanabe directs “Katazuketai Onnatachi” (“Women Who Want to Clear Things Away”), a reading play and acclaimed theatrical gem by another leading dramatist, Ai Nagai. Originally cast for three women, for this production Watanabe will have three men perform the reading at Za Koenji theatre on August 10.

Finally, from August 21–23, Watanabe will both direct and take one of the two roles in “Kienasai Laura” (“Get out Laura”), a work by the pioneer of Japanese absurdist plays, Minoru Betsuyaku.

Written in 1987 as a sequel to Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie,” this tells the pitiful story of its heroine Laura’s life after her brother Tom leaves home. In this production at the Honda Theatre in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo, Watanabe will play the roles of Laura and their harsh mother Amanda, while the leading young Kabuki actor Matsuya Onoe will perform both those of Tom and a mysterious man who says he is an undertaker.

According to Watanabe, this project is just the starting point as she sets out to ensure other projects put on hold by Covid-19 are not lost to this dreadful disease. So, watch this space … as they say.

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