Toshiki Okada says Noh to Olympics and nuclear power
This new work by the world-renowned Japanese dramatist and founder of the Tokyo-based Chelfitsch theatre company, Toshiki Okada, a contemporary noh play titled “Regret of Ghost and Monsters Zaha/Monju,” opened at Kanagawa Arts Theatre (KAAT) in Yokohama on June 6.
The production, running through June 26, is the second venture into the realm of noh by the globe-trotting 47-year-old theatre director, playwright and author. Previously, his “No Theater” — a 2017 collaboration with München Kammerspiele, one of Germany’s main state-funded theatres — was a great success there and then at the Rohm Theatre Kyoto the next year with a German cast and staff.
Originally scheduled by KAAT for June 2020, just before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, the play was postponed due to the pandemic — though Okada did manage to hastily organize two days of online streaming performances featuring a small stage on a table in a cozy room at KAAT and actors in remote locations reading their parts separately.
Afterwards, regarding those actors as playing somewhat unreal roles in the postponed production, Okada incorporated their performances into the noh play — in the form of a ghost story. This imaginative move instantly appealed to many theatre-goers and hugely heightened expectations for 2021’s live performance.
Now, after such lengthy preparations, this ensuing “Regret of Ghost and Monsters Zaha/Monju” has evolved into a great drama welcomed enthusiastically by audiences, especially after such a long period of theatre closures.
Comprising two hourlong parts, the first section of “Regret of Ghost and Monsters Zaha/Monju” — titled “Tsuruga” — focuses on the sodium-cooled fast-breeder Monju reactor in the Tsuruga nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture.
The reactor there was stopped in 1995 due to an accident involving a leak of radioactive sodium. Then, soon after being restarted in 2010, it was again shut down due to an accident in which machinery was dropped. Afterwards, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in March 2011 threw Japan’s entire energy policy into flux, and in 2016 the government finally decided to decommission the Monju reactor. So, since its construction started in 1986, the Monju almost never worked as intended.
In the play, a tourist (WAKI* in noh term) played by Rui Kurihara visits the seaside city of Tsuruga and meets a mysterious girl (SHITE**: Shizuka Ishibashi) who is actually the ghost of the Monju reactor who explains why the great national project failed. Although she grieves about being decommissioned after just 250 days’ operation — despite being hailed as a “dream nuclear reactor” — she also regrets the time wasted and the vast sums of the nation’s tax money spent on her.
Then the title of the second section of the play, “Zaha,” refers to the renowned British-Iraqi architect and artist Zaha Mohammad Hadid, who won the international competition to design the New National Olympic Stadium for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
Though her new stadium was a centerpiece of Tokyo’s bid to stage the Olympics, her design was scrapped by the then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2015 on the grounds of cost overruns. Zaha then tried to enter the new competition to design a replacement, but her company gave up as they could not find a construction company to work with in Japan. Zaha died of a heart attack in Miami in 2016.
When a tourist (WAKI: Shingo Ohta) wandered around the New National Olympics Stadium designed by Kengo Kuma in Sendagaya, Tokyo, he realized a man (SHITE: Mirai Moriyama) was staring fiercely at the construction site. The man, who identified himself as an architect, explained what happened to Zaha and how the Japanese government suddenly reversed its position and criticized Zaha’s design. He also regretted that we can’t see Zaha’s beautifully designed cutting-edge stadium today.
*WAKI: Waki is a supporting actor in noh. Waki live in this world, often as an itinerant monk, a Shinto priest, or a warrior. They draw out the performance/acting of Shite.
**SHITE: The lead role in noh and kyogen. He/she plays unworldly beings, such as deities, spirits, ghosts and ogres. In a two-act play, the Shite has different names and is referred to as “mae-shite” (in the first act) and “nochi-shite” (in the second act).
***AI: Ai appears to explain the background of the story and the history of the Shite. He/she appears as a temple god, a village person or an attendant.
➔ In Okada’s two programs, a local person appears as an Ai and explains the social background. Hairi Katagiri acts the Ai in both.
This contemporary noh play follows the traditional noh style. So first the Waki appears and introduces himself, then the Shite appears and explains to the Waki what happened at that place before. Then, after the Shite leaves the stage, the Ai appears and talks about the social background of the Monju reactor and the Zaha Hadid scandal.
Next, the Ai leaves and the Shite appears again as the ghost and recalls the old days and sings and dances in regret.
The actors’ performances are brilliant. Kurihara and Ota perfectly inhabit their Waki role and devote themselves to be mediators between the Shite and the audiences.
Meanwhile, Ishibashi and Moriyama shoulder the responsibility of conveying their deep feelings of regret with their words as mae-shite, and with their physical dance expressions as nochi-shite. In addition, Moriyama and Ishibashi are excellent as contemporary dancers, and wonderfully and emotionally represent the demolished reactor and the architect’s woes.
In fact, it seems like I can see the phantom of the Monju building and also Zaha’s streamline-shaped stadium right there on stage.
A genuine delight of this performance was its comprehensive harmony of appropriate political text indicating the national leaders’ sophism, the acting and the sets — primarily a minimal, noh-shaped stage with yellow cones — as well as the music.
Also, the music of a daxophone (an experimental electric wooden instrument) played by three live musicians — Kazuhisa Uchihashi (who composed the music), Kyoko Tsutsui and Yumiko Yoshimoto — and the singing (UTAI in noh terms) by Tavito Nanao made the performance an unforgettable live theatre experience.
Somewhat futuristic, but also eerie and similar to traditional Japanese instruments, the sound of the daxophone was a perfect fit with this contemporary noh, while it was clear that Nanao’s mellow, poetic voice captivated the audiences’ hearts as well.
As a top-class live musical and dance play, “Regret of Ghost and Monsters Zaha/Monju” was like seeing a high-quality flamenco performance in which the dancer, the musicians and the singer are contesting for supremacy on stage.
For a long time Okada has been categorized as a flag-bearer of “young” Japanese artists, but I believe this fails to do hm justice. In fact, I’m convinced he is a top-notch creator of comprehensive, high art works.
Already a popular dramatist in Europe, Okada will present his new play “Doughnuts” at the Thalia Gauss Theatre in Hamburg, Germany, in January 2022. For more information, visit https://www.thalia-theater.de/programm/premieren-2021&2022