Manabu Noda[1]
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Many theatre people in Tokyo were in two minds about how we should touch on the post-3/11 situation in Japan. The sense of mourning and restraint was not the only deterrent. Theatre artists, as well as critics, are still torn between the visible and the invisible: the overwhelming and indelible images and scars of tsunami on the one hand, and the invisible threat of radioactivity on the other. On the top of that, we were keenly made to realize our political complacency about the danger of nuclear power plants — something most of us had chosen not to face even after Hiroshima/Nagasaki, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl.

To our horror, the televised apocalyptic images of deluge seemed to have even theatrical impact. The tsunami-related devastation was so powerfully and obviously visible that it seemed at least to give some shape to the tragedy in contrast with the frustratingly unnamable and ungraspable opacity surrounding the meltdown in Fukushima. Hence our sense of guilt and inanity.

This overview is an attempt to describe how Japanese theatre scene has tried to give shape to what is unnamable in stupor, indecisiveness, and suspension.(Editor)

1. Introduction

In Japan, the 3/11 earthquake in 2011 has killed 20,000 approximately so far, including the missing. We also know, for instance, that the death toll of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake rose to 230,000. Sorrow and hardship cannot be measured by numbers, but at least we Japanese must place what happened to us in its proper perspective. Still, tens of thousands of survivors in the devastated coastal towns in the Tohoku Area lost their families, houses, jobs, and communities. Their hardships will not see any quick resolution. Considering this, it would be highly inappropriate to bracket the post-3/11 situation under the blunt header of “Fukushima,” but admittedly what made the catastrophe far graver was the serious radiation leaks from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the greatest nuclear disaster in the past 25 years and second only to Chernobyl.

Tokyo shook hard, too, but compared to the devastated areas in the North-East districts of the Honshu Island, damages in Tokyo and its surrounding areas were minimal. Transport was heavily disrupted, and due to the lack of power, much of which had been generated by the nuclear plants in Fukushima Prefecture, rolling blackouts were put in place in Tokyo and the surrounding areas. Streets went dim as a result of the government’s request to economize on power to keep the tight energy situation under control. Right after the quake, Tokyoites were in the phase of “voluntary restraint,” economizing not only on power but also on entertainments. Accordingly, many theatre performances were suspended or cancelled. After a week or so, however, the initial shock and stupor gradually gave way to the call for solidarity, criticism of excessive self-restraining mood, and open frustration with politicians in the press. It took about a month or so for anger and frustration with the government to surface openly as many truths were brought to light. The administration at the time of the quake led by the former PM Naoto Kan totally botched their crisis management. To cite just one of the many marks of their failure, it later turned out that vital information upon the spread of radiation and the nuclear meltdown in the core reactor was withheld from the public for two months.

2. Divided sensibility

One great irony was that, due to wide-spread power cut, the most severely affected people in the Tohoku districts did not have access to most of the harrowing images that Tokyoites were seeing on TV right after the quake. In fact, Tokyoites including me were glued to the televised images of the earthquake, the tsunami, and the gigantic scars they left. And there were the warnings of aftershocks — usually five to ten seconds ahead — and the breaking news of their magnitudes. Within a week, every one of the homes and temporary accommodations in Japan turned into a theatre, in the sense that etymologically the word theatre originally meant a place for viewing and not just venues for performances. In a sense, the first post-3/11 theatre in Tokyo was TV as everyone was desperate for real-time information, and real-life drama. Every home in Tokyo became theatre beyond the more purpose-specific theatres. Every home in Tokyo was inundated by the media coverage of images from the most devastated areas. Because power was available, Tokyoites were given a heavier dose of mediated immediacy of the incident than people in Tohoku for at least a few days after the quake – but of course this is the immediacy that is totally different from the one which the people in Tohoku were experiencing.

I am saying this, of course, with a tingling sense of guilt, and that is exactly why I still find it difficult to write and talk about the post-3/11 theatre in Tokyo. Even back then, most Tokyoites soon realized that the damages to Tokyo were incomparable to the severity of the devastation up north. We were also aware that Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was built by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) to send power to the metropolis, and that the station was built, like other nuclear power plants, away from the heavily populated areas to minimize the damage in a case like this. And perhaps more relevantly, we may have sought after an illusion of closure in the televised images of tsunami and the gigantic scars they left to compensate for the dim prospect of the radiation leak in Fukushima, which appeared like an open wound, or rather a cancerous tumour that needed quick operation. The images of the tsunami were overwhelming – even sublime. It was depressing to see some coastal towns literally wiped out, and people looking for the dead bodies of their families in the rubble, but what was clear from those images was that we must help them start over by all possible means. On the other hand, the scenes from Fukushima and the daily press conferences to report the situation there reminded us that we had not come to an end yet. Even now, any form of an end is long in coming. We cannot start over when we have not even come to an end. Consequently, our sensibility was torn between the visible absence of what was in the shape of ruins and debris in the coastal towns in Tohoku, and the invisible fear of radiation from Fukushima which has no definite prospect of an end to offer.

“Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession,” wrote Milan Kundera in his Unbearable Lightness of Being. “The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.” Now, replace the sight of children running on the grass with the scenes of towns and people devastated by the tsunami, and we get something like this: “The first tear says: How sad to see those poor people! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by these scenes! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitch.” I suppose the greatest fear for all the theatre practitioners and critics was that of evoking and enjoying some kitch pleasure out of the catastrophe to compensate for the anxiety over the invisible threat of radioactivity. To our horror, the televised apocalyptic images of deluge seemed to have theatrical impact. The tsunami-related devastation was so powerfully and obviously visible that it seemed at least to give some shape to the tragedy in contrast with the frustratingly unnamable and ungraspable opacity surrounding the meltdown in Fukushima. Hence the sense of guilt and inanity on the part of most of the Tokyoites, including me.

3. Evoking the scene

There have been many productions which reflected the 3/11 earthquake, its impact and implications. My rough count shows that the four issues of the IATC Japan’s quarterly entitled The Theatre Arts since June 2011 (numbers 47 to 50) mention over 40 productions as quake-related in reviews, interviews, reports, and symposium records. The count, however, will vary from one reader to another. Although I am on the editorial member of the quarterly, it impossible for me to give the exact number of the quake-related productions that are mentioned in The Theatre Arts alone, because the ways these productions are related to the quake are so diverse that the count inevitably depends on how you define the “quake-related.” Some shows were written and produced as direct responses to the quake and the post-3/11 situation in Japan. Some were written before the quake but the directors decided to reflect the quake as a way of reinterpreting the text. Some playwrights avoided direct reference to the quake, but critics saw its reflection in the shows anyway. And there are many other cases, of course. One thing that can be said for sure, though, is that the 3/11 earthquake changed not only the way theatre is made but also the way it is received.

One obvious way of referring to the quake is to evoke the scene of deluge. In the March 2011 revival of Hisashi Inoue’s Taiko Dondon (Beating the Drum, 1975), the director Yukio Ninagawa had the stage scenery of old Tokyo wiped out by the ukiyoe-like tsunami at the end of the play. By a strange turn of events, Seinosuke, the prodigal son of a wealthy merchant in Edo – the old name for Tokyo – and his sycophant Momohachi are taken to the Tohoku district and made to undergo all sorts of grotesque hardships everywhere they go. They come back home after nine years only to find that not only has Seinosuke’s shop gone but the old town of Edo has completely changed its appearance under the new name of Tokyo. Momohachi says, “Even though Edo is gone, we will forever remain the true citizens of Edo. […] Nothing has changed, master!”

The title of the play means “Beating the Drum,” suggesting that Japan in the stage of nascent modernity had to boost its morale in its policy of westernization, which eventually led Japan to take the imperialist course. In Ninagawa’s revival, however, war drums are for boosting the morale of Japan after the 3/11 earthquake. While admitting the irresistible power Ninagawa’s contextual dislocation has on the post-3/11 audience, my editorial colleague Hisato Fujiwara made a valid point in criticizing the director as historically misguided.[2] If I may draw his view to my own argument, Ninagawa himself found in the image of tsunami wiping out the old town of Edo the potential to tempt the audience to see the positive side of the disaster, indicating the clean slate to write in anew with resilience, hope, and solidarity – which were exactly what Tokyoites wanted to see in the images of debris in Tohoku.

Another direct evocation of the deluge is found in Romeo Castelucci’s The Phenomenon called “I”(September 2011), performed outdoors in Tokyo’s Yumenoshima, an artificial island using vast amount of waste from the metropolis as its landfill. Now there is a park there, and a huge crater-like part of the park — about 120 meters in diameter — became the performance venue. In the evening twilight, everyone of the audience is handed a huge flag on a pole at the entrance, and led by the guide to march around the crater as if in an ancient Druid ceremony. Then they are asked to be seated on the bank of the crater, forming a huge circle. In the middle are found more than 500 white plastic seats neatly arranged in the shape of a square. A boy seats himself on one of them. After a while, all the chairs slowly towed away as if swallowed by an invisible tsunami, by the strings the audience did not notice were there. Then, about 50 actors emerge out of smoke and wave their flags from on the top of the hill. The spectators wave back their own flags.

Castelucci asked the audience to participate in an act of mourning, of corresponding with the victims of tsunami. The show was highly aestheticized, even stylish – which means that it was void of political ramifications. The spectacle of tsunami can trigger catharsis. Castelucci avoided commenting on Japan’s political issues by aestheticizing them presumably because he was not in the right position to make any comments. The show was commissioned by Festival Tokyo, and it is only natural for a director who had come from outside Japan to opt for showing a gesture of compassion rather than touching on its domestic political issues.

“The Phenomenon Called ‘I’” formed just a half of the opening double-bill for the 2011 Festival Tokyo. It was coupled with the show entitled Ji Me N (ground) by Norimizu Ameya, which explored the political and personal aspects of the post-3/11 situation from a Japanese point of view. Ameya’s piece rambles along the topics like Hiroshima, Emperor Hirohito, differences in the customs of burial, and radioactivity. In one scene he made the Japanese archipelago disappear from the projected map of the Far East on the way. The key action of the performance is digging the ground, which is a theatrical metaphor of excavating the past, though ironically all we find is garbage.

4. Gauging the distance

As life in Tokyo was relatively unaffected, playwrights in Tokyo had to gauge the appropriate moral distance from the truly afflicted in commenting upon the 3/11 earthquake and its aftermaths. It was felt to be morally presumptuous to stage the ongoing sorrow of the most devastated in Tohoku even as a show of compassion and support. Consequently, the failure of nuclear energy policy provided a ready topic.

Unravelling the farcical side of what had happened was the choice taken by Keralino Sandrovich – the plume de nom of a Japanese playwright – when he staged his new play Would You Take the Buttock, Madam? (Okusama Oshiri-wo Douzo). The play is a convoluted nonsensical satire on the fiasco concerning Fukushima. The play revolves around the Association for the Absolute Safety of Nuclear Power, the curse of the “totally unanticipated” — the phrase often used by the TEPCO in press conferences as regards to the size of the tsunami that wrecked the control system of the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant — and the Association’s change of policy for advocating the use of fart instead of atomic energy.

Akio Miyazawa’s Total Living 1986-2011 condemned the mass oblivion in Japan after the Chernobyl crisis in 1986. In the year in the midst of the economic bubble, the Japanese press was busier reporting the copycat suicides after the death of one teenage girl singer Yukiko Okada. In the near-death fantasy of one photo-journalist who lost his life in Tohoku on March 11, the light house keeper called Oblivion is frequented by a woman who desperately tries to fill a hole in her in vain. Rather than simply accusing politicians, the play makes the audience face their own complacency over Japan’s pro-nuclear power policy. It was not that the Japanese people were left in total ignorance; we chose not to see what we did not want to see through our continual endorsement of pro-nuclear political parties in the elections for decades.

Rinkōgun, Solo Fight (Tatta Hitorino Sensō, November 2011). © Michihiro Furumoto
Rinkōgun, Solo Fight (Tatta Hitorino Sensō, November 2011). © Michihiro Furumoto

Much more accusatory in tone is Yōji Sakate’s Solo Fight (Tatta Hitori-no Sensō), which targeted more specifically a research centre with gigantic underground facilities that goes 300 metre deep to study the ultradeep geological stratum, (and according to the plan they will dig up to 1,000 metre down). The fact that this is run by Japan Atomic Energy Agency testifies that their goal is to research the ultradeep storage of nuclear waste that is highly radioactive, and it is feared that the research centre will be diverted to the use as a disposal ground. As in many of Sakate’s plays, Solo Fight is rather footnote-heavy, but the urgency of the problem is clearly conveyed, together with the political propensity for leaving people in ignorance.

5. Living in Tokyo after 3/11

There was a show that was more uplifting in tone. Satoshi Suzuki’s Husbands and Wives depicts the residents of a block of flats in Tokyo, who build and reconfirm bonds with one another after the quake. It was perhaps a bit on the sentimental side, but the portrayal of the Tokyoites, especially their surprise at the horrifying images from Tohoku and a sort of moral awakening they undergo, was convincingly realistic — and reassuring as well.

More reserved in tone is Minoru Betsuyaku’s Cohabitants (Dōkyonin). At the end of the play a man confesses that he is hiding from his debt collectors because his uncle has donated to Tohoku all the money he had expected to inherit. Even after he found it out, he has made no effort to work and pay off the debt. “True, I was counting on the inheritance,” he says. “Sheer laziness. But now I’m not in the mood to go out and accept the punishment for this. It is the punishment that must come to me.” The line reflects very well the mood prevalent among the Tokyoites: Japan’s political complacency can be called sheer laziness as well, but the Japanese in general – or, rather Tokyoites in particular – are not in the mood to accept the punishment yet.

6. Moaning for the future dead

Japanese theatre scene has tried to give shape, no matter how tentative, to what is unnamable in stupor, indecisiveness, and suspension. One Japanese novelist, Gen’ichiro Takahashi, wrote on how the Japanese post-3/11 literature should be.

The author thought we should mourn not only for the past but also for the future, that this is the least obligation of the living. Mourn for the future, and the “future dead” will send us the message, in which is inscribed the shape of the community which is yet to come.[3]

Some people may like to call what happened on 3/11 apocalyptic, but no apocalypse provides an end ready for you, as Samuel Beckett so rightly showed in his writings. There are people who live on and are born anew. The difficulty inherent in imagining the future dead arises because that their voices are so faint that they are often drowned out by the voices of the living. Very few plays have been successful in answering this call, and I think it is because we are still busy giving shape to what has happened to us and only us. It becomes important, therefore, for theatre makers to give such a shape to the piece that has an unending end.

‘O, rare instinct! / When shall I hear all through?’ (5.5.381-82) cries Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.[4] This is the basic desire which prompts the audience watching Shakespeare’s romances. We want to hear all through in the hope of some redemptive closure upon the strand of hardships and strife that spans over a very long period of time. However, this closure — this sense of an end — was not permitted to many quake-hit Japanese people who were unable to see an end in coming. Rather, as the title of Frank Kermode’s book The Sense of an Ending (1967) shows, closure, or the ‘End’, if any, could only be seen as a long and perhaps unending journey rather than a definite point in time. In other words, the ‘End’ is not imminent, but immanent in our constant decline against the future backdrop of dim prospect. Judith E. Tonning said in her 2004 essay on The Tempest:

[A]lthough it is true that the sacramental liturgy ‘imports’ the End into the present moment, it does not thereby replace eschatology, but rather facilitates an expression of eschatology in the present which, neither usurps that present nor displaces the future.[5]

The post-3/11 Japanese theatre faced the dilemma of having to give shape to two totally contradictory things. On the one hand we had that lingering sense of anxiety, just like the ongoing and unending process of nuclear disaster. On the other hand, we had a longing for an end, a closure. An unending end, of course, is a contradiction in terms.

7. An unending end

Cymbeline, dir. Yukio Ninagawa, Saitama Arts Theatre, 2-21 April 2012. © Takahiro Watanabe
Cymbeline, dir. Yukio Ninagawa, Saitama Arts Theatre, 2-21 April 2012.
© Takahiro Watanabe

Yukio Ninagawa’s use of the pine tree in his Cymbeline (April 2012) may serve as a good example of realizing such an ending. In the finale, Ninagawa staged a pine tree instead of the “lofty cedar” as is in Shakespeare’s text. The Soothsayer explains Jupiter’s message to Posthumous:

That lofty cedar, royal Cymbeline,
Personates thee; and thy lopp’d branches point
Thy two sons forth; who, by Belarius stol’n
For many years thought dead, are now reviv’d,
To the majestic cedar join’d, whose issue
Promises Britain peace and plenty. (5.5.451-56)

What was immediately striking for the Japanese audience was the resemblance of the stage tree to the “miraculous pine tree” in Rikuzen Takata, a town which was devastated by the tsunami that followed the gigantic earthquake on March 11. As all the other pine trees were knocked down, the tree became a pet icon of the media as it seemed to symbolize resilience and hope after the quake in Japan, though the Asahi Shimbun, a major Japanese national newspaper, reported that the tree was not expected to remain as such very long because its roots were rotten by the heavy dose of salt water.[6] So far, Ninagawa’s pine tree is a kitch icon for hope.

The “miraculous pine tree” in Rikuzen Takata. © Jacob Ehnmark
The “miraculous pine tree” in Rikuzen Takata. © Jacob Ehnmark

However, we can find another important point of reference in the noh play Matsukaze. In addition to the usual noh back panel with the pine tree painted on it, a stage property of a small pine tree is always placed in the middle of the stage when performing Matsukaze. The play is about the ghosts of two diver sisters, Matsukaze and Murasame, who fell in love with the legendary aristocrat poet Ariwarano Yukihira. The two fell in love with Yukihira in exile. Even after his death, they cannot relinquish their longing for the prince, and consequently their souls cannot rest in peace yet. The world they live in is the eternal limbo of waiting for the unattainable, accompanied by the sense of guilt that they even dreamt of such an uneven match in terms of class. The sisters appear in front of a travelling monk, and ask him to pray for them so that they can go to heaven. In the finale, Matsukaze dons Yukihira’s clothes and starts to dance in frenzy, reliving the days she spent with Yukihira.

Here the traditional pun on the Japanese word matsu is playing a very important role. The word matsu is not only a noun for the pine tree, but also a verb that refers to the act of waiting. Because the word kazemeans ‘wind’, the name of the ghost woman Matsukaze means the wind of waiting, and in fact this sense of waiting permeates the play. Miraculously, the pun also works in English, as the word pine not only refers to the tree but also to the process of withering in some nostalgic desire.

The pine tree in Ninagawa’s Cymbeline managed to refer to two different things. It indicates hope and resilience in its reference to the miraculous pine tree in Rikuzen Takata. Simultaneously, it also points at the lingering, Beckettian after-end in the form of the traditional pine tree in noh plays, more specifically in Matsukaze, imploding the longing for any imminent closure. It appears that we will have to keep on fabricating many different ends in our unending process of ending.[7]


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[1] Manabu Noda is Professor at Meiji University, Tokyo, Japan. As a theatre critic and researcher, he has written on British and Japanese acting and theatre history. He is currently on the editorial board of the Theatre Arts (IATC Japan).
[2] Hisato Fujiwara, “Drawing Theatre to the post-3/11 Milieu” (Butai-wo shinsaigo-ni hikitsukete),Theatre Arts, 48 (Autumn, 2011), pp. 72-77.
[3] Gen’ichiro Takahashi, Koisuru Genpatsu (The Nuke Plant in Love) in Gunzo, LXVI (November 2011), pp. 6-131 [106].
[4] Shakespearean references in this paper are to William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. by Peter Alexander (London & Glasgow: Collins, 1951).
[5] “Like this insubstantial pageant, faded’: Eschatology and Theatricality in The Tempest,” Literature and Theology,18 (December 2004), 371-82 [p. 382].
[6] Asahi Shimbun (Tokyo edition), 13 September 2011.
See http://www.asahi.com/national/update/0912/TKY201109120509.html (as of 26 May 2012).
[7] This article is based on the two presentations I made. One is for the colloquium entitled “Theatre beyond the Theatre” at the occasion of the 26th Congress of the International Association of Theatre Critics (Warsaw, 26-30 March 2012). The other one is for the Seminar on Shakespeare: Great Shakespearean Adventures on Romanian and Foreign Stages (Craiova, Romania, 28-29 April 2012) at the occasion of Craiova International Shakespeare Festival 2012. I would like to thank my CS editorial colleagues, especially Savas Patsalidis and Mark Brown, who are the editors of the Conference Papers section, for giving me permission to publish this paper in the Special Topic section.

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Trying to Give Shape to an Unending End: Post-3/11 Theatre in Tokyo