Gender, Ecology, and Theatre of Catastrophe: The Apocalyptic Vision and the Deconstruction of Western Modernity in Satoshi Miyagi’s Demon Lake

Tomoka Tsukamoto* and Ted Motohashi**

Abstract

Given the current context of global environmental crisis and the importance of ecologically motivated performances which also address gender identity, we propose to analyze Miyagi Satoshi’s production of Izumi Kyoka’s Yashagaike (Demon Lake), Shizuoka Performance Arts Center, first staged in Shizuoka, Japan, in 2008 and revised and restaged most recently in January 2022. We focus on Miyagi’s production of Kyoka’s play because of the relationship of trust developed between the two female protagonists, Yuri and Princess Shirayuki, on one hand, and the relationship of exploitation between these witch-like women and the village community, dominated by its male members, on the other hand; these interactions reveal the centrality of gender in a critical investigation of ecology within any given culture. In other words, Kyoka’s apparent criticism of modernity is enhanced by Miyagi’s sharp yet nuanced concern for feminism and its resistance to traditional expressions of masculinity, both historical and contemporary, as part of his broader interest in ecologically conscious theater in general.

Keywords: catastrophe, western modernity, possession, promise, myth, landscape

Izumi Kyoka (1873–1939) was a novelist and dramatist who wrote in pseudo-classical Japanese languages, thereby reflecting his critical stance on Japanese modernity that relied primarily on elements of Western civilization, beginning from the time when Japan opened to the outside world at the Meiji Restoration in 1868, after 200 years of isolation during the Edo period. Yashagaike (1913) is set in a remote village in northern Japan where a legend still survives of the dragon god living in a mountain lake.

The play deals with tensions aggravated by an environmental crisis which divided native villagers and urban scholars, men and women, humans and nonhuman creatures, as well as modern civilizations and those which live by ancient beliefs. Miyagi’s production highlights the tensions created by ecological issues in a spectacular vision, involving a prophetic relationship between the female protagonist and the female dragon god residing in the lake, and the final catastrophic flood which engulfs the entire region. Through a detailed analysis of this staging, we investigate current theoretical and practical concerns about environmental issues that can be collectively and cross-culturally shared among us. By viewing ecologically conscious theatrical works such as those created by Miyagi, the audience is sensitized to the critical relationship between gender and ecology, and also between Western modernity and ancient legends of Japan.

Miyagi and Ecology

Satoshi Miyagi, the General Artistic Director of Shizuoka Performing Arts Center (SPAC), is a theatre director whose ecological concerns have influenced the entire span of his career. More recently, however, he has sharpened his focus on ecological themes, inspired by a general interest in contemporary socioeconomic problems and guided by the specific goal for his company to portray the repose of the dead soul (see our interview with Miyagi in Critical Stages vol. 25).

Satoshi Miyagi. Photo: Ryota Atarashi

However, Miyagi’s theatrical work does not focus strictly on ecological issues; indeed, his oeuvre is embedded within the broader global environment, and his works have highlighted consistently the relationship between human beings and the natural and constructed settings in which they act, experience, learn and think. That is to say, Miyagi’s theatre probes both social and philosophical issues: his work explores questions of how human beings can live more meaningfully.

In broader terms, ecological writing could be defined as a type of discourse which elaborates the practices of protecting the natural ecosystems of the seas, mountains and forests, as well as the restrictions which limit overdevelopment of natural settings for commercial profit. Nevertheless, as Miyagi points out in the above-referenced interview, an ecological paradox arises in that only those who have experienced devastation due to unconstrained development would know the worthlessness of what has been gained at the expense of entire ecosystems and their inhabitants. In this light, it might be useful to consider ecology as a network of relationships between humans and their natural environment. In particular, ecological thought views the human self as other, given gender and ethnicity as socio-politically motivated distinctions, national and colonial aspirations to rule by force and widespread environmental destruction unleashed by greedy corporate institutions.

In addition to Yashagaike, we also aim to analyze various representative productions by Satoshi Miyagi, proposing that the theatre must foreground ecology not only to raise consciousness of pressing environmental problems, but also to introduce a new approach to ecological discourse through theatrical interventions.

Western Modernity and Catastrophic Peripeteia in Yashagaike

We begin by focusing on Miyagi’s production of Yashagaike, which premiered in 2008 and has since been restaged many times, most recently at Shizuoka Arts Theater in January 2022; the music was composed by Hiroko Tanagawa, the scenery designed by Eri Fukazawa and the costumes designed by Toru Takeda. This play, inspired by a popular legend of a woman incarnate as dragoness, was written in 1913 by Izumi Kyoka. One of the greatest novelists in Japanese modernism, Kyoka is best known for his tales of the supernatural and uncanny which blend elements of Japanese folktales and Western realism. His seemingly aesthetic narratives adopt the Japanese traditional aesthetic sense yet also incorporate incisive criticism against the rapid and forceful process of Japanese modernization since the Meiji Restoration, in which the pre-modern was both marginalized and manipulated.

Kyoka is a favorite dramatist for Miyagi; his repertoire includes Kyoka’s Tenshu Monogatari (The Tale of Castle Tower), which premiered in 1996 and has subsequently been restaged on many occasions. Tenshu Monogatari, written by Kyota during the First World War, depicts a supernatural love affair between a young samurai falconer and a beautiful enchantress living in the Shirasagi Castle tower.

Before analyzing Miyagi’s production of Yashagaike, we will briefly comment on his play Tenshu Monogatari, since both works share a critical view of nationalism and jingoism. In 2003, Miyagi was due to start his American tour when the United States launched the invasion of Iraq on March 19. He thought of canceling the tour but reconsidered after an American professor wrote to him imploringly, “Please do not cancel this tour, as we need your theatre now.” Reflecting upon this experience, Miyagi wrote:

Tenshu Monogatari was originally written in 1917, right in the middle of the First World War. At the end of the play, a demon-like sculpture, a possible prototype of Kyoka’s alter ego, appears and says disparagingly to a group of soldiers who try to kill the lovers, “Even in wartime, butterflies dance, and flowers blossom. You idiots!” I wondered how the American audience would receive this play in a country that had just instigated a war. . . . Once a war starts, even a society that has so far permitted multiple values and standards would prioritize the powerful, which is the value judgment on the battlefield. Hence in wartime, men dominate women, and arms hold priority to the natural environment. . . . Kyoka was unique in that he discovered beauty in a measurement other than that of power, strength, progress, and masculinity, at a time when Japan itself was engaged in war. . . . Izumi Kyoka, who revealed beauty in these things which held neither power nor dominance in his own time, now presents us with the precious importance of maintaining the multiple values―this is what I was thinking during the current rehearsal of Yashagaike.

“Director’s Note” 21
Tenshu Monogatari. Photo: K. Miura

The story of Yashagaike is based on a memoir of Gakuen Yamazawa, a university professor and Buddhist priest who collects Japanese folktales. One day, Gakuen visits Shikami, a village in the Echizen country, presently a part of the Niigata Prefecture in northern Japan. During his visit, Gakuen meets his one-time fellow student, Akira Hagiwara, who lives in the village with a local woman named Yuri. A few years earlier, Akira had also come to the village for the purpose of collecting local stories. At that time, Akira met an elderly man who had been responsible for striking the temple bell three times a day for fifty years; the old man told Akira the following legend.

Long ago, a battle took place in the village between man and water. A flood was on the verge of washing away the village when a holy man used his spiritual power to confine a dragon spirit inside the village lake. The dragon spirit willingly agreed to sacrifice its freedom to save the villagers from drowning, provided that a bell be cast and hung in the valley below. The dragon spirit instructed the holy man: “Strike the bell three times a day to rouse me and remind me of my promise. The moment one forgets to strike the bell, a huge wave will rush down from Yashagaike, and all the towns and villages in the valley will be submerged underwater.” After relating these instructions to Akira, the holy man died suddenly, but before he died, he begged Akira to succeed him as the bell keeper. At first, Akira asked the villagers for help, but since no one believed in the legend, he decided to abandon the bell. Akira was about to leave the village when he met Yuri, a local woman. As she appeared to be lonely and in need of company, Akira took pity on her, and from that time onward, Akira, along with Yuri, took responsibility for ringing the bell.

The play’s characters are divided between the human community and the supernatural inhabitants of Lake Yashagaike. The principal character of the lake is Princess Shirayuki, the demoness of Yashagaike. She longs to leave the lake in order to find the one she loves, the Prince of Kengamine, but her Regent, the Princess’s godmother, reminds her that if she leaves the lake, the village will be immersed in water. Shirayuki, ignoring her godmother’s warning, is about to leave the lake, but when she hears Yuri singing, she remembers her promise to stay in the lake.

While Akira and Gakuen are out of the house visiting the lake, the villagers come to capture Yuri to sacrifice her for a rainmaking rite, following a local practice of offering the most beautiful village woman to the dragon god of the lake for rain. Yuri is about to be taken away when Akira and Gakuen return to confront the villagers. In the middle of the ensuing skirmish, Yuri kills herself. In despair and anger, Akira cuts the rope that holds the bell and kills himself too. A massive flood ensues, and the whole village, along with its inhabitants, sinks under water. Thus relieved from her commitment, Shirayuki leaves Lake Yashagaike to find Prince Kengamine, suggesting that “this new lake of the bell will be the underwater home to the beautiful couple.” Gakuen, a solitary figure, joins his hands in prayer and leaves.

As shown in the above synopsis, the play opens with an image of the young couple living peacefully in the natural habitat, in harmony with tenets of the ancient legend, and ends with the environmental catastrophe resulting from human hubris. As we explore Miyagi’s production of this play in the context of his ecological concerns, we identify the key eco-critical themes of possession, storytelling, promise, war, myth and landscape, and we analyze the development of these themes in the production, as all are integral to Miyagi’s theatrically ecological vision.

Possession

Although the play narrates a traditional folktale compounded by the story of a natural disaster, it also explores the distinctly modern question of how human communities relate to natural bodies of water: who possesses water, and how much water do people need to survive? The play starts with a tranquil dialogue between Akira and Yuri over the value of water: “Akira: The water’s so lovely. It’s always so…so lovely. / Yuri: Yes.”[1]

Before this dialogue, Miyagi’s production, crucially and impressively, creates a serene and other-worldly tableau behind a transparent curtain, in which Akira and Yuri, dressed in white from head to toe, embrace and jump into the water as if they were committing a double suicide as a pair of unrequited lovers. The engrossing motif of water continues with the following dialogue between the lovers:

Akira: Yuri, my love, touch one of these moonflowers.
Yuri: Touch? Where . . . I mean, how?
Akira: Just feel the dew on the petals and leaves.
Yuri: Ah, it’s so cold!
Akira: People in the outside world cannot live without money, without land or rain. But, for you and I, the dew on these flowers is enough. With our dew we could survive a hundred days of blazing sun and not wither.

Izumi 14

Though private and peaceful, this opening exchange between Yuri and Akira highlights socio-political tensions between the marginalized outsiders and the local villagers who have been suffering from severe drought. Miyagi as a director is extremely skillful in suggesting a larger socio-historical context of the work; in this case, the fear of natural disasters among the Japanese rural people and their collective reactions to their fears through communal rites and rituals. However, he does so not by overtly depicting the political conflicts but by delicately invoking, on the one hand, the solitary presence of the pair of lovers—one a scholar from Tokyo, the other an orphan of the local Shinto priest—and the masculine and mediocre stances of the villagers, on the other hand. As an indication of Miyagi’s directorial ingenuity to highlight the contrast between the mundane villagers and the unworldly pair of lovers, Miyagi dresses Akira and Yuri in white wigs, thus suggesting that they have somehow already departed the world of the living, even as they continue to live out their solitary existence at the margins of the human community.

Kyoka is said to have based his play on the legend of Yashagaike, set deep in the mountains between Fukui and Gifu prefectures in the northwest of Japan. The lake has been recognized since ancient times as a place of worship for those who pray for rain. Clearly, ecological concerns over drought and flood have always been prominent among those who work in agriculture. In this play, the villagers adopt a modern, more skeptical attitude toward the ancient legend concerning the dragon princess and her promise regarding the ringing of the bell, while they collectively observe their pre-modern taboo against the lake, keeping their distance from the lake. However, the recent severe drought leads them in desperation to take Yuri captive for the sacrificial rite. The contrast between the lovers and the villagers is not simply binary but complex. On the one hand, Akira is a son of urban aristocracy educated in the traditions of modern scholarship, who still believes in the ancient legend because of his affection for the deceased bell-keeper and the forlorn young woman who now dedicates herself to him. On the other hand, the villagers, despite their different backgrounds in education and social status, generally ignore the legend itself and act in unity to take advantage of Yuri’s special trait associated with the dragon princess, as some believe her to be an incarnation of a snake. Kyoka was quite sensitive to this complexity in terms of the gender, racial and class discriminations, which reflect contradictions in modern Japan since the Meiji Restoration in 1868. This shift is regarded by many as the impetus for Japan’s forceful participation in the global politico-economic-cultural system, as the country rapidly tried to emulate the Western model in its colonial attempts to marginalize women, members of minority cultures, social outcasts and the Asian national neighbors. 

From the villagers’ point of view, Akira and Yuri, who believe and follow the legend of the lake, are outsiders and thus are likely targets of contemporary natural crises such as drought. Therefore, the fundamental contrast is not between that of the modern and the pre-modern but in the two different attitudes toward water. As seen in the above dialogue between Akira and Yuri, the pair follow a lifestyle in which “the dew on these flowers is enough.” They distance themselves from a modern manipulative attitude toward natural resources by not allowing the water’s blessings to be transformed into a possessive desire. They are, in fact, the lifelines of the village; by keeping the bell and observing the legend, they know that no one has an exclusive right to water.

The opening of the play, despite its beguilingly supernatural appearances, poses a fundamental ecological question regarding the possession of natural resources, leading us to reflect on the origin of recent regional wars in Africa and the Middle East, in which the scarcity of water has contributed significantly to the escalation of ethnic conflicts. Can we say, in any sense, that water belongs to someone? Perhaps our entire ecological consciousness will be transformed as we start to consider how the “dew” is translated into “money, land or rain.”       

Storytelling 

The second ecological theme this play highlights is the role of storytelling. In the following excerpt, Akira tells his fellow scholar Gakuen how he came to visit the village and become part of the local folktale.

Akira: I came here to hike through the North Country and collect old folktales. But, as it turns out, I myself have become a story. You know, a witch could take a mountain and carry it to the sea. She could turn a man into a tree or into a rock. She could take that rock and turn it into a leaf, then into a frog. Just by being here, the same thing has probably happened to you—you’ve turned into a character in a story. I’m one step ahead of you, though I am the story itself.

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In this remarkable confession, Akira reveals a social tension between the modern scientific scholarship and the traditional folklore and his willingness to magically turn himself into a part of the present habitat that has fostered the tradition for a long time. A modern-day nobleman straying into a pre-modern rural village, Akira meets a solitary young woman. He had been collecting local folktales but, subsequently, became the folktale himself by means of witchcraft. Such witchcraft transforms objects and events at will, but there is no existential hierarchy in this transforming process, as a man, a leaf, a frog and a stone all have an equivalent value. As far as Akira is concerned, this route of transformation from collecting stories to listening to stories and, finally, to entering into stories and becoming stories themselves not only involves a change in his identity from an urban scholar to a rural bell-keeper, but it also entails a dissolution of the boundary between self and other. The whole process of storytelling in this play redefines the status of modern egocentric identity as an ecological reinvestment in the discovery of a profoundly novel mode of existence. This pre-modern, magical folktale is underlined by the promise which traverses the human and the supernatural, the sounds of the bell and the rhythms of the lullaby.

Promise

The third ecological motif, that of promise, is instantiated by the ancient pact observed between the local human community and the supernatural creatures in the lake. Ignoring the advice of her Regent, Princess Shirayuki is about to leave the lake for her beloved Prince of Kengamine; she stops, however, upon hearing the voice of Yuri, as she sings to a doll while Akira is away.   

Shirayuki: Nana . . . Nana, whose voice is that I hear?
Regent: It’s Yuri, the girl from the shrine.
Shirayuki: Oh, the lovely Yuri. What’s she doing, I wonder?
Regent: She’s singing a lullaby to a doll to sooth her soul while her lover, Akira, is away.
Shirayuki: Can singing beguile us when we’re separated from the one we love?
Regent: Yes, I do believe it can.

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Shirayuki, now reminded of her promise as she hears Yuri’s singing, says, “If I drown the village, this lovely creature will also cease to exist” (124). 

It is important to note that this production was not developed according to Miyagi’s trademark method of two persons in one role.[2] While the two in one method sensitizes the audience to human linguistic abilities, a key ecological point of this play is developed not by analytical linguistic communication but, rather, through holistic aural channels of bell ringing and lullaby singing, which represent the promise between human and supernatural entities. Moreover, in this production, inhabitants of the lake, monstrous incarnations of flora and fauna that serve Princess Shirayuki, are all comically played by female actors. The theatrical dominance of the female performers for the inhabitants of the lake contrasts sharply with the all-male characters of the village, whose violent intervention into the peaceful lives of Yuri and Akira will be analyzed in the next section.

During his confrontation with the villagers as they try to seize Yuri, Akira reveals thatm, in the past, another local woman, Shirayuki, also taken as a sacrificial offering for a rainmaking rite, killed herself first by jumping into the lake. Although the episode is known by everyone in the village, it has been buried deeply in the realm of the unconscious. Akira goes further to suggest that the dragon-god in Yashagaike is the incarnate figure of that same woman who sacrificed herself. Therefore, Princess Shirayuki’s affection for Yuri involves a gender dimension in which their mutual trust develops within the socio-historical context of male-centered village practices that have required the sacrifice of their female constituents. Miyagi’s gender-sensitive production represents a close connection between the pre-modern myth and the rational village lives by drawing a stark contrast between the ecological femininity of the supernatural world and the frugal masculinity of the human world.

Bound by a contract with the local people, Shirayuki cannot leave the lake to meet her lover. In that sense, although Yuri belongs to the human community which is Shirayuki’s antagonist, her sympathy for Yuri is aroused by her singing of the lullaby, which transforms a religious contract with the human community into a promise of trust between the two female counterparts who share the same forlorn feelings. At the margin of this rural community, which exploits the pre-modern custom of sacrificing minorities to strengthen the modern masculine nation, Yuri and Shirayuki, the alien and the supernatural, marginalized in terms of gender and race, unite with each other in compassion. The mutual promise of ringing and hearing the bell is based on the passive status of the two women positioned against the manipulative male community, and it amounts to the ecologically beneficial relationship between the human and the supernatural. Miyagi’s production, which sets the monsters’ laughter against the villagers’ power, dramatically highlights an alternative scale of values that contrasts to one defined as a binary of strength and weakness –which ultimately serves the nation’s war efforts.

Akira has made two complementary promises: one with the bell-keeper to succeed him, the other with the dragon of the lake to strike the bell at regular intervals—speech acts which serve to deconstruct the modern notion of contracts. As Akira and Yuri incorporate the act of striking the bell into their daily routine, their practice has fostered their humble attitude toward the natural entities and has also deepened their respect for the dead souls, as bell-striking indicates a reckoning of the deceased in Buddhist practice. At the same time, these promises revive and maintain the local legends which relate the stories of the dragon god in Yashagaike. However, these narratives also indicate the non-ecological phenomena manifested in two forms of utter destruction; namely, chronicle wars and natural disasters. Indeed, ecology does not necessarily ensure that nature is benevolent to humans and their environment; rather, it is only the promise that could possibly preserve a vital bond between the natural and the human, as this play eloquently illustrates.

War

Any form of war is by definition unecological, as its sole purpose lies in the destruction of the human and natural environment of supposed enemies. Yashagaike‘s skillful portrayal of the men’s propensity to war for their own profit is a reflection of Miyagi’s astute direction, which emphasizes the grotesque aspects of their one-dimensional unit. The aggressors are five men from the village: Takuzen, a Shinto priest and Yuri’s uncle; Kanpachi, a village councilor; Hatsuo, a schoolteacher; Kadenji, a village head; and Denkichi, a gambler. They are joined by Kozo, a Diet member who represents the prefecture. Taking advantage of Akira’s absence, they fetch Yuri and plan to sacrifice her, which they view as a rational act to save the lives of many:   

Takuzen: The villages here in the valley is out of water. You’ll be the sacrifice for rain. You, in exchange for twenty-five million bushels of rice and the lives of eight thousand people. This is a drought, and in times like these, you know what must be done. You’ve known since you were a little girl. We take the most beautiful woman of the village, strip her naked . . . and with a straw rope bind her onto the bare back of a black ox.

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Though differentiated by social hierarchy, these men are united in their carnal desire for the naked woman. Miyagi directs the male actors to hit round-fans-shaped drums in unison, producing a loud and cacophonous rhythmic sound which conveys the men’s lust for violence and Yuri’s fear far more graphically than simple words could communicate. Miyagi’s direction, which is typically attentive to the aural contrast between the physically direct noise of the drum and the broadly distanced echo of the bell, highlights the anti-ecological characteristics of the masculine propensity to gender, racial and economic violence that could readily escalate to war against alien nations.

Miyagi does not interpret Kyoka’s incisive criticism of Japan’s hasty and ambivalent westernization in terms of a simple binary between pre-modern rurality and modern urbanity within a country that had been closed to foreign nations before the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Rather, he is more concerned with how Japan was affected by Western capitalism that exploited natural resources, industrial workforces and women’s reproductive capacities, as he is aware that the critique of modern warfare should be accompanied by a historically global analysis of human desire in terms of gender, racial and class discriminations.  

The villagers’ contradictory attitudes toward the ancient legend, observing the ritual sacrifice for rain, on the one hand, and disparaging Akira’s practice of striking the bell, on the other, suggest that the pre-modern rite for rain is simply a spectacular event to entertain the visiting member of the Diet. The villagers are fundamentally anti-ecological in that they do not care about rain for crops and terrain, but they lust for power. Miyagi’s criticism of war and the resulting destruction are based on his ecological vision that war is devastating not only in terms of its actual results and consequences, but also because it fuels human desire for violence against marginalized communities and motivates the discriminatory social structure behind it. For Miyagi, ecology and war are not trendy catchphrases; they are essential issues in which theatre plays a decisive role. 

Myth

The next ecological motif to be discussed in Miyagi’s production of Yashagaike is myth or legend, which could be defined as a repetition of familiar stories. In this play, the myth-making process is represented by the double suicide of Yuri and Akira. In the first instance of suicide, Yuri, to end the scuffle between Akira and the villagers, slashes her breast with Akira’s sickle. Stunned by this act, everyone freezes, and Akira, in despair, says to the dying Yuri: “Akira: I won’t let you go alone. I’ll carry you on my back where the path is thorny. Wait for me in the otherworld” (162). Then, calmly, Akira says to Gakuen:

Akira: Um, I can tell from the stars I’ve seen every night. Exactly two in the dead of night—just as I thought. (Looks intently at the bell with his head held high) I’m thinking, Yamazawa, of not striking the bell. What do you say?
Gakuen: (Pondering for a moment) All right, don’t. Don’t strike it—for Yuri’s sake.

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With these words, Akira, setting in motion the second suicide, raises the sickle and cuts the rope that holds up the bell hammer. As Akira cuts his throat, a catastrophic earthquake, storms and floods follow, and the entire valley is swept away, along with its inhabitants. Miyagi’s staging emphasizes the joyous festive scenes of the female creatures singing and dancing, rather than the spectacle of the seismic natural disaster. This cataclysmic denouement, on the one hand, suggests the impartial cruelty of natural disasters that annihilate the innocent as well as the guilty but, on the other hand, leads us to Miyagi’s ecological vision, in which a universal myth prevails over a local legend.     

At the center of this myth, there is a crucial bond which connects Shirayuki and Yuri. During the scuffle with the villagers, Akira reminded them of a legend familiar to every villager: once upon a time, a local maiden called Shirayuki, having been taken against her will and bound naked to an ox, took revenge. She drove the same ox that carried the flaming grass on its back, and it burned the whole village. Then, she drowned herself in the lake. Now, another village woman, Yuri, facing the same fate as Shirayuki did long ago, kills herself, causing another natural catastrophe. Local legends which highlight the brutal violation of women for masculine satisfaction repeat themselves, and these tragic stories of self-sacrifice underscore the bond between the two witch-like women and awaken in the audience a sense of humility toward natural entities, living and dead. The play suggests that ecology should be concerned not only with present environmental crises but also with past historical consequences of destruction and consumption of human and natural resources. 

As Shirayuki ends the play with her proposal that “this new Lake of the Bell will be the underwater home” to Akira and Yuri, Gakuen survives and will remember and relate this story to succeeding generations. Shirayuki is leaving Yashagaike for her beloved Prince of Kengamine. In her absence, Yuri, another mythical incarnation of the ecological conflict between men and women, the modern and pre-modern, humanity and nature, will now reside in this new lake. Here, telling the story itself is an ecological act that serves to transform an actual event into a universal myth. The myth which recycles tragic stories of sacrifice offers a model of how to live ecologically.    

Landscape

The final ecological theme to be discussed, landscape, leads us to the final image presented of Yuri and Akira as lovers, through which Miyagi reconfirms their double suicide. Despite the total destruction which has preceded, Shirayuki’s last words create a sense of joyful freedom: “Shirayuki: Come with me everyone. I’m going to Kengamine. Now I’m free. Yuri, my dear, come sing with me” (166).

After Shirayuki and her retinue leave the stage, an image of absolute serenity and ecological harmony is projected. By means of a skillful lighting technique, the entwined bodies of Yuri and Akira lying lifelessly on stage seem enshrined in the deep body of water, and they remain motionless, even when other actors appear in the curtain call. A contrast is developed between the actual time of the performance and the fictional time of the lovers, which incorporates their life and death; in the ecological landscape thus created, Yuri and Akira join the underwater universe. The myth based on a mutually honored promise between human and supernatural beings follows a trajectory which surpasses the tragedy of star-crossed lovers such as Romeo and Juliet.

If ecological reasoning entails that we are also a part of the natural landscape, then we must also witness the invisible yet audible presence of death. Through his theatrical epiphany, Miyagi’s production ultimately serves as a requiem to commemorate the reposing souls of the dead; his theatrical requiem is based on an ecological philosophy as opposed to a human-centered vision, and it prioritizes departed souls at rest along with the promise of future unborn. However, Miyagi’s dramaturgy is founded not on abstract ecological ideas but on astute socio-political critique which envisions a world free of violence and discrimination. The eternal landscape absorbed in the water at the end of Miyagi’s Yashagaike is a testimony to the magic of theatrical mythmaking, which strongly resists a hierarchical relationship between the human community and their natural environment. 

To demonstrate the wide scope of Miyagi’s ecological vision, we now shift our attention to other productions by Miyagi with themes similar to those analyzed above in the discussion of Yashagaike.

The Ecological Critique of War in Grimm’s Tales: A Girl, a Devil, and a Watermill
Grimm’s Tales: A Girl, a Devil and a Watermill. Photo: K. Miura

Miyagi’s production of Grimm’s Tales, scripted by Olivier Py, was first staged in 2011, the year of the Earthquake of Eastern Japan, one of the worst ecological disasters in modern Japan, compounded by explosions at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The timing itself was a coincidence, but the ecological resonances between the production and the catastrophic incidents did not escape any member of the audience in the Shizuoka Arts Theater, as the building reverberated with aftershocks.  

The tale describes the adventurous life of a young woman whose hands are cut by her father because of a contract he has made with a devil. She, then, meets and marries a king who gives her artificial hands made of iron. While the king is away at war, the devil intervenes again and aims for their son to be killed; she escapes with her son into the forest. After returning from the war, the king searches for his wife and son, and when they are all finally united, the woman’s hands are recovered to their natural status.

Miyagi’s staging highlights the startling contrast between iron and forest, war and plants, destruction and resurrection by means of set designs that look like white folding paper. With the paper décor that is weak as opposed to iron that is supposedly strong, Miyagi’s direction emphasizes the effusive narrative of a children’s tale by letting his actors speak weakly, as if the words drop from heaven like dew. The overall effect of this so-called weak theater is to suggest that the characters’ actions are not solely controlled by individual will but are also profoundly influenced by their environment; in this case, the forest and its ecological system.[3] This non-human-centered tale assigns an alternative value to the egoistic view of humans as hierarchically positioned above the environment.

As the play raises a profound question about the human capacity to control the environment, it ultimately arouses a sense of humility and respect toward our natural environment. When the king realizes that the girl’s hands have regrown naturally in the same way as plants revitalize themselves, he declares, “From now on, we should be amazed by every miracle incident.” The production’s insistence on the sylvan capacity of eternal regeneration leads us to reflect on the history of human civilization that has repeatedly relied on wars for its so-called development. 

The Ecological Storytelling in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: K. Miura

Miyagi’s production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, adapted by Hideki Noda, also premiered in 2011, when Japanese society was still reeling from the aftermath of a massive earthquake and the ensuing nuclear disaster. Noda’s adroit adaptation adds a unique twist to the Shakespearean play in terms of the relationship between the act of storytelling and its effect on the natural habitat. One of Noda’s most inventive additions to Shakespeare’s original is the insertion of Mephistopheles, an instance of the trickster type; as an intrusive and demonic figure, Mephistopheles can transform words that other characters swallow (that is, think but without articulating) into hidden desires they do not want to admit openly. As a result, the normal progress of the play originally intended by Shakespeare descends into utter chaos, the most devastating instance of which is the burning of the forest that has fostered the harmonious world of fairies and lovers. However, this forest fire dies out as Mephistopheles’ own life history is revealed, and the play ends with a hope for regeneration.

Therefore, in this unique adaptation of what is arguably one of Shakespeare’s most ecologically conscious plays, the introduction of Mephistopheles is crucial especially because Mephistopheles is revealed to be a reincarnation of the Indian boy in Shakespeare’s original and could also represent the millions of unborn children or fully developed infants who do not survive ecological disasters. Typically for Miyagi, the so-called evil is not essentially evil; rather, anyone can be evil as a consequence of socio-historical power structures. Miyagi’s representation of Mephistopheles as an evil but socially forsaken child exemplifies this approach.

Another remarkable aspect of this production is that the stage sets are constructed from newspapers, depicting the relationship between printed words and narrativized stories, between histories and forests, as complicated and intertwined. In ecological terms, for the stories to be vital, they need an audience who will listen to them. This interdependence between orality and aurality is what distinguishes Miyagi’s production of this inventive adaptation as ecologically relevant, as it will lead us to ponder the following question: if Mephistopheles is the destroyer/savior of the forest that has fostered the fairy stories as well as the retreat for those who have been marginalized and prosecuted, how could an ecologically conscious production like Miyagi’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream contribute to our awareness not only of the swallowed words of the subaltern but also of the hidden voices of the supernatural?

The Creation of Ecological Landscape in Mahabharata: The Adventures of King Nara
Mahabharata: The Adventures of King Nara. Photo: Ryota Atarashi

Mahabharata is one of Miyagi’s most popular works, having been restaged many times in numerous venues, the most famous of which is the Boulbon quarry at the Avignon Festival in 2014. This production places Miyagi among the directors most attentive to the characteristics of space, as he once again transformed an alternative theatrical venue into ecological landscape. In contrast to Peter Brook’s illustrious epic adaptation at the same venue, which narrates the destructive feud between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, Miyagi’s theatrical production remains focused on ecological harmony and reconciliation by adapting the minor episodes which involve King Nara and Queen Damayanti. It is a type of nobleman’s travel tale, in which King Nara is deprived of his country by his brother as a result of a devil’s curse and is, consequently, separated from his wife, Damayanti. Husband and wife both acquire wisdom during their days of wandering and are finally reunited to recover the kingdom.

Miyagi’s production features a vast ring-shaped stage; all the characters, from human and deity to animal and plant, are dressed completely in white and contrast sharply against the giant stone wall of the quarry. The quarry wall functions as a screen on which the characters’ shadows are projected on a magnified scale, creating an illusion of characters emerging from the wall. The overall impression is absence of hierarchy, as Miyagi skillfully guides the play by working with the characteristics of the space rather than confronting and controlling them. Faithful to his ecological philosophy, the landscape presented in Miyagi’s Mahabharata suggests that the boundary between the theatrical space and the performing actors is both fragile and permeable.

The Ecological Inquiry of Possession in The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Epic of Gilgamesh. Photo: Jean Couturier

Miyagi’s most recent work, The Epic of Gilgamesh, first performed at the Claude Levi Strauss Theater in March 2022, presents an assemblage of his ecological concerns. The script is adapted from epic poetry which narrates pre-literate Mesopotamian tales describing the relationship between human beings and nature. Despite the title, the main focus is not on the heroic adventures of Gilgamesh; instead, Miyagi’s central concern is with the ecological issue of the ideology of possession: who owns the woods and forests in the human environment? Within the scope of this question, the contrast between human hubris and its consequences drives the action of the play. 

Assuming a definition of power as the desire for possession of communities and others, ecology aims to relativize this desire. Here, the key motifs are equilibrium and relativity, as the staging ensures that no hierarchy emerges between humans and others. For instance, the monster Humbaba, the protector of Lebanon cedars, is played by a giant doll created by Noriyuki Sawa. As manifested in this work, Miyagi’s theatre offers outstanding examples in which there is little distance between the actor and the sets, the human and the nonhuman, the written and the heard.

This relativizing principle is extremely effective, leading the audience to understand ecology not from its results or from the perspective of environmental destruction or co-habitation but, rather, according to its origins; that is to say, the inquiry into the human desire for possession. Instead of exploring co-habitation in ideological terms, this play introduces us to a theatrical landscape in which we ourselves are already a part of the natural habitat that embraces both the dead and the living souls of each and every entity.

Conclusion

In the discussion above we have considered some of Satoshi Miyagi’s representative productions, beginning with Yashagaike, his most obviously ecological work, to his latest staging, The Epic of Gilgamesh. On the basis of our study, we suggest that Miyagi’s theatrical locus may not be characterized as ecological per se in terms of so-called “nature worship” or “environmental criticism.” Instead, his productions are based on the fundamental philosophy of humility to otherness and regard selfhood as other. If we can redefine this humble attitude toward otherness as ecological, Miyagi’s theatrical endeavours have consistently deconstructed the Western ideal of modernity which assumes the human desire for domination and possession of others. 

Miyagi’s productions have offered us excellent opportunities to reexamine the humanistic value systems that forge a hierarchical order with humans at the top. For example, his Antigone, which presents the world view that allies are not divided from their enemies, is a stark testimony of Miyagi’s ultimate goal to create a theatrical space as a foundation to build a world free from violence and wars.[4] As we have discussed in other publications,[5] Miyagi’s trademark dramaturgy of the two actors in one role method derives from his fundamental doubt of the modern notion that humans maintain exclusive possession of bodies and words. If theatre is to offer a vital space to reassess our understanding of ecology, Miyagi’s dramaturgy, which aims for a non-divisive coexistence of human beings and their environments, can lead us to another level of thought and practice.

Antigone. Photo: Ryota Atarashi

Endnotes

[1] Izumi Kyoka, Demon Lake (2007), 8. Throughout this essay, the English script of the play is quoted from this edition and henceforth indicated by page numbers in brackets only.

[2] For an extensive appraisal of Miyagi’s two persons in one role method and its important role within his dramaturgy, see Tomoka Tsukamoto’s and Ted Motohashi’s “Aural/Oral Histories of Pain and Trust in Miyagi Satoshi’s Révélation.” In our interview with Miyagi, he also explains in detail how he came up with this idea of two persons in one role; see “Theatre for Humility Towards Otherness: Spirituality, Prayer and Hope: An Interview with Satoshi Miyagi” by Tomoka Tsukamoto and Ted Motohashi.

[3] For Miyagi’s reflection on the so-called weak theater, particularly regarding his own application of this theory in his production of Grimm’s Tales: A Girl, a Devil, and a Watermill, see the aforementioned interview.

[4] Miyagi’s production of Sophocles’ Antigone was first staged at the Cour d’honneur du Palais des Papes during the Festival d’Avignon in 2017, and later restaged in New York (2019) and in Shizuoka (2020).

[5] See in particular, Ted Motohashi and Tomoka Tsukamoto, “Aural/Oral Histories of Pain and Trust in Miyagi Satoshi’s Révélation.”

Bibliography

Arons, Wendy and May Theresa J. editors. Readings in Performance and Ecology. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Fragkou, Marissia. Ecologies of Precarity in Twenty-First Century Theatre: Politics, Affect, Responsibility. Methuen Drama, 2020.

Izumi, Kyoka. Demon Lake. Translated by Kimpei Ohara and Rick Broadaway, Hokuseido Press, 2007.

Kershaw, Baz. Theatre Ecology: Environments and Performance. Cambridge UP, 2007.

Lavery, Carl, editor. Performance and Ecology: What Can Theatre Do? Routledge, 2019.

Miyagi, Satoshi. “Director’s Note for Yashagaike.” Theater Culture. SPAC, January 2022, p. 12.

—. “Theatre for Humility Towards Otherness: Spirituality, Prayer and Hope: An Interview with Satoshi Miyagi by Tomoka Tsukamoto and Ted Motohashi.” Critical Stages/Scenes critiques, vol. 25, June 2022. Accessed 24 July 2022.

Motohashi, Ted, and Tomoka Tsukamoto. “Aural/Oral Histories of Pain and Trust in Miyagi Satoshi’s Révélation.” Critical Stages/ Scenes critiques, vol. 24, December 2021. Accessed 24 July 2022.

Motohashi, Tetsuya, and Tomoka Tsukamoto. Miyagi Satoshi-no Engeki Sekai. Seikyusha, 2016.

Paavolainen, Teemu. Theatre/Ecology/Cognition: Theorizing Performer-Object Interaction in Grotowski, Kantor, and Meyerhold. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Woynarski, Lisa. Ecodramaturgies: Theatre, Performance and Climate Change. Palgrave Macmillan, 2020. 


*Tomoka Tsukamoto is a theatre critic and currently serves as the General Secretary of the Japanese Section of the International Association of Theatre Critics. She received her MA in Drama Studies from the Nihon University in 1996. Her publications include a book on Miyagi Satoshi’s theatre (in Japanese), and most recently, two essays on Miyagi’s works, “Deconstructing the Saussurean System of Signification: Miyagi Satoshi and His Mimetic Dramaturgy in Miyagi-Noh Othello” (Shakespeare and Japan, edited by Graham Holderness and Bryan Loughrey, Berghahn, 2020), and “Aural/Oral Histories of Pain and Trust in Miyagi Satoshi’s Révélation” with Ted Motohashi. 

**Ted Motohashi is Professor of Cultural Studies at the Tokyo University of Economics and the incumbent President of the Japanese Section of the International Association of Theatre Critics. He received his DPhil in Literature from the University of York, U.K. in 1995. His publications include several books on drama, cultural and postcolonial studies; most recently, he edited “All the World’s His Stage”: Asian Interventions in Global Shakespeare with Poonam Trivedi and Paromita Chakravarti (Routledge, 2021). He is a leading translator into Japanese of the works by Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Rey Chow, Judith Butler and Noam Chomsky, among others. 

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