“Living” Beyond “Correctness”: Words, Enemies, and Media. Interview with Misaki Setoyama

By Tomoka Tsukamoto* and Ted Motohashi**

As the first of a series of interviews with Japanese female playwrights, we spoke with Misaki Setoyama, one of the leading opinion formers in the contemporary Japanese theatre world. Setoyama’s plays, rooted in actual events, depict the relationship between individuals and society, revealing the pervasive corruption of the media and the violence involved with the ideology of “correctness” in modern society. At the core of her work lies a yearning for the inherent freedom of “life” itself. (Interview date: April 23, 2024)

Misaki Setoyama: Courtesy of Misaki Setoyama
On the Current State of Japanese Theatre

You assumed the presidency of the Japan Playwrights’ Association in March 2022. In the male-dominated Japanese theatre world, a woman in her 40s becoming president represents a significant change. As someone who has won numerous domestic theatre awards and is a leading figure in the Japanese theatre scene, how do you view the current state of Japanese theatre and your position?

Misaki Setoyama: This is my second term as president of the Japan Playwrights’ Association, but I’m not the first female president, as Ai Nagai[1] and Eri Watanabe[2] have previously served in this role. However, being in my 40s, I am relatively young for a president. Currently, more than half of the Association’s core directors and elected council members are women, which can be seen as progress. However, leadership positions in specialized committees, such as education and international exchange, are still dominated by men, reflecting the reality that it remains challenging for female playwrights to build their careers. In Japan, it is still common for wives to be the primary caregivers, making it difficult for women to balance childcare and playwriting. Of course, this gender gap is a problem in Japanese society as a whole, which needs to change. I believe that theatre should contribute to this change.

Regarding the state of Japanese theatre, after the COVID-19 pandemic, even commercially successful urban theatre companies have been hit hard. Leading one’s own company and creating new works has become increasingly difficult for young theatre practitioners. Therefore, there is a growing need for public theatres to employ emerging creators. Despite the pandemic, the demand for the performing arts has not disappeared. To ensure that audiences can choose from diverse performances, supporting young artists is an urgent task.

Personally, I stage works across various genres, including commercial theatre, productions by established theatre companies, public theatres in Tokyo and regional areas, and collaborative creations with local communities. The genres range from straight plays to full-scale musicals. I find it interesting to engage with different genres, and staging plays in regional areas allows me to relativize my work. Ideally, I want audiences to experience a diverse range of works. However, there is an increasing tendency for audiences to attend only performances by their favorite genres or companies. While there are many challenges, I believe the essence of theatre lies in diversity, and I aim to continue to transcend these boundaries without giving up.

On Creative Style

Your play Their Enemy,[3] which has been translated into English, is based on the 2008 kidnapping of Japanese university students in Pakistan.[4] After their release, the students faced an intense backlash from the public and were criticized by a weekly magazine for engaging in “irresponsible” behavior — not based on facts. In this play, you masterfully depicted one of the students becoming a paparazzi photographer while facing criticism from the weekly magazine, illustrating the societal pressures of “self-responsibility” and “conformity” deeply rooted in contemporary Japanese society. What motivates you to create works based on actual events? Could you share your thoughts on your creative style and themes?

My style of writing plays based on thorough research into actual events may stem from my experience as a writer. There are similarities between compiling interview manuscripts and writing lines for a play. What I learned from working as a writer is the importance of primary research. For Their Enemy, the protagonist’s name was changed to Sakamoto in the play, but he is based on the photographer Takayasu Hattori, whom I had known previously. I didn’t realize his connection to the event until later. After deciding to write the play, I spent around two years listening to his account. There were things he could only reveal after a long time, and meeting with other people involved allowed me to depict the same event from different perspectives. I believe that it is only through this thorough research process that one can transcend reality and achieve the dramatic quality necessary for a play.

During interviews, there is often a tendency for the subjects to present a polished and embellished version of their stories. While it would be ideal to hear their candid thoughts, there may be things they prefer not to disclose. As an interviewer, one bears a responsibility that can impact the subject’s life. It is not enough merely to consume their life story as a narrative. That is why I believe it is essential to empathize with the interview subjects’ feelings.

The themes of “self-responsibility” and “conformity pressure” are crucial to me. It seems that Japanese society harbors a sentiment of resentment towards those who are happy, a certain social atmosphere. I want to depict these collective emotions in my writing. Furthermore, the “self-responsibility” doctrine has created a situation where failure is perceived as a threat to one’s entire life, discouraging individual challenges. I started writing plays to liberate myself from constraints, which is why my works repeatedly portray the hope of individuals attaining freedom. I want to fight against anything that impedes personal freedom.

Their Enemy. Photo: Takayasu Hattori
On Enemies / The Violence of Justice

The question “Who or what is the ‘enemy’?” seems to underlie many of your works. For example, in your adaptation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, titled Peter Stockmann,[5] you followed the original storyline while changing the gender of the protagonist Peter to female (keeping the name) and introducing a new detail that his father was a politician. This change highlighted the patriarchal societal structure underlying An Enemy of the People and exposed not only the elitist violence inherent in Thomas Stockmann’s  “justice” but also the violent nature of the media pandering to populist politics. Many of your works seem to grapple with the conflict of how to confront the problems of real society without succumbing to the violence inherent in “justice.” What underpins this struggle, and what does the theme of “enemy” represent for you?

Ultimately, for human beings, the enemy may be oneself. There are no perfect saints or villains in this world, and the distinction between minority and majority can shift depending on the situation. Human beings are complex entities. The concept of “justice” can also harbor violence at times.

When I read An Enemy of the People, I felt a sense of dissonance with the heroic aspects of the protagonist, Thomas. I was particularly struck by the line where he does not remember the name of the maid, revealing that he does not see the people within his own household as individuals. He excludes even his wife from his social circle. Thomas’s social consciousness is narrow and male-centric, as he dismisses his brother Peter as a “pitiful man sipping cold tea,” effectively excluding him from their community. By changing Peter’s gender to female, I could more clearly depict the person who is excluded and unable to enter the male-centric structure. This clarified Thomas’s deception and precariousness. Additionally, as Peter is both a woman and a politician, it allowed for a more complex portrayal of the minority-majority structure.

When writing, I was conscious of the dangers of populist politics. In reality, I incorporated the speeches of Japanese populist politicians in the dialogue. Such politicians are skilled in using media strategies to create images. They are adept at stimulating people’s insecurities and creating imaginary enemies to rally supporters. The unhealthy relationship between Japanese populism and the media has exceeded reasonable bounds.

To consider the protagonist of Their Enemy, the relationship is not that of a victim becoming a perpetrator, but rather, victims can also become perpetrators. They may lash out to regain their lost confidence after being attacked. Human emotions work in such a way that attacks do not arise suddenly but accumulate from a sense of insecurity and past experiences of being attacked. Therefore, the “enemy” is not only an external opposing entity but also an untrustworthy and insecure aspect within oneself.

Peter Stockmann. Photo: Futoshi Sakauchi
Commitment to Gender

As the president of the Playwrights’ Association, you have been actively working to improve the gender balance and address harassment issues in the Japanese theatre world. In your playwriting and directing works, such as Peter Stockmann, you seem to depict the distortions and violence caused by a male-dominated society by changing the gender of the characters. In the contemporary Noh play collection Kofukuron (Theory of Happiness),[6] based on the original Noh play Dojoji,[7] the female protagonist has been changed to a male medical student in a modern context. Additionally, in Me, and War,[8] you introduce the unfamiliar concept of female soldiers in Japan. Through these gender alterations, the well-known phrase “the personal is political” seems to be transformed into “the political is personal.” Could you share your thoughts on this gender consciousness in your dramaturgy?

As to “The political is ascribed to the personal”, in my 2009 play Emotional Labor,[9] I depicted the gender perspective by having two women join a remittance fraud group, questioning why it should be called an “Ore-Ore scam” (referring to oneself as “I” in a masculine way) and not an “Atashi-Atashi scam” (referring to oneself as “I” in a feminine way). Until then, many of the works I had seen in Japan were described from a male perspective and value system, and I felt they were “not for me.”

Therefore, I have a desire to change the current situation, where female protagonists are scarce in Japanese theatrical works. Not only could I not empathize with the personal and sentimental stories of the predominantly male protagonists, but I also began questioning how women who were sacrificed in the shadows were being ignored.

However, I have not intended simply to swap genders between characters. In Peter Stockmann, I wanted to expose the deception of a liberal man. In Kofukuron, based on the Noh play Dojoji where a woman turns into a serpent out of resentment toward a man, I changed the protagonist from a woman to a male medical student. In this case, I wanted to liberate women from being symbolized as embodiments of resentment and revenge. Even though men can also harbor resentment in reality, in theatre, it’s always women who go mad, which I couldn’t accept. I titled it Kofukuron (Theory of Happiness) because I wanted to depict the fate of people imprisoned through pursuing “happiness.”

Theory of Happiness. Photo: Shinji Hosono

In Me, and War, I portrayed female soldiers because I wanted to consider war at a personal, individual level. Not just in this work, one of the reasons I change characters to women is that I want to make distant events feel like “my own story.” While writing Me, and War, I was inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s War’s Unwomanly Face, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It contained depictions of war that had never appeared in works written by men, and I realized that even similar events are perceived completely differently from a woman’s perspective, so I wrote about war from the viewpoint of a female soldier. The comma in the title Me, and War was meant to create distance between the individual and war. I wanted to show that human beings are far richer and have more possibilities than war.

I plan to continue re-reading classical works with gender alterations, and on top of that, I want to write new original works for people living today.

Me, and War. Photo: Atsushi Yokota
Media and Language

From the weekly magazine in Their Enemies to the newspaper in Peter Stockmann, you seem to have an interest in how the media handles language. She Who Laughs at Her intertwines the coverage of the 1960 student protest where university student Michiko Kamba was killed during the Ampo struggle against the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty[10] and interviews with victims of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami a decade later, both portrayed through the same news reporter character. This play directly depicts the “death” of newspaper media. While the decline and deterioration of the media is often discussed in contemporary Japan, how do you view the role of theatrical “language” in such a situation?

She Who Laughs at Her deals with the Michiko Kamba incident, but I wanted to write more about the media than the incident itself. I learned that at the time, seven major newspaper companies issued a joint statement denouncing the student movement, which I thought was an abnormal thing to do. In 2021, when I was writing the play, I felt strongly about the media control exerted by the Shinzo Abe administration and its successive governments, but I realized that the same thing had happened during the administration of Abe’s grandfather, Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, in 1960. I wanted to write about these two eras under the two prime ministers. If Japan was at war until 1945, and this kind of government media control occurred in 1960, I have doubts about whether the media ever functioned properly as a critical medium in Japan. Especially in these two periods, I felt that the media was not functioning at all, so I wanted to connect them. Even now, government control over the media continues. Currently, it is still mostly middle-aged and elderly people who vote in elections, and television has a huge influence on them. However, television has no intention of delivering proper information. I truly find this terrifying, and the generation that has grown up witnessing this situation has become accustomed to not voicing any objections, despite feeling a sense of discomfort. It’s a state of complete brainwashing.

Language has tremendous power to brainwash people into not thinking, as well as to create enemies. I believe that even war occurs because language exists. Theatre is also a form of linguistic art, so I think it could contain violence too. One aspect of theatrical practice is to present this terrific violence in the safe space of the theatre and relativize it. However, some theatre seems intoxicated by the violence of language itself. I want to create works with the premise that uttering words is terribly fearful. Language has the power to comprehend and share reality, and to forge connections between people. The theatre exists as a place where people with different values can encounter each other through language and pursue the wisdom of mutual respect and coexistence.

I used to work as a writer, but there were things I couldn’t write in magazine media. In comparison, theatre allows more freedom of expression. In Japan today, freedom of speech is still protected in public theatres. Although the audience size for a single performance is small, I believe theatre is a medium where we can create and communicate with fewer constraints compared to other media. For this very reason, I believe we must be cautious in our handling of language.

She Who Laughs at Her. Photo: Shinji Hosono
Dramaturgy of Intersecting Multiple and Complex Time Periods

One of your playwriting techniques seems to be intersecting multiple time periods. For example, in Their Enemies, the protagonist shifts between his current life as a paparazzo and the scenes from when he was kidnapped. In She Who Laughs at Her, the same actor plays the reporter characters, depicting the generational shift between the 1960 Ampo struggle and the lingering nuclear issues in 2021. In the stage directions of She Who Laughs at Her, you write, “The past creates the present, and the present gives meaning to the past.” Why do you employ this dramaturgy of depicting the intersection of past and present?

In Their Enemies, I tried to depict how human thought does not simply progress forward in a straight line, but rather jumps across various temporal planes due to memories and emotions. I thought this would make the theme clearer than a chronological presentation. Theatre cannot sustain itself solely on the appeal of simple storytelling. Rather, I find it more interesting to present the conclusion first and then depict how it came to be. Unlike other media, theatre can instantly transition to different places and times, so it would be a missed opportunity not to take advantage of that. The intriguing aspect is that while the character’s time moves back and forth, the actor’s time moves forward. As various temporal emotional and physical burdens accumulate in the actor’s body, the essence of humanity becomes more apparent. Theatre leaves room for the audience’s imagination to fill in the gaps, so in that sense, there is value in deconstructing chronology to actively engage the viewers. I believe retaining gaps for the audience’s imagination allows for a more active viewing experience.

In the case of She Who Laughs at Her, there are two temporal axes of past and present, but time progresses forward in both. It contrasts similar events occurring in different eras.

From Critique of Neoliberalism to “Living”

At the end of Their Enemies, when the protagonist quits being a paparazzo, he says “Maybe it’s not about doing something, but choosing not to do it.” This line feels like a quiet objection to the results-oriented and progressivist outlook under contemporary neoliberal economics. Perhaps this expression of “not doing” could be rephrased as “living”? The short play The Finger,[11] performed just 8 months after the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, symbolically depicts this. A man and woman who have come to a disaster area to steal valuables find a corpse wearing an expensive ring. The man tries to cut off the finger with a cutter to take the ring, but the woman objects. In the end though, she agrees to steal the ring. But instead of cutting the finger, she gently warms and wraps her hand around it to remove the ring. Her lines “I will live,” “Steal. Steal to live,” and “I’ve decided,” and the act of joining her hand to the corpse’s, convey a resolve to live with one’s very body itself, beyond the ideology of “self-responsibility,” or putting too much value on results or rightness. Here we sense the playwright Misaki Setogayama’s trust in the medium of theatre centered on the body.

The line “Maybe it’s not about doing something, but choosing not to do it” came from advice by a dramaturg when I was considering how to end Their Enemies. This line simply shows that the protagonist’s choice not to take photos as a paparazzo leads to a “not killing.” Ending with “let’s do something” may seem powerful, but what is truly necessary in life is to take off the armor we’ve put on, to lay down our weapons. I think I write about this in various ways. People quickly arm themselves to protect themselves, but it’s important to disarm and face our neighbors. I want to assert living as simply as possible.

For example, during the Abe administration, there was the Liberal Democratic Party’s slogan of “Taking Back Japan.” When researching Their Enemies, Mr. Hattori said he wanted to regain the confidence he lost by trying river rafting again. Despite embracing a contrasting political view with Prime Minister Abe, Mr. Hattori said something similar which stuck with me. Why do people wish to “regain” the same “confidence” as before? Why is the attachment to what was lost stronger than seeking something new? At the point of “regaining,” it is backwards-looking, and obsessing over that prevents people and nations from being happy, I think. The low level of wellbeing among people living in present-day Japan is because many think they can only be happy on the axis of economic prosperity. Middle-aged and older people, especially, harbor discontent that Japan used to be more prosperous. Without their own sense of good lives, they have no way to measure their happiness besides the economy. So how can one develop their own philosophy of life?

My ideal is for people to be liberated from various things and live according to their own hearts. There’s no need to ascribe meaning to life. Moreover, people shouldn’t be made unhappy by values created by others. One of my favorite books is Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, which was also made into a film. It depicts a young man who goes alone to Alaska until his death. He is fleeing from various things, hates people, but also likes people and wants to return to them. But he dies in an accident. I’m drawn to how he followed his heart while grappling with many contradictions. It may be difficult for modern people to unburden themselves and live that way, but I at least hope the theatre can be a place where anyone can live simply, where people can face each other simply. Especially when creating theatre with community members, I feel the theatre is a place where you can be liberated from your usual social status and prejudices to build horizontal relationships, and having a role allows you to become free from your own self – this is what theatre is all about, I believe.

In contrast to “chronos” which is the chronological, linear, progressive time, we may need a sense of “aion,” the hybridized, back-and-forth time. If that is the case, it seems Ms. Setoyama as a theatre-practitioner aims not to regain something from the past in a linear fashion, but to create the future from the intersection of this composite and complex temporality.

I’m delighted you put it that way. I don’t think rich future possibilities can emerge from a singular continuum of time. Obsessing over the past tends toward progressivism, but interesting theatre cannot be made that way. I dislike sentimental plays for this reason too, I think.

Profile

Misaki Setoyama was born on November 30, 1977, in Tokyo. In 2001, she started her activities with Minamoza, where she works as writer and director. In 2016, she won the 23rd Yomiuri Theatre Award for Outstanding Work for Their Enemy (writer/director). In 2019, she received the 26th Yomiuri Theatre Award for Outstanding Director for Night, Crying, Bird (director) and Me, and War (writer/director). In 2020, she won the 27th Yomiuri Theatre Award for Outstanding Director for THE NETHER (stage play/director) and the 70th Art Encouragement Prize for Newcomers from the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology for her achievements, including THE NETHER. In 2021, she received the 28th Yomiuri Theatre Award Special Committee Prize and Outstanding Director Award for the contemporary Noh collection Theory of Happiness (co-writer/director with Ikue Osada). In 2023, she won the 48th Kikuta Kazuo Theatre Award for Slumdog $Millionaire (stage play/lyrics/director) and The Beautiful Game (stage play/director). Her recent works include People Who Laugh at Her (writer), The Death of a City (stage play/director), Narayama Bushiko (stage play/director), and more. She also writes for radio dramas, films, and TV. Setoyama continues to be involved in community workshops and creative projects.


Endnotes

[1] Ai Nagai: Playwright and director. Artistic Director of the Nito company. She is renowned for depicting issues in Japanese society through well-crafted dark comedic works, such as Got to Make Them Sing! (2005, translated by Mari Boyd in ENGEKI: Japanese Theatre in the New Millennium 1, 2015), which addresses the social issue of compulsory singing of the national anthem.

[2] Eri Watanabe: Playwright, director, and actor. She was the Artistic Director of the Gekidan 300 (Circle 300) company. Her distinctive works blend reality and fantasy, with her representative piece being Kitaro the Ghost-buster (translated by Sue Herbert in HALF A CENTURY OF JAPANESE THEATRE, 2001).

[3] Their Enemy: Directed by Misaki Setoyama, premiered in July 2013 at Komaba Agora Theatre (Minamoza). English translation Their Enemy (translated by William Andrews in ENGEKI: Japanese Theatre in the New Millennium 4, 2019).

[4] Japanese Student Hostage Crisis: In March 1991 in Pakistan, three Japanese university students were kidnapped while rafting. One was released a few days later, and the remaining two were safely released about 40 days after.

[5] Peter Stockmann: Directed by Misaki Setoyama, premiered in February 2022 at Kichijoji Theatre (Natori Office).

[6] “Contemporary Noh Collection Theory of Happiness:” Directed by Misaki Setoyama, premiered in November 2020 at Theatre Tram. It questions the notion of “happiness” by depicting a family unable to escape the shackles of success and patriarchy under neoliberal capitalism.

[7] Dōjōji: A Noh play in which a woman, consumed by jealousy over a man’s affections, transforms into a serpent and burns the man and the temple bell with her flames of resentment. Despite this, her obsession does not dissipate until a monk’s prayers finally cause her to disappear into a river.

[8] Me, and War: Directed by Misaki Setoyama, premiered in December 2018 at The Suzunari (Ryuzanji Office). It depicts war from a female perspective by interconnecting fragmented memories of two “returnees,” Yuri (female) and Ryuji (male), revolving around them.

[9] Emotional Labor: Directed by Misaki Setoyama, premiered in August 2009 at Sunmall Studio (Minamoza).
Remittance Fraud: A crime that defrauds unspecified individuals of cash by using fictitious or other people’s mobile phones, bank accounts, etc. “Ore-ore Fraud” is a type where the perpetrator impersonates the victim’s son to extort money from parents, reflecting Japan’s patriarchal family structure favoring sons over daughters.

[10] 1960 Anpo Protests: The 1959-1960 (Showa 35) movement in Japan opposing the revised US-Japan Security Treaty. During protests at the National Diet Building in June, a university student, Michiko Kamba, was killed in clashes with police.

[11] The Finger premiered in November 2011 at Nakano The Pocket (Minamoza). 


*Tomoka Tsukamoto is a theatre critic and a member of IATC (International Association of Theatre Critics). She received her MA in Drama Studies from Nihon University in 1996. Her publications include a book on Miyagi Satoshi’s theatre, and most recently an essay on Miyagi’s works, “Gender, Ecology, and Theatre of Catastrophe: The Apocalyptic Vision and the Deconstruction of Western Modernity in Satoshi Miyagi’s Demon Lake,” Critical Stages 26 (December 2022). 

**Ted Motohashi is Professor of Cultural Studies at the Tokyo University of Economics. He received his D.Phil. in Literature from the University of York, UK in 1995. His publications include several books on drama, cultural and postcolonial studies, and most recently he published ‘“Our Perdita is found”: The Politics of Trust and Risk in The Winter’s Tale Directed by Satoshi Miyagi’ in Shakespeare and the Political: Elizabethan Politics and Asian Exigencies, edited by Rita Banerjee and Yulin Chen (Bloomsbury, 2024). He is a leading translator into Japanese of works by Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Rey Chow, Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky and others.

Copyright © 2024 Tomoka Tsukamoto and Ted Motohashi
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN:2409-7411

Creative Commons Attribution International License

This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email