The twin natural disasters of the earthquake and tsunami, known in Japan as 3/11, throw a long shadow across Ami Theatre’s latest production, Silent Rain in the Neander Forest. This experience brought home to Japanese people the possibility of the end of the human race, playwright Okamura Yojiro claims.
In the northern district of Tokyo, down narrow lanes past a Buddhist temple and several Shinto shrines is Theatre Babylon, a small black box studio and home to Ami theatre. The work artistic director, playwright and actor Okamura Yojiro creates is unusual, combining central principals of noh theatre, one of Japan’s traditional performance arts dating back to Zeami in the fourteenth century, with contemporary experimental work. The work does not attempt to modernise noh in the way dramatists, like Colin Teevan in the UK, have tried to in recent years. Rather, it finds an effective synthesis between striking linguistic imagery, slippage of time, and slowed down movement.
This is not a production with a chronological narrative, or what could be defined as ‘characters’. It is minimal and sparse, made predominantly of separate monologues by three speaking actors who appear on stage, and a fourth, Kazuko Shimazu, whose melodic voice in the shadows interweaves between, commenting and montaging.
The opening chilling monologue, performed by Yojiro, speaks of ‘a destroyed town spread before me like a flashback’ and a tram which will never come, for ‘I had seen it sucked into darkness. Where did the wind come from?’ In an astonishing and effecting dialogue with Yojiro, Rino Nakajima plays a ten year old schoolgirl meeting with her murderer in the forest of extinction. ‘I no longer feel pain,’ she says. In a third strand Yurika Sakaira recounts an unrequited relationship and unintended suicide, where figures meet ‘at the desperate border/Between life and death.’ ‘Having lost my body,’ Shimazu’s voice says from the darkness ‘…I want to share with you…. The fact that such nothingness is/The fundamental nothingness of living.’
Violence, both natural and man-made permeates the script. The impact of World War Two, 3/11, individual acts of murder and terrorist activities of 1995 all haunt this intimate performance, as do the human figures reduced to shadows unable to fade away following the dropping of the bomb at Hiroshima. ‘They say it no longer has a human form,’ Yojiro says in the opening speech, ‘it is a weakness more frightening than an act of murder.’
A fourth figure appears on stage, Takuzo Kubikuri, whose silent presence undulating between the separate sections acts as a dramaturgical thread, drawing all together. He sways, like the wind through corn, or a boatman crossing water, and as he weaves through space it becomes apparent he is Sanzu-no-kawa – the Buddhist equivalent of the boatman on the River Styx.
This is serious work, with serious intent, and in Mari Boyd’s fine translation, despite the heft of its subject matter it is not depressing, but offers the possibility of redemption.
The production is sumptuous in its starkness. The dramatic play between light and shadow create stunning visual images, almost mirages, as when Sakaira slowly tilts her head, and the contrast between brilliant light and deep shadow combined with diffused light spilling through the brim of her white hat raises the ghost of a mushroom cloud. Yojiro trained with renowned noh actor Hideo Kanze, and the physical discipline is reflected in the precision and delicacy with which his female actors move.
Like the work of the Japanese playwright Ota Shogo and Samuel Beckett’s late short plays, the work explores a form of Quietude – providing a rich sensorial experience for the audience. In scholar and translator Mari Boyd’s excellent book ‘The Aesthetics of Quietude’, she defines Quietude as passivity in art: By not forcing a meaning or narrative onto the audience, paradoxically the audience is more active imaginatively, invited to participate in the creation of meaning and pleasure.
Here, the slowed down movements of the actors, combined with the silence and stillness in performance opens up an imaginative space for the audience – it is meditative, demanding, and ultimately fulfilling. The atmosphere and focus can create an almost liminal state, where this audience member was balanced on the edge of dreaming.
Towards the end of this intense theatrical experience, Yojiro seeks to create a sense of time when there was no division or individuality – no me, you, I, he, they. In his final monologue, delivered in the audience, the barrier between spectacle and spectator blurs, He sits with us and we all look at the lit bare stage, which takes on more significance than Peter Brooke’s Empty Space. With the evasive imagery of mist, shadow and sand, it is as if we are all on a beach, collectively facing the incoming tide – whether that wave is deadly or benign we are united, witnessing, ready to deal with the future and what may come.
Kaite O’Reilly was in Tokyo with The Llanarth Group, on a cultural exchange with Ami Theatre exploring facets of Quietude, supported by Wales Arts International and the Daiwa Foundation.