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Letter from Japan: Theatre in Fukuoka

Matthew Perkins





Reading a collection of Japanese Noh drama in translation offers an English speaker a glimpse of what the language of these plays might be like, and a few pithy stories to share. In The Damask Drum (Aya no tsuzumi) a beautiful consort sets a drum in a tree outside her palace and commands her suitor to prove his love for her by beating it. The lady knows that the flimsy drum is completely unable to produce the level of noise needed to carry to her window. When the frustrated old suitor drowns himself in despair the consort realises the lightness with which she has treated him. Royall Tyler’s translation carries across a part of her gut dropping shame: “Horror, horror/ What have I done?”

Reading a few Noh plays before coming to Japan has helped me make sense of other literature, or at least made me feel like I wasn’t totally in the realm of the unfamiliar. I felt like some of the pieces were falling into place when I learnt in a lecture about Ono no Komachi, a poet from the seventh century, who was just as cruel as the consort but, like in the play, eventually astute enough to reflect on how she had “wasted her body on affairs of the heart”. Hearing small chimings across Japan’s literary history might make you feel you’re getting somewhere. Yet in so many ways I was more than a little na√Øve to imagine reading translated novels and plays could at all prepare me for living in the country, or for the reality of the performances themselves. I just think I was lured by my own enthusiasm into expecting to understand more, faster.

I attended a medley of Noh dances and songs in the Ohori Park Noh theatre in Fukuoka. It smelled of pine and expensive cushions, a little like a church. The congregation weren’t dissimilar to a parish crowd either. There were generous clumps of very elderly audience members but, despite it being a free show, the house was very far from full. A man to my right had a Noh translation open on his knees. When I glanced over at him first he was peeling over each page in time with the singers on stage, as they too were turning the pages of their books of poetry. The next time I looked over he was asleep. The performers sung slowly from low lecterns. They sat cross-legged on the ground wearing kimono or hakama. My friends and I understood the odd word from our Japanese classes; moon, sadness and loneliness. But I wasn’t able to understand the long, slow stream of language at all. You begin listening only to end up restless, shuffling in your seat or spending your attention on worrying about dropping off to sleep. You can watch your mirror image in the shuffling and bored tics of the chorus sitting behind the soloists. They had little to do between repeating a refrain the solo performers sitting in front of them had just sung. When the chorus were about to sing they would all take their hands out of their pockets and pick up the fan in front of them with both hands. Then, with one hand, they held it loosely and let it droop to the floor like an indifferent finger on a tape recorder button.

These songs were followed by slightly shorter dances. One dance, performed by a very young boy in a yellow hakama, involved a lot of either very loud or very soft stamping. The boy, who was the only performer small enough to fit under the low doorway at the back of the stage without stooping, got his shoes caught in his robe very early on in the dance and was quickly helped by one of the chorus members. He was warmly coddled and congratulated by his grandmother and her friends in the lunch break.

This experience of watching Noh led one of my friends to describe it as one of the most inaccessible forms of art she’d ever come across. Meanwhile, a lot of Japanese contemporary theatre is not only linguistically shut off to non-native speakers but in Fukuoka, where I’m living and studying, it is simply a struggle to find venues and performances. I’m half-way through reading a play by Fujita Den, a 60s playwright, called The Amida Black Chant Murder Mystery. In Den’s play, a village cult in Northern Japan is revealed to be at the centre of a messy homicide case. Beneath the cartoon of the villagers’ stereotypically Japanese hospitality, politeness, and unity is a land-grabbing, secretly miserable society who ostracise anyone who fails to conform. I thought it would be wonderful to read plays like this and then sit in a production, even with very elementary Japanese, blinking in and out of understanding. The reality is less easy. In Fukuoka there is no single source of information to find out about theatre. One theatre producer told me that websites are born and die: they purport to be able to gather performance information, but none seem to stick.

Of course, the big shows have posters, flyers and television commercials. I was able to see a melodramatic production of the musical version of Jane Eyre featuring, very eerily, Takako Matsu as Jane–Matsu is best known for playing an icy teacher who poisons her students in the film Confessions. But a Japanese friend told me off for going to the snobby Hakata-za theatre. She told me that the only people who go to shows like Jane Eyre are tightly wrapped ladies in expensive kimono. But I didn’t know where to find anything else.

More recently, the contemporary dance I have been able to see has been frantic, dark, and expressive. Both performances I have attended have been in peripheral, tucked away venues: one in a tiny gallery space in a shopping district and another at the Edamitsu Iron Theatre, a community theatre in the shadow of a theme park. Neither performance was polished but both were bleak and angry. In some ways they were as melodramatic as Jane Eyre; the Radiohead soundtrack to ‘A Certain Place, a Certain Reality’ slightly cheapened the misery of the piece while the dancer threatening the audience in a show called ‘Body Theory Volatile’ by whirling an electric light-bulb round his head like a medieval mace quickly became silly. But I wish I had found this community theatre sooner. It has been running shows like this for the past two months, but I had no way of knowing.

I’m currently working for a local English-language magazine and compiling a theatre guide to the city and the surrounding area. There is obviously a bias in our choices towards contemporary dance and bolder more visually exciting theatre as it is more suitable for non-native speakers than Noh. But the producer who is working with me is very excited about the project and hopes that it won’t only be foreigners using the resource. At the moment, if you want to see some Japanese theatre but you’re not in the network there can be little option but the mainstream. As one artist I interviewed told me: “There is no scene!” and she added, “Japanese artists would say the same thing”. Her comment made the work I am doing feel a lot less like tourism.

Matthew Perkins read English at St Anne’s College, Oxford, from 2009 to 2012. This year he is living and studying in Japan, on a Tsuzuki scholarship at the Japan University of Economics.