“Because there’s no formal playwriting training in Japan, Japanese playwrights’ imaginations can make huge leaps,” says Eriko Ogawa, artistic director of drama at the New National Theatre Tokyo, the national theatre of Japan which programmes a mixture of new writing and classic plays, across its auditoriums. “These writers have the strength to jump from something very concrete or naturalistic to something very abstract or expressionistic.”
The surreal imaginative powers of Japan’s playwrights are getting a showcase in New Plays: Japan, which gives a Royal Court platform to three bold new plays that are being staged in translation, as script-in-hand performances. These works are one outcome of a three year long collaboration and intensive workshops between New National Theatre Tokyo and Royal Court, in which 14 emerging Japanese playwrights honed their craft over three intensive sessions with Alistair McDowall (author of Royal Court hits X and The Glow), Royal Court’s associate director Sam Pritchard and Jane Fallowfield, Royal Court’s Literary Associate as well as having visiting sessions from the Japanese playwright Tomohiro Maekawa.
The plays getting an airing include Onigoro Valley (その先、鬼五郎渓谷につき、) by Saori Chiba, a powerfully surreal story set in the hills above Fukushima, where nuclear decontamination workers stumble upon strange supernatural entities inspired by Japanese folktales. Another play, 28 hours 01 minute (28時01分) by Shoko Matsumura, offers an unsettling look at new motherhood. And Not Yet Midnight (真夜中とよぶにはまだはやい) by Tomoko Kotaka follows the surreal events that follow a night time power cut in Tokyo.
“Because they are written by young playwrights, these plays see Japanese culture in a fresh way, with a new point of view,” reckons Eriko Ogawa. And she also sees something distinctly Japanese in their use of language: “What is also unique about Japanese playwriting is how carefully writers choose their words. I’m really excited to see how British actors and British audiences react to them.”
Still, although Japanese playwrights have a highly distinctive approach, there’s a lack of platforms for their work in their native country.
International plays are regularly staged in Japan. Last year alone you could see Japanese versions of Robert Icke’s The Doctor, Florian Zeller’s The Son, and even cockney musical Oliver!. There are also lots of opportunities to see traditional Japanese forms of theatre: Japan Arts Council funds several venues that focus on artforms such as kabuki, nohgaku and bunraku. But new plays by Japanese playwrights are harder to find.
“It’s rare to find people who want to become a playwright here in Japan because there are fewer opportunities,” Eriko Ogawa says, explaining that there are few venues that stage new works. “The Royal Court’s schemes often work with playwrights under 30,” she explains, “but it’s difficult to find enough playwrights under that age in Japan, so we made the age limit a bit higher for our programme, to give more opportunities to writers.”
Considering this dearth of opportunities for Japanese playwrights, a very welcome outcome from the Royal Court and New National Theatre playwriting scheme has been a production of My Month by one of its writers, Ei Sugai, which premiered in November 2022 at New National Theatre Tokyo. It’s a work that explores the issue of suicide: something that’s welcome in a country where mental illness has traditionally been a taboo subject.
Eriko Ogawa is passionate about doing more to develop Japan’s new writing scene, both on and off stage. “I would love Japanese young playwrights to find out that there are so many different ways to work and write, and to discover that the world is very wide and full of possibilities,” she says.
Eriko Ogawa herself has spent much of her career working with texts from around the world. She studied directing at the Actors Studio in New York, graduating in 2004, before winning an award for her Japanese translation of Sam Shepard’s The Late Henry Moss in 2010. She then went on to helm Japanese language productions of numerous hit plays, including Constellations, Ubu Roi, Skylight, and Leopoldstadt.
Just before she became artistic director at New National Theatre, she visited the Royal Court and met Sam Pritchard, quickly becoming convinced that its new writing scheme would be “a great inspiration for Japanese playwrights.”
She also felt it would be a vital opportunity to make sure that new plays flow out of Japan, as well as into it: “Japanese theatre tends to be confined in quite a domestic role, but this programme enables playwrights to take a broader perspective.”
As soon as she stepped into her role, she began to put plans in motion for New National Theatre’s collaboration with the Royal Court. It’s a complex scheme to put in motion, involving a research period into Japan’s theatre scene, followed by three trips to Japan by the Royal Court’s team (one of which had to take place online, due to the pandemic). Translators have been involved at every stage, from initial meetings to workshops to translating the final plays. But the substantial effort involved in facilitating this project has definitely paid off.
It’s an opportunity to introduce Royal Court audiences to new ways of thinking and writing. And it’s also brought valuable technical know-how to Japanese writers who are largely self-taught. According to Eriko Ogawa, “in Japan, rather than being taught or studying theatre, there’s the idea that people should learn skills on the job. Through this workshop, playwrights got to know techniques and tools that have been developed by playwrights over the years.” And the writers have also benefited from some invaluable feedback from professionals with years of experience in bringing boundary-breaking new writing to the stage. “Sometimes the Royal Court’s people gave notes that were tough, but they’ve always been really supportive,” says Eriko Ogawa.
These sessions also acted as a crash course in new, more collaborative ways of writing. “By working together, the playwrights could expand the possibilities of their work,” says Eriko Ogawa. “In Japan, playwrights tend to work alone and rely on their own talents, which can get lonely,” says Eriko Ogawa. “But through this project they learned to work as a group.” With pride, she explains that the group found the process of discussing each others’ plays so fruitful that even now the project is over, they’re still meeting up regularly to exchange work and to give notes to each other.
The lasting legacy of this project is a reminder of the benefits of international collaboration, even as Brexit and funding cuts to UK theatres make it tempting to focus on the local and familiar. “It’s easy to say phrases like ‘international collaboration’ or ‘cultural exchange’, but it’s not easy to do,” says Eriko Ogawa, “in terms of how we keep it alive and keep it going. It’s a really precious thing, to meet new people, new ideas, and new ways of doing things. What we really need to think about is how to keep those relationships going.”