Latest Trends by Genre:
Shôgekijô (Small Theater) Movement
Eiko Tsuboike (Institute for the Arts)
- Background to the Shôgekijô Movement
Ever since the Meiji Period (1868–1912), Japanese theater has been influenced by the trend toward rapid modernization and Westernization affecting Japanese society as a whole,. Shinpa(*1) (New School) developed as a reaction to Kabuki(*2), and then Shingeki(*3) (New Drama, or Western-style theater) appeared as a reaction to Kabuki and Shinpa theater. Shôgekijô(*4) (Small Theater) in turn was a reaction to Shingeki. A characteristic of Japanese theater is thus its repeated reactions to existing forms of expression that have gone on to create separate groups and forms of expression.
Because of this historical background, the term “Japanese theater” actually refers to a variety of genres that exist side by side, from Traditional Theater to Commercial Theater, Shôgekijô, High School Theater forming part of an educational program, and so forth. There are relatively few connections between these different areas, and apart from a few coproductions there is almost no exchange between them at present. Of all these movements, Shôgekijô movement started in the 1960s has been the main driving force for contemporary theater and continues to turn out new talent today.
During the 1960s people wanting to perform in contemporary theater had no choice but to join one of the major Shingeki companies, all of which followed a style rooted in realism. Then small underground theater companies began springing up created by young actors, drop-outs from major companies dissatisfied with the existing theater, and leaders of student theater clubs who possessed versatile talent and were seeking their own forms of expression and means to express their own thoughts within the context of the student activist movement. These companies were the origin of today’s Shôgekijô.
With a few exceptions, Shôgekijô is essentially an amateur activity. The company leaders in most cases are highly individualistic, talented people who take multiple roles as playwrights, directors, and lead actors.
The first generation of Shôgekijô included such well-known names as the late Terayama Shûji, Suzuki Tadashi (the first artistic director of the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center and director of SCOT), Ninagawa Yukio (currently president of Tôhô Gakuen College of Drama and Music and artistic director of Sainokuni Saitama Arts Theater), Kara Jûrô (presently visiting professor at Kinki University and director of Kara-gumi), Satô Makoto (presently a professor at Tokyo Gakugei University), the late ôta Shôgo (former professor at Kyoto University of Art and Design, who passed away in July 2007 at the age of 67), Kushida Kazuyoshi (presently artistic director of the Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre and specially-appointed professor of the Nihon University College of Art), and so on. These prominent figures together made the Shôgekijô movement a leading presence in world of avant-garde drama. The dramatists who represent this generation are Betsuyaku Minoru , who originally worked with Suzuki Tadashi in the Theater of the Absurd, and Shimizu Kunio who worked with Ninagawa Yukio.
Many of these have now retired as company leaders to work independently as directors or, alternatively, as artistic directors for public theaters or professors in universities—although there are exceptions, such as Matsumoto Yûkichi , still on the front lines, putting out large-scale outdoor performances with his company, Ishinha. In doing so, they have taken on the responsibility of pioneering new roles that working actors in Japan have never had before. This first generation is therefore creating a new environment, and the question of how this environment will influence the next generation in the contemporary theatrical scene is a matter of great interest.
The first-generation of Shôgekijô was strongly characterized by its intellectual and experimental nature as an anti-establishment, anti-Shingeki, avant-garde movement, and its audiences were made up of like-minded people. The 1970s, however, saw the appearance of Tsuka Kôhei’s troupe (second-generation Shôgekijô), which established a self-parodying comedic style that affirmed any human desire so long as it had some pride. This became very popular, and attracted young audiences who appreciated Shôgekijô as entertainment. This was a turning point for Shôgekijô, making a shift to entertainment that would appeal to the sensibilities of young people.
Such leaders of the third generation as Noda Hideki and Kôkami Shôji emerged from university student theater during the 1980s. Their new plots and strongly individualistic performance styles gained the support of young audiences, creating what the mass media referred to as a Shôgekijô boom.
By the 1990s, however, most of these groups had disbanded. The Agency for Cultural Affairs expanded its arts fellowships to include Shôgekijô artists, and a new movement was started by artists returning to the scene after a period of overseas study. Their activities shifted to commercial theaters and other mass media channels.
Shôgekijô had reached a dead end with its emphasis on the strange and unusual, and this led to a style with settings based in normal, everyday life, known as “Quiet Theater,” and represented by the works of Hirata Oriza . Hirata wrote numerous plays and was appointed artistic director of a public theater at a young age. Now as professor, he continues to be an opinion leader among the new generation of dramatists.
By the late 1990s, it became common for artists who started out in Shôgekijô to move into commercial theater, film, and television. Arguably the one to begin this trend was situation-comedy writer and dramatist Mitani Kôki , who began by putting together the theater group Tokyo Sunshine Boys while still a student of Nihon University College of Art, and is now in great demand for his TV dramas, plays, and screenplays. The Gekidan Shinkansen playwright Nakashima Kazuki and director Inoue Hidenori extended their activities into commercial theater with period science-fiction and action plays performed theatrically with a picture story touch.
Narui Yutaka of the theater company Caramel Box was also successful with a show business approach. Shôgekijô is now actively working with other media forms, and is reaching a level of maturity with the success of both dramatists and actors.
- The Fifth Generation and the Recent Trends
The fourth-generation leaders during the 1990s included, along with Hirata Oriza, two who had a significant influence on the following generation. These were
(Japanese playwright and director) of Nylon 100°C, a troupe that adopted a wide range of subject matter to develop comedy with a serious side, and
of Otona Keikaku theater company, whose highly acclaimed his original comedies feature overly self-conscious characters with a wide variety of personality complexes.
, another popular screenwriter for TV and films, is also a member of Otona Keikaku. It is because of their work that the current fifth generation, all born in the late 1960s and 1970s, including
and others, are referred to as ‘Matsuo children’ and ‘Kera (short for Keralino) children.’
One common factor in this fifth generation is that they have very little to do with the collective group quality that was a formative element in earlier Shôgekijô. Shôgekijô had been characterized by the exploration of distinctive styles within group activities and by their expansion of the possibilities of performing arts for theater as a whole. On the other hand, that collective group quality also meant that almost all of these companies, with few exceptions, had no choice but to disband in order for their members to progress beyond the amateur level.
The times have changed, however, and growing numbers of young people find working in groups disagreeable. In recent years, therefore, there have been many activities on the Shôgekijô scene that have not been restricted to the troupe framework, such as specially produced performances and joint activities.
Various factors from the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s contributed to this. For example, many theaters in the Tokyo metropolitan area organized programs of specially produced performances that featuring talented Shôgekijô members popular among young audiences. Many Shôgekijô leaders who disbanded their companies formed production companies and ended up producing many performances of this kind.
One trend in the new generation that must be noted is the rise of regional theater. Inoue Hidenori and Makino Nozomi both started in the 1980s before moving to Tokyo, but the trend became much more pronounced in the late 1990s. Until then the Shôgekijô scene had been overwhelmingly concentrated in Tokyo, but a series of new playwrights emerged in Osaka and Kyoto, and had a fresh impact on the local scene.
Major roles in this were played by the ôgimachi Museum Square (closed in 2003), a theater that served as a base for Shôgekijô in Osaka, and the Itami Ai Hall, a public theater established by Itami City in Hyôgo Prefecture. Both of these theaters concentrated on supporting young artists, and the OMS Drama Award was established in 1994 to encourage the new playwrights. Winners of this award include Matsuda Masataka , Suzue Toshirô , Iwasaki Masahiro , and Tsuchida Hideo . Matsuda and Suzue went on almost immediately to win the Kishida Drama Award, which is a gateway to success for Japanese playwrights. The newly active regional theater relied on the use of many public theaters throughout Japan. Hasegawa Kôji of the Hirosaki Theater Company (Aomori Prefecture) and Tomari Atsushi of Tobu Gekijô in Kitakyushu City are among the new talent based outside of Tokyo who have nevertheless achieved nationwide recognition.
Two other trends in the Shôgekijô scene include a rise in popularity of workshops and the practice of holding open auditions. The workshop boom occurred largely because new needs emerged that Japanese society had not previously experienced. As a result, education programs have started at theaters throughout Japan, and stage performance skills are used in children’s education. Shôgekijô directors have been given an outlet of their skills other than performance, which represents an enormous change that will no doubt influence the future of theater.
Shôgekijô started holding open auditions because the fall in real estate prices due to the collapse of Japan’s economic “bubble” resulted in glut of vacant buildings and other unused facilities in city centers. There are many small companies renting spaces in Japanese cities to providing a base for amateur theatrical activity. It will be very interesting to see how the Shôgekijô movement will reflect these changes ten years down the line.
- The Latest Topics
, the respective 2004 and 2005 winners of the Kishida Drama Award, made a sensational entrance on the Shôgekijô scene. Following the expanded boundaries of the violence-and-fantasy works of fifth-generation dramatist top-runner
of Asagaya Spiders, Okada and Miura came onto the scene with “reality” as their keyword. They have been acclaimed for the way they use dramatic expression based on the “physiological sensibilities” of today’s youth. Okada’s company, Chelfitsch, uses a “super-real Japanese” reflecting both the language and gestures of young people, while Miura’s Potudô-ru company has gone to extreme lengths to bring out realistic reactions in its actors by performing sexual acts on stage. The works of these two dramatists are testimonies to the energy of the Shôgekijô movement. Although no dramatist was considered deserving of the Kishida Drama Award in 2006,
was commended for her overly self-conscious protagonists who torment others.
In keeping with these writers representative of the younger generation, so-called social-oriented and mass-oriented writers are being inspired to ever greater creativity. Sakate Yoji , director of the theatre company Rinkôgun, has presented works that probe the social problems of socially reclusive youth and activities of the Self-Defense Force with a journalistic touch, including elements of experimental theater from other countries. Nagai Ai has written comedies that portray the changes in post-war values and criticize the lives of the common folk. Chong Wishing , a popular screenwriter, has written about his experiences as a minority, a third-generation Korean born and raised in Japan, in plays that are tough and comical. Aoki Go has used his work to highlight marginalized members of society. There is Nakashima Atsuhiko, who portrays the human warmth of the Shôwa Era (1926–89) that is lost in modern society, and Inoue Hisashi , a Japanese favorite who has written extensively on post-war themes. While each of these dramatists, all of different generations, are all distinctive, the one thing they have in common is their focus on Japanese society.
In other fields, the activities of artistic directors at public theaters are attracting attention. Ninagawa Yukio (Sainokuni Saitama Arts Theater) began an off-shoot theater company for senior citizens called Gold Theater. Kyôgen artist Nomura Mansai (Setagaya Public Theatre) has been working on a “total theater” project combining both traditional and modern stage performances, Kushida Kazuyoshi (Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre) staged two “new Kabuki” works, “Cocoon Kabuki” and “Heisei Nakamuraza” with Kabuki actor Nakamura Kanzaburô. Miyagi Satoshi has taken over from Suzuki Tadashi in the post of artistic director at the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center.
Works by Japanese playwrights are also being translated and produced overseas. Warai no Daigaku, a major work of Mitani Koki, has been translated and adopted into English production as The Last Laugh , and the English version of Noda Hideki’s THE BEE , staged in London and Tokyo, won almost all the major theater awards in Japan in 2007. Matsuda Masataka’s Umi to Higasa (The Sea and the Parasol) was presented in Seoul and Shanghai in Korean and Chinese respectively. Readings of modern Japanese plays are taking place in various countries.
Sources: Pia (from 1972 to 1990), Nihon geki zenshi by Kawatatake Shigetoshi, Teikoku-gekijô kaijô by Mine Takashi, and Nihon no gendai engeki by Senda Akihiko.
The origin of the name Kabuki is the verb kabuku , which means to exhibit strange behavior and appearance. Kabuki is said to have originated in the early Edo Period (1603–1867) with an extravagant dance ( kabuki odori ) first performed in Kyoto by a woman named Izumo no Okuni. Kabuki performance by women was banned by the authorities as deleterious to public morals, and the
The Shinpa (New School) was a dramatic genre that developed in reaction to Kabuki. Shinpa originated during the middle of the Meiji Period from a form known as sôshi shibai (plays by young political activists), which was performed to publicize the democratic thought of the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement. This form began dramatizing contemporary material in the news, and eventually established itself as the Shinpa tragedy style toward the beginning of the Taishô Period (1912–26) with works such as Konjiki Yasha and Hototogisu .
The Shingeki (New Drama, or Western-style theater) genre appeared as a reaction against Kabuki and Shinpa theater and developed along the lives of European modern drama. It originated with the Jiyû Gekijô (1909-19), a theatrical troupe that was formed under the Meiji government’s drive to improve Kabuki and for the purpose of performing translated plays. Initially Shingeki was performed by Kabuki actors. Then the Tsukiji Shôgekijô theater was built in 1924 as a permanent theater of European modern drama, and the theater sought to cultivate actors who could perform realistic drama. This laid the foundation for the Shingeki today, including the Haiyuza (founded in 1944), the Bungakuza (1937), and the Mingei (1950).
Shôgekijô, or “Small Theater,” emerger from the resistance to the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty in the 1960s. Initially companies would rent halls to stage performances, but Jiyû Gekijô, or “free theater,” which was an off-shoot of the movement felt that companies should have and maintain their own theaters as a way of creating new expressions. The first such theater was the Underground Theater Jiyû Gekijô in the basement of a sheet glass maker in Roppongi in Tokyo. Once, the Waseda Shôgekijô company and the Tenjô Sajiki companies got their own theaters, activities were dubbed “the Shôgekijô movement.” The movement has since been divided into three generations. The first generation were the ones who began theaters in the 1960s ( Kara Jûrô , Suzuki Tadashi, Ninagawa Yukio , Terayama Shûji, Satô Makoto, etc.), the second generation of student activists were influenced by the first generation during the 1970s (Tsuka Kôei, Yamazaki Tetsu, etc.), and the third generation originated as student theater companies to spread the culture of youth ( Noda Hideki and others).
Major Theater Awards in Japan
Yomiuri Theater Awards
These awards honor outstanding stage works and performances irrespective of genre, covering classical theater such as Kabuki and Nô as well as musicals, commercial theater, shingeki, shôgekijô and so forth. Categories include the Grand Prize, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Supporting Staff, the Sugimura Haruko Prize, the Judges’ Prize, and Best Play. Sponsored by Yomiuri Newspapers Group, 2007 was the 15th year of the awards.
Kinokuniya Theater Awards
These awards are sponsored by the Kinokuniya Company of bookstore fame which owns two theaters, the Kinokuniya Hall and the Kinokuniya Southern Theater, in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. Two prizes are given, for Collective and Personal Achievements. 2007 was the 42nd year of the awards.
Awards Sponsored by the Agency for Cultural Affairs
_Art Encouragement Prizes
Inaugurated in 1950, the Art Encouragement Prize and the Art Encouragement Prize for New Artists are awarded by the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology to individuals for outstanding and groundbreaking achievements in the ten fields of theater, film, music, dance, literature, art, broadcasting, popular entertainment, advancement for the arts, and criticism.
_Original Stage Work Prize
Since 1978 this prize has been awarded to outstanding original works for the stage in all genres in order to foster the production of creative stage works. Currently, in the field of music there are two categories, one covering orchestral, choral, and opera, and the other covering traditional Japanese music, while in the field of theater, there is one category of contemporary drama.
_National Arts Festival Awards
2007 saw the 62nd year of these awards, which are presented to participating works and performances in the categories of drama, music, dance and entertainment, and to three further categories of television, radio, and recording. In each category, outstanding works and performances are awarded a Grand Prize, Excellence Award, and New Artist Award, among others.
Kishida Drama Award
This award commemorating the playwright Kishida Kunio (1890–1954) is given to up-and-coming playwrights. Acknowledged as a gateway to success, it is often dubbed the Akutagawa Prize of the theater world. It was established in 1955 as the Shingeki Drama Award, which became the Shingeki Kishida Drama Award in 1961 and then the Kishida Drama Award in 1979. January 2008 saw the 52nd award, which is sponsored by the Hakusuisha publishing company.
Tsuruya Nanboku Drama Award
This prize is awarded to the best new Japanese play staged during the year. Sponsored by the Kôbun Scheherazade Foundation, 2008 was its eleventh year.
Japan Playwrights Association’s Outstanding New Playwright Award
Aimed at discovering new talent to be the driving force of the theater in the future, this award is given for an outstanding drama by a new playwright. It is open to aspiring playwrights throughout Japan, and works are subjected to two stages in the selection process before being put before the final judging panel. Each year, all finalists are included in a Best New Playwrights Collection published by Bronze Shinsha publishers. Established in 1995, the award is sponsored by the Japan Playwrights Association.
Teatro New Playwrights Award
Anyone may send in an entry to this drama award, which aims to discover talented new playwrights. Sponsored by Teatro Magazine, published by the Chamomile publishing company, it entered its 17th year in 2006.
OMS Drama Award
A drama award started in 1994 as part of the celebrations commemorating the tenth anniversary of the theater ôgimachi Museum Square (OMS, which opened in 1985 and closed in 2003). It is open to all playwrights resident or mainly active in the Kansai region, which includes the cities of Kyoto and Osaka, and the prefectures of Shiga, Hyôgô, Nara, and Wakayama, and is awarded for a work written and staged during the previous year. Sponsored by Osaka Gas.
Yuasa Yoshiko Translation Prize
This prize was established in 1994 to commemorate the work of the Russian literature scholar Yuasa Yoshiko (1896–1990), and is awarded to the theater company and translator/scriptwriter for an outstanding translation and performance of a foreign drama. Prizewinners also receive the Yuasa Yoshiko Memorial Theater Translation Scholarship.
Nissay Backstage Awards
These awards honor outstanding achievements in the performing arts and promotion of culture in the categories of stage sets, sound, lighting, costume, and so forth. 2007 saw the 13th year of the award, with 34 people commended. In addition to prize money, the award provides an annuity for life. It is sponsored by the Nissay Culture Foundation.
Lighting Designers and Engineers Association of Japan Awards
A rare occasion for the work of lighting designers and engineers to be honored. Awards are given in the categories of theater and television, and include the Grand Prize (awarded in conjunction with the Encouragement Prize of the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology), as well as awards for Excellence, Best New Talent, Encouragement, Endeavors, and Skills, among others. The awards do not just cover plays and TV programs, but also reward development of techniques, improvements to equipment, lighting design in venues, and so forth. Sponsored by the Lighting Designers and Engineers Association of Japan.
Itô Kisaku Awards
These awards are named after the first president of the sponsoring Japan Association of Theater Designers and Technicians. In addition to the Grand Prize given to the Play with the Best Design (set, costume, and make-up), there is an Award for Best New Talent, an Encouragement Award, and a Special Award.