3 days in Japan as a guest of the Theatre Planning Network

This article was published in Theatre & Policy by the Theatre Planning Network, Japan, 20 August 2012.  Published in Japanese, translated by Kaori Nakayama.

3 days in Japan as a guest of the Theatre Planning Network

Monday 4 June was a long, emotionally draining yet extraordinary day on my trip to Japan as a guest of Kaori Nakayama and the Theatre Planning Network.  We started early in Tokyo taking the Shinkansen to Sendai to meet Takako Ofuji.  In the afternoon Takako drove Kaori and I around Ojika Peninsula’s coastal towns devastated by the tsunami.

Kaori and I met in Glasgow at the 2010 IETM after she had seen my iPad Theatre piece ‘Alma Mater at Scotland Street School’.  We have been in discussion about workshops and collaborations since then.  The piece Kaori saw and my subsequent work uses specially commissioned film and music scores, displayed on iPad, to guide audience members around significant places of interest.  The audience member wears headphones and carries the iPad whilst they are led, without words, through the space in real time.  The audience member does not have a map, instead they keep up with the film by lining-up the shots with the reality in front of them.  In this way the iPad becomes like a magic mirror, portal, wormhole, or rift in space-time: many realities can be called into existence at once.  The audience member meets past or future inhabitants of the space, and they wonder: are they ghosts, or am I a ghost to them?  In this way, these works with iPads are very effective at showing what has been and what yet might be.  They pull past and future into the present in a gently affecting but richly immersive way.

Takako, Kaori and I stopped first at one of the refugee camps dotted around the north-east of Miyagi Prefecture and briefly met some of the families there.  Takako and Kaori are organising drama workshops to build the community there.  I imagine that these will be greatly appreciated by the women that we met.

Next we stopped at Funakoshi.  Only three buildings remain: the elementary school, a modern house and the walk-in freezers for the fish. All that remains of other buildings are white concrete outlines of foundations. We walk down what used to be a street towards the calm sea, and I realise that this is the first time I have encountered the Pacific Ocean. Standing here it is impossible to imagine how this quiet water, crystalline and flat, and more like a lake than an ocean, could have risen 10m in an instant. But facing away from the ocean it is painfully evident something catastrophic moved through this town and shredded concrete and all the other fabrics of the inhabitant’s lives.

On the fourth floor of the elementary school we met the ‘Funakoshi Ladies’ who return to the ruins of their town during the day to make a range of craft pieces from the iconic roof slates of their old houses. They sit in a bright room, incredibly focused on their work, producing hundreds of charms, bracelets, medals of solidarity, amulets and the like. They laugh a lot.

After about an hour in Funakoshi we drive back along the devastated coast passing by sunken bridges, cracked roads and broken sea defences, and through village after village of rubble. We stop briefly at the remains of Okawa Elementary School, which has become a focal point of the tragedy of the tsunami.  This is a very humbling experience for us all.

We leave in silence and drive onwards towards Ishinomaki.  Here, from the Kashimamiko Shrine overlooking the city, the scale of the disaster becomes apparent; approximately 46% of the city was inundated by the tsunami. Whole neighbourhoods are now only identifiable by the perimeter foundations of their houses. The city has been tidied up, but walking around in the ruins it is too easy to see the traces of lives left behind in the twisted pink of a child’s bike, a broken family shrine, crockery and toys. And then in the distance, right beside the sea tower two huge piles: one constituted of thousands of disfigured cars, the other from the remains of homes that 29,000 of Ishinomaki’s residents lost.

Behind us stood the burnt shell of another school building.  This is the third school building that we had encountered, and of course I cannot help but think about Alma Mater, the project I made in a school in Glasgow that Kaori experienced.  What place does art have here?  What place theatre?  What will be done with these ruins?  There are clear traces of the lives, now silenced and invisible here.  Life seeps in through the cracks.  It continues and grows inexorably.  And I remember two things that seem important to future projects that might be created here.  First is that we make sense of the scale of such vast places through encounters on the human scale.  Second, that this place of devastation will change as it is redeveloped so it is worth thinking in the long term about creating a work as a record of how the place is now, quiet and devoid of life, full of a new potential.  Allow the rejuvenating change that is coming to this area of Ishinomaki be part of the work.  Showing, or holding onto change, is very difficult for humans to achieve, and this is why we create rituals and theatre that literally move and transform us.

On the way back to Sendai, the sights, translation fatigue and jetlag gets the better of me. I fall asleep in the back of the car.

In the morning we visit Ezuko Hall, the Sennan Arts and Culture Centre – a large regional theatre in the south of Miyagi Prefecture. I present my recent site-specific works that utilise mobile video, and we discuss project ideas around the concept of making invisible forces visible. This theme is of critical importance to the people Ezuko Hall serves. They live less than 100km from Fukushima Power Station, and the radiation level in their town changes with the wind. Kaori explains that this long-term legacy of the earthquake is hard to come to terms with and to communicate the on-going impact of that to outsiders. The production manager Hiroyuki Tamabuchi showed us the venue’s radiation meter, which remained in the middle of the table throughout our meeting, its readings constantly fluctuating. He maintains his family’s rice field as well as working at the Ezuko Hall, and feels strongly that arts projects should directly address the presence of radiation in the townspeople’s lives.  We discuss how a large community project could strengthen connection between the people and their land at this time of change.  If we created a large-scale film project together, that would then be shown as a tour on iPad, we could create something celebratory that could exist in perpetuity.  It could be an artwork created by the town, celebrating the town. We parted with lots to consider. Our conversations about co-production and the nature of large-scale community projects using mobile media continue.

In the evening I present a public talk at the Olympic Centre organised by the Theatre Planning Network.  After introducing my recent work, I outline my current research conceptualising and historicising itinerant artworks, before presenting a new production model that expands the established community drama process to include digital media.  This was my first experience of being simultaneously translated, which was quite nerve-wracking. The discussion afterwards was very fruitful and I was pleased that colleagues from a number of Tokyo Universities and museums were present as well as representatives of Japan Arts Council and the Australian Embassy.

I left Japan packed full of images and ideas so dense they are only now starting to unfurl.  I am immensely grateful for the care, effort and kindness that Kaori and her team showed me.  They are excellent hosts.  I am hopeful that the strong the connections forged in these three days will lead to future research and creative projects during the years to come.


About Robert Walton

Robert Walton is Co-Artistic Director of Fish & Game, a company with bases in Melbourne Australia and Glasgow Scotland.  In 2011 Robert moved from Glasgow where he was Associate Head of Performance at Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, to take up the position of Lecturer in Theatre at The Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne.

Details of the works described in the article below can be found on Fish & Game’s website: www.fishandgame.org.uk



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