THE ARTS

Riding a tidal wave of change

A festival of current Japanese culture reveals a complex society

John Bemrose October 23 1995
THE ARTS

Riding a tidal wave of change

A festival of current Japanese culture reveals a complex society

John Bemrose October 23 1995

Riding a tidal wave of change

THE ARTS

A festival of current Japanese culture reveals a complex society

The room is tiny enough to give North Americans instant claustrophobia. It is a mere nine feet square, and so low-ceilinged that anyone over six feet would have to stoop. Yet this is bedroom, living-room and kitchen to 27-yearold Yuiko Yoshimura, a Japanese fashionmagazine stylist. Copied exactly from her Tokyo bachelor apartment, the reconstructed dwelling is one of the most popular exhibits at Today’s Japan, a $6.5-million festival currently running at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre. Filled with Yoshimura’s own belongings, including her tiny bed (no futon here), plastic floor cushions and a TV tuned to a Tokyo channel, the space is a typical one for many poor and single people in urban Japan. The only old-looking object is a small stool of dark wood. Perhaps a family heirloom, it recalls the increasingly tenuous connection of the Japanese to their culture’s past.

Yoshimura’s apartment makes a fitting symbol for Today’s Japan, which reveals a country struggling to cope with the byproducts of its economic success, from overcrowded cities to an identity crisis spawned by manic consumerism. Billed as the largest showing of contemporary Japanese culture ever mounted in North America, the festival (which opened on Sept. 17 and runs until Nov. 26) offers an eclectic mix of drama, dance, visual arts, architecture, literature, film and public lectures. Most of the performances and exhibits reflect a Japan infinitely more complex than the stereotyped notions held by the North American public. “Japanese artists are very concerned with the effects of technology on the human spirit,” says Harbourfront general manager William Boyle, who originated the idea for the festival in 1989. “They are talking about the role and plight of the individual in a very uniform society— including the challenges of living in an environment as dense as Tokyo.”

Today’s Japan is the kind of show that, supporters of Harbourfront insist, irrefutably justifies the existence of the 100-acre complex, which nearly closed last spring because of announced cutbacks in federal funding. Public outcry—and pressure from the Japanese government to maintain the site for Today’s Japan—led Ottawa to reinstate support. For

all its variety, the festival maintains a remarkable consistency of theme: the attempt of Japan’s artists to tame the inherent anarchy of contemporary life with a combination of originality and renewed connections to Japan’s cultural legacy. That is particularly evident in the Design Sampling show, which features dozens of recent consumer goods— including backpacks, calculators, table lamps,

lipstick dispensers and even a motorcycle engine. Seen side by side, many of these objects suggest an astonishing stylistic unity—a common dedication to a compact simplicity and elegance.

According to the noted Japanese cultural critic Hiroshi Kashiwagi, the Harbourfront display reflects a turning point in Japanese design. In his introduction to the exhibit catalogue, he points out that during the inflationary “bubble economy” of the 1980s, myriad new consumer goods were produced. Copying international styles, designers pursued novelty for its own sake, appealing to what Kashiwagi calls “the undisciplined lifestyle spawned by a society of excessive and obsessive consumption.” But with the sobering collapse of the boom in the early 1990s, Japanese designers have begun to re-evaluate the public’s needs. Writing in the same catalogue, interior designer Shigeru Uchida suggests that many artists are now searching for a more truly functional and quintessentially Japanese sense of style.

Meanwhile, one of Japan’s most adventurous theatre troupes, Dumb Type, has fashioned its own approach to the problems of urban regimentation and soulless materialism. Its visually striking play pH (after the designation for acidity and alkalinity in chemistry) is performed in a highly unusual space: a deep pit resembling a drained swimming pool, with the audience looking down from above. The actors portray nameless automatons who must constantly dodge an illuminated bar that moves back and forth across the pit, as if they were trapped in a gigantic Xerox machine.

The show quickly makes its point about how modern life turns everyone into harried, characterless consumers. Lacking dialogue and a plot, however, it quickly grows tedious as well. A deeper analysis of contemporary existence—and a far more satisfying esthetic

experience—is provided by Japan’s most famous theatre director, Tadashi Suzuki.

In Dionysus, his adaptation of Euripides’ classic Greek tragedy The Bacchae, which opened Today’s Japan in September, his actors move in a slow, powerfully sensuous way that emphasizes their legs and feet.

Their voices, as well, have been trained to a high degree of resonance. All this makes for an extraordinarily expressive performance, and reflects Suzuki’s belief that modern people must learn to regain contact with their animal natures. “By connecting yourself to the lower half of your body and therefore to the earth is not to return to a primitive state,” he says. “But rather, it returns you to a condition of wholeness and balance. You revive the animal energy within you, which gives you the richness of experience and creativity we moderns increasingly lack.”

Suzuki’s plays draw on the ancient traditions of Noh and Kabuki theatre.

Indeed, most of the performances and exhibits in Today’s Japan take their energy from a similar relationship, though often one of tension and opposition, between past and present.

That is certainly true of the displays of contemporary ikebana—large, often abstract sculptures of various materials, from rose petals to white rice, that echo and extend the Japanese art of flower arrangement.

Another form of visual art—at once less decorative and more intellectual—appears in installations by nine Japanese artists. A certain black humor flows from Yuji Kitagawa’s video of two men struggling to put on a garment made of two suits stitched together in a way that makes them unwearable. The piece suggests the destructive effect of fashion on human dignity and individuality, and, like most of the surrounding exhibits, has an international flavor. But the most powerful installation is deeply Japanese. Yoshiko Shimada’s Look at me/Look at you examines the role of the

“comfort women,” Asians forced into prostitution to serve Japanese soldiers during the Second World War. By juxtaposing a wedding dress with the soiled garments of a prostitute, the installation establishes a contrast—but also a disturbing similarity—between the plight of the comfort women and the outwardly revered but highly circumscribed position of women in traditional Japanese culture.

Still to come in Today’s Japan are the plays The Great Doctor Yabuhara (Oct. 25 to 29) , a fable about a blind, evil masseur by Hisashi Inoue, and The Seven Streams of the River Ota (Nov. 3 to 12), a six-hour epic about atomic bomb survivors by the celebrated Canadian director Robert Lepage. Additional Canadian involvement will include the performance by Toronto’s Tapestry Music Theatre of No No Miya (Nov. 1 to 5), a contemporary Canadian opera based on an old Noh drama.

The festival will also feature a screening of nine recent Japanese movies (Oct. 20 to Nov. 2) and a small reading series featuring two writers, novelist Kyoji Kobayashi and essayistnovelist Mariko Hayashi (Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe had to cancel). Together with the rest of Today’s Japan, they will offer a glimpse of how a vital and inventive culture is attempting to ride a tidal wave of technological and social change.

JOHN BEMROSE