Radical Dreams: A reflection on art and politics at Festival Tokyo 2012

Hoo Kuan Cien

Review-Hoo Kuan Cien.jpg
   On my first day in Tokyo, I was brought to the office of The Saison Foundation, where as a Visiting Fellow, we were to discuss the scope of my 32 days' residency at Morishita Studio.

   While I was receptible, in my very first visit to Japan, in experiencing anything and everything on Japanese arts and culture, but perhaps conditioned by the political inclination of Singapore theatre as well as Performance Studies, one of the priorities at the back of my mind was to experience art and its engagement with politics, society and activism.

   "Can you recommend me any gay, lesbian, transgender, feminist or minority artists?" I asked The Saison Foundation point blank, exhausted after an overnight flight from Singapore.

   Of course, I wasn't given any straight easy answers during that memorable meeting. Nonetheless, I was anticipating the 2012 edition of Festival Tokyo, Japan's largest performing arts festival, which would commence two days after my arrival. Curated by Chiaki Soma, I was all ready for a whole month of fanatic arts attendance, fleeting from one performance to another in learning and witnessing the creativity of Japanese artists working at the limits of art in the twenty-first century.

* * *

   However, I soon discovered the real tangible relationship between the kind of contemporary theatre and dance that I admired and wished to see in Japan had been historically disavowed from politics, where the critical potential of art is less potent than what my Singaporean imagination had purported it to be.

   To illustrate it simply: art's domain is in aesthetics, philosophy and nationalist ideals, while politics is designated for the chambers of the Diet, broadcast as mainstream television throughout the country.

   Tadashi Uchino explores this with rigorous complexity in his 2009 book Crucible Bodies: Postwar Japanese Performance from Brecht to the New Millennium. In this collection of essays, Uchino outlines a certain trajectory of Japanese theatre and performance against the nation's postwar socio-economic development. He echoes his thinking through the work of historian H.D. Harootunian, which also captures a sentiment of my time in Tokyo:

What had originally been conceived as a means to explain how societies, in this instance Japan, could become modernized without relying on the agency of conflict and struggle, became an ideological device employed by the state to justify the status quo and to eliminate the realm of criticism that once belonged to the space of culture.... What this entailed was a turn to culture to explain the status of contemporary mass society, to affirm it rather than to offer the space of critique, and the subsequent appeal to a pre-modern endowment as an irreducible essence to sanction, not to resist, the modernizing changes Japan has realized. 1 (emphasis mine)

* * *

   If, going by Uchino that 'for those working in Japan's cultural milieu where the political and the historical are consensually displaced and are not supposed to be a necessary frame of its reference"2 , what is the place of Festival Tokyo--a major Japanese performing arts festival realized with local city and governmental resources but run independently? And under a prolonged post-bubble economy and constant political fever exacerbated by the disasters of March 11, where does the Festival align itself between the wide spectrum between the Left and Right?

   In scanning for traces of art-as-critique in the Festival, I found them--perhaps expectedly so--not in the works by Japanese artists but the diverse international presentations invited by director Soma. From the stylized site-specific enactment of illegal immigrants' plight in France (Le Préau d'un Seul by Jean Michel Bruyère/LFKs), to social inequality in rural Romania (Crisis Trilogy III: The Priestess by Árpád Schilling/Krétakör), to an allegory of the contentious 2009 Iranian presidential elections (Where were you on January 8th? by Amir Reza Koohestani/Mehr Theatre Group), to the intimate encounters of a Singaporean gay man (Gay Romeo by Daniel Kok), Soma provides a valuable opportunity for the Japanese audience to experience the real underbelly of each artist's home city/country. This is cross-cultural exchange at its worthy best.

   I applaud Soma for her curatorial vision in introducing these artistic experiments to Tokyo, but the flip side of the coin is this: a fellow F/T Dialogue participant astutely pointed out that the 'politics' of these foreign works are always estranged from the Japanese consciousness. The sharp edge of any political-wielding sword becomes blunt in its cultural relocation to present-day Tokyo.

   I cannot help but nod at this observation. At the opening of Crisis Trilogy III: The Priestess at Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt employed by Schilling through direct audience address and actor/character distinction were seemingly lost on the largely still audience, many of them VIPs and guests in dark suits who later participated routinely in the Festival's gala reception.

   And at Gay Romeo, I wonder if the audience knew the legal deadweight of being gay in Singapore, where the law--inherited from British colonial rule--still criminalises sex between men. Kok also failed to receive funding from the country's National Arts Council for this project, as it does not support works that 'advocate or lobby for lifestyles seen as objectionable by the general public' 3 i.e. homosexuality. It is uncertain when the work will premiere in Singapore eventually; it deserves so, for it is a sophisticated piece of performance that vacillates between pleasure and criticality, between discreet sex and a public confession of one's emotional journey.

* * *

   Whereas the international artists offer critique and resistance to the societies they inhabit, the political positions of their Japanese counterparts whom I encountered at the Festival are, in my observation, more ambivalent and without consensus. Rather than invoking 'politics' with a capital 'P', their approach is often introspective and personal, each an auteur expressing their niche worldview and aesthetic.

   This was evident in the numerous responses to March 11 at the Festival, where I could see no collective will with respect to the issues at stake. In Kein Licht II by Port B, director Akira Takayama does not advocate the ills of nuclear power but instead, creates a beautiful surreal reminder for Tokyoites living more than 300km away from Fukushima. Like a religious pilgrimage, each audience member takes a solo private tour in and around the New Shimbashi Building in central Tokyo, visiting sites where an iconic image of March 11 is carefully re-enacted. It remains one of my Festival highlights, as I finally understood the disaster's profound trauma on the country.

   For those who also saw words by Takuya Murakawa, the aversion to any kind of politicking was even greater: two actors recount their post-March 11 trip to Fukushima, their narration soft and factual, while the bare mise-en-scène (microphones, amplifiers, chairs) provide little visual cues to the disaster. I will remember Murakawa's elegant execution, but after its premiere, I did hear--on the grapevine--that perhaps the work was too conscious of not stepping on any political toe. Is there such as thing as neutrality? I don't know.

   In Beautiful Star by Peachum Company, I thought it harboured the strongest resistance to nuclear energy in comparison to the other performances I attended. Adapted from Yukio Mishima's novel of the same name, the protagonist Juichiro Osugi and his family saw themselves as aliens, and set out to rescue the world from nuclear destruction--this probably close to the heart of the Hiroshima-born director Norishige Kawaguchi. But the play's political agency was diffused by Kawaguchi's choice of a melodramatic, somewhat farcical, style for nearly throughout the two-hour production that in the end, the audience is brought further away from reality than to it.

   Finally, if was there any political sting amongst the Japanese presentations, I found it in Castle of Dreams by Daisuke Miura/ potudo-ru. For me, it wasn't just the violence, nudity and copulation that propelled this sold-out production but Miura's characterization of the Japanese ganguro youth beyond their neon-coloured hair and smooth tanned skin. In a Tokyo apartment replicated onstage, we see them fighting and abusing one another over an electronic game, only to find solidarity in a pot of noodles the morning after. We see them engaging in wild sex, as well as tender moments when they cry themselves to sleep or dress up for work.

   The work resists the public's imagination of the ganguro youth, as once seen on the streets of Ikebukuro and Shibuya. Miura, like the work's title, expresses the aspirations of his generation in the post-bubble economy, but only to realise that it is a mere castle in the sky. In this regard, the work is not just an outcome of an artist's isolated creativity but a diatribe of one fault line in contemporary Japanese society.

* * *

   I didn't really fulfill my wish of meeting queer or minority artists during my time in Japan. In fact, most of the artists I encountered were heterosexual male directors, playwrights or choreographers.

   But strange things happen. On my second last night in Japan, while huddling in my cold hotel room in Kyoto, I watched a rare video documentation of S/N (1994) by dumb type. As the opening scene played on my laptop, I was immediately transfixed by the late Teiji Furuhashi and his co-performers who wore labels asserting their marginalized identities as 'American', 'black', 'deaf', 'HIV-positive' and 'homosexual'. I sat through the entire video till 2am, awed by this seminal work on Furuhashi's HIV-positive condition.

Was I naïve in dreaming of radical art in Japan? Am I guilty of assuming artists as political exotica? Perhaps so, but coming from a country where often national agenda overrides everything else, and where artistic expression is still subject to censorship, I hold reverence for art that celebrates independent action, and which champions society's conscience above all prejudice.

   Art is political. This I believe so.

1 H.D. Harootunian, 'America's Japan/Japan's Japan,' in Japan in the World, edited by Masao Miyoshi and H.D. Harootunian, 215-216. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.
2 Tadashi Uchino, Crucible Bodies: Postwar Japanese Performance from Brecht to the New Millennium, 76. Seagull Books, 2009.
3 'Market and Audience Development by the National Arts Council (Singapore)', accessed March 18, 2013, http://nac.gov.sg/grants-schemes/grants/market-and-audience-development.