Our Town opens at Tokyo's New National Theatre

February 28, 2011

Our Town was staged from January 13 to 29, 2011, at The New National Theatre, Tokyo, Japan. New artistic director of the theatre, Ms. Miyata Keiko, selected four European and American plays-- Hedda Gabler, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Our Town and Waiting for Godot--for her first season, plays which have deeply influenced modern Japanese theatre. Our Town was favorably received and attracted about 10,000 audience members. The music was composed by Inamoto Hibiki who played it live for each performance on a single Steinway made in 1912.

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Translator Hachiya Mizutani sent the follow report in response to questions from the Thornton Wilder Estate.

What aspects of Our Town do you think Japanese audiences will most identify with?

I suppose the most crucial aspect of Our Town for Japanese audiences is the complex emotions which are aroused in the last scene where Wilder shows that human beings cannot escape from the inherent contradiction; we cannot appreciate the meaning of life while we are living it. The audiences are invited to experience what dead Emily did on the stage. Wilder arouses indescribable emotions in the audiences there: nostalgia for the past, poignant pleasure to realize the human reality, repentance, and a slight hope or expectation of a serene life after death which may rouse religious sentiment in us. These emotions cannot be integrated to one but we are to be exposed to them as they are. The audience may feel how "wonderful and terrible" human life is, and they may see "in the selfsame hour the trivial and the divine."

These complex emotions aren't aroused until the audience becomes aware of the impermanence of life through a kind of simulated experience of Emily's death. This is the same effect we have in Noh plays which developed in the 14th century and survive in their original forms even in the 21st century. Even after 1868 when Japan opened up the country and proceeded to full modernization, the Japanese have continued to have a pre-modern sensibility through some traditional art forms such as Noh drama, flower arrangement, tea ceremony and Suibokuga or ink painting which were under the profound influence of Zen Buddism.

The key concept of the sensibility is Japanese comprehensive world-view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience. The aesthetic is based upon the concept that "imperfection, impermanence and incompletion" are the essential elements of beauty. Modern Japanese do not necessarily have these traditional aesthetic, but basically or unconsciously they tend to be sensitive to such beauty. It is well known that Japanese love cherry blossoms because of the way the petals fall while still at the height of their beauty.

Our Town always appeals to such sensitivity in the Japanese people.

How well are Our Town and Thornton Wilder known in Japan?

The first introduction of Thornton Wilder into Japan was through Our Town, which was translated by Kaoru Morimoto, a Japanese prominent playwright, in 1939 just after the play was first staged on Broadway. The first performance of it in Japan was by the Bungaku-za theatre company in July, 1941 under the direction of Teruko Nagaoka. This trial performance was favorably received and the Bungaku-za decided to revive the production in September and November in Tokyo and Osaka, respectively. During this time, the relation between the United States and Japan was severely strained, but one of the representative American dramas was staged in two major Japanese cities as planned. Moreover the Bungaku-za performed it at the school festival of the Tokyo College of Commerce on November 17, 1941. The typical American play evoked strong emotions among the students and faculty members. It was just three weeks after the performance that the Japanese Navy launched its attack on Pearl Harbor.

From August 1941, anti-U.S. sentiment began to spread throughout Japan and Japanese newspapers carried inflammatory articles every day, inspiring fanatical patriotism. Though the audience of the college, most of whom were young students, must have anticipated war against the United States as unavoidable and some among them must have been prepared to be drafted as soldiers, they received a strong impression from Our Town .

But since World War II, Our Town has been produced by many training schools and not often by professional theatre companies. Certainly the play provides good educational material for acting students and it is an easy play to be performed without settings and props. At the same time, many amateur performances have given the impression that Our Town is immature as a play and that it is not worth studying seriously. Such situations may be the same in the U.S..

But recently, some younger Japanese playwrights or directors show intense interest in the plays of Thornton Wilder. They genuinely express their sympathy with Wilder's view of theatre, especially with bare stage, repetition, some super-natural elements, timelessness, and his idea of "acting." Generally they did not know anything about Thornton Wilder when they started their theatrical career. But when they accumulate their theatrical experience and carry on some theatrical experiments "in finding the new ways to express how men and women think and feel in our time," they suddenly realize they do the same thing as Wilder did.

Thornton Wilder and his plays inspire some young theatrical people in Japan. I hope Our Town by New National Theatre, Tokyo, in 2011 will be a good opportunity for Japanese playwrights, directors and researchers in drama to study Wilder's works further.

What do you personally find most compelling about Wilder's work?

The compelling and fascinating parts of Wilder's plays are in his creativity which finds the root in the pre-modern culture, and in his theatrical experiments offering a different perspective from the modern one on the reality of human beings. Personally I am fascinated by Wilder's consistency in swimming against the theatrical main stream in the 20th century. I am also captivated by his decisive theo-centric world-view.

MIZUTANI Hachiya is a professor of drama, in School of Culture, Media and Society at Waseda University in Tokyo. He translated and published Thornton Wilder's Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth and The Matchmaker. Other than Wilder's plays, he translated Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden, Widows, and The Other Side for performance as well as his essay Desert Memories. He is a member of Thornton Wilder Society.

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