Working as an Actress in Japan

By Bryerly Long

After graduating in 2010 from Oxford University in Oriental Studies, I moved to Japan to work with Seinendan, the theatre company of Hirata Oriza. Senda Akihiko, a leading Japanese theatre critic, introduced me to Hirata Oriza when I was writing my undergraduate dissertation on contemporary Japanese theatre.

Hirata is famous for his theory of ‘contemporary colloquial theatre’ (gendaikogoengeki). He created a theatre made up of everyday conversations, using colloquial Japanese expressions, and emphasizing the importance of non-verbal communication through pauses and silence. His style of theatre is radically different from the traditional style of Western theatre, which emphasizes actions and dialogue. In his directing, Hirata Oriza very rarely talks about emotions or the characters’ motivations, but gives extremely detailed directions regarding timing and pause length. Conversations occur simultaneously, and the precise timing allows for parts of different conversations to come to the fore.

Having trained in contemporary dance at the Merce Cunningham Studio in New York, I observed some similarities in Hirata’s and Cunnigham’s radical propositions of precisely choreographed and minutely timed elements crossing over in non-linear narratives, leaving freedom of interpretation to the audience.

Seinendan is not only a company of actors, but also has a director’s section, which offers young directors the opportunity to develop their work in the rehearsal spaces and small theaters owned by the company, using their actors. Many of the young avant-garde Japanese theatre directors, including Matsui Shu, Maeda Shiro and Iwai Hideto came out of Seinendan. Though Hirata Oriza had directed French and Korean actors, I was the first Westerner to join the company.

The first project I was engaged in with the Seinendan Company was not a play, but a film called “Hospitalité” directed by Fukada Koji. Fukada, a young film director, joined Seinendan because he appreciated the Seinendan style of acting, and the chance to do independent projects with the company’s support. “Hospitalité” depicts a family living in downtown Tokyo, who run a small printing company, and whose lives are suddenly changed by the intrusion of a strange man and his foreign wife into their home.

This film was shot on an extremely low budget, in less than two weeks, in the hottest time of that summer in Tokyo. Every day the main cast had to be on set around 6:30am, which meant catching a 5:30am train, and we often finished close to midnight. The staff got practically no sleep that week, and Fukada spent a few nights in a fast food restaurant. Our dressing room was on the ground floor of an old Japanese house, which was scheduled for demolition immediately after the shooting. It had no air-conditioning, and we turned off the fans whenever the camera was rolling upstairs, on the second floor of the house in the film. The printing company and ground floor shots were taken across the street in a house kindly loaned to us for the shooting by its owners. They fortunately had air-conditioning, and as we became friendly with them, they invited the cast to take our lunch breaks in their kitchen. The shooting attracted many neighbors, who outside on chairs they positioned in the shade where they could watch what was going on. Thanks to their interest in the production, we were allowed to shoot an outdoor scene late at night, which would have otherwise disturbed the neighborhood peace. For one of the scenes we employed several foreign extras and a few Japanese extras made to look like homeless people. That day had a carnival atmosphere with the foreigners chatting in a mix of languages, playing cards and reading books while waiting for their scenes, the neighbors watching the commotion, and the director and staff rushing to stick to the schedule in the midst of the mid-day heat and crowd.

Two months after shooting, “Hospitalité” was invited to compete in the “Japanese Eyes” section of the Tokyo International Film Festival. It was very exciting having gone from a low-budget filming experience to walking TIFF’s green carpet (chosen instead of red to symbolize support for the environment). After winning in its category in this festival, the film was invited to major international film festivals, such as the one in Rotterdam, and New Directors New Films (NDNF) in New York.

The first play I performed with Seinendan was “Sayonara”, a two-person play about a dying girl and a robot, who recites poetry to her. The robot was played by a geminoid designed by Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University, and operated remotely by a Seinendan actress, Inoue Minako. In this story I was a foreign girl of French and German descent living alone in Japan. This lonely story alludes to the over-taxed Japanese healthcare system, which is progressively introducing robots to take care of patients. Based on this play, Fukada later produced and directed the film “Sayonara”, in which I co-starred with the geminoid. The film premiered in the Main Competition of the 2015 Tokyo International Film Festival.

The original production of “Sayonara” was rehearsed at Osaka University. Every day we commuted on the Osaka Monorail from Senri-chuo, overlooking hills in the heavily urbanized countryside North of Osaka. We lodged in weekly apartments close to the Shin-Osaka Station, where the bullet train stops. In Osaka I began to miss my friends in England, and sometimes identified too much with the solitude of my character while rehearsing with a robot in a lab. However, I was touched by the kindness and familial spirit of the Seinendan actors. On my first night in Osaka, a group of actors who were rehearsing another play with a different type of robot organized a welcome party for me, for which they had specially bought a portable barbecue. During our stay in Osaka we held a number of parties in one of the actor’s rooms, and also attended a hanabi, firework festival, along the Osaka riverbank together. Although we were on very tight budgets, the actors were very generous, and would offer me some of the Japanese dishes they cooked and brought to rehearsals. A large portion of our allowances went towards shared food and drinks.

Following a very successful premiere at the Aichi Arts Triennale, “Sayonara” was invited to the major Japanese theatre festivals and a number of venues overseas. The “Sayonara” tours featured Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, a fascinating robotics scientist and ranked one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Ishiguro argues that there is no fundamental difference between robots and humans. In the post-performance talks, he would challenge people to prove that they have a ‘soul’, and that if they did, that it could not be created artificially. Further, Hirata argues that a large proportion of human responses and emotions are conditioned by the environment and to a certain degree automatic, and therefore could be programmed into a robot.

In March 2011 when the Great Eastern Japan earthquake occurred, I was in the midst of rehearsing for another Seinendan play, “The Balkan Zoo”. This play describes researchers’ interactions at a neurobiology lab. I played a widow who has kept the brain of her deceased husband alive. In the midst of a run-through of the play, the earthquake began, and the actors and director all crouched underneath a large table together until the tremors subsided. That evening a group of us walked home together along the Inokashira train line in Western Tokyo, while other actors remained at the theatre sleeping on mattresses and preparing food for those who could not get home. The next morning, a Saturday, we reported in for rehearsal in the morning as scheduled, and continued almost as if nothing happened. The “show must go on” mentality was an effective way of distracting us from the recurrent tremors; and allowed Hirata to confirm that we were all safe and well.

After the explosion at Fukushima took place, friends and relatives urged me to return to Europe. Since I had the main role in this play and there was no one to replace me, I stayed on in Tokyo. I carried my passport and favorite necklace from my parents with me everyday in case we were all ordered to evacuate immediately. It was a strange time, with unseen fear in the air, and most people avoided venturing outside. I remember getting off the train at Shimokittazawa, usually a busy neighborhood, to buy something at Uniqlo, and looking at a ghost town from the train tracks.

“The Balkan Zoo” opened as scheduled a week after the earthquake. We did a number of performances in the midst of the frequent after-shocks. Surprisingly, every day the show was sold-out and the theatre was full. During that period our theatre company had rice, miso soup, mineral water and toilet paper available for all the actors to use at the theatre, and distributed water to employees with young children to take home with them. There were always futon mattresses available in case people had to stay overnight, and a few employees lived at the theatre during the first month to ensure everyone was well taken care of, and to provide an emergency point of contact. I was impressed and moved by our company’s resilience, organization, and focus on the performances despite the personal stresses many colleagues were enduring.

Shortly after that, I directed a project with a friend from Oxford, Lucy Ashe, a Japanese contemporary dancer, Kyogoku Tomohiko, and members of Seinendan. We incorporated original music by an American composer, Ursula Kwong-Brown, and videos by Fukada Koji. The theme of the performance was rivers and meetings and how people’s lives cross, flow together for some time and disperse again into different directions. Lucy’s family were concerned about her coming to Japan due to the fear of nuclear radiation. One of the Japanese members dropped out of the project; however we were able to make the show happen despite the difficult timing. I was grateful to Seinendan for offering the space and resources to be creative and for allowing me to bring together my own different worlds to meet, even on a small scale.

For my first two years in Japan, I lived with one of my best Japanese friends and her French partner. We would hold frequent diner parties, and I invited many of my colleagues from the theatre company. Though Japanese people rarely hold parties inside their homes, people seemed to enjoy the international atmosphere at our apartment and the opportunity to meet people from various backgrounds. Sharing a flat with good friends made life in a foreign country much easier for me than living alone.

I traveled frequently with Seinendan on tours – to France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Denmark, the US, Canada and Australia. The concept of a robot performing in a play drew a lot of attention overseas not only in the theatre community, but also amongst scientists, artists, and amongst the general public, as a weird innovation from Japan. I enjoyed traveling with the play, although there were a few occasions when I had some minor disagreements with colleagues usually due to a misunderstanding or lack of sensitivity on my part. Even overseas I found myself adapting gradually to the Japanese work environment. Hirata was very understanding of the challenges in communicating across cultures; and Ishiguro reassured me that he, too, had to observe the Japanese way of interacting to be able to adapt. If a robot could be programed to pick up on cues and make culturally appropriate responses, then surely I could as well. My mother recently observed that I must be good at adapting to other cultures, but I sometimes fear that Japan attracts foreigners who are too quirky to fit into their own cultures. Even now, going onto seven years in Japan, when someone gets angry at me for “not understanding the most obvious things”, I remind them that I am in fact not Japanese.

In Japanese avant-garde theatre I have been fortunate to be cast in a range of roles. However in mainstream TV and cinema, the foreigner’s role remains very stereotypical. To people on the street I will always be a foreigner with blonde hair, imperfect white skin, round eyes, and long limbs. But close friends and colleagues seem to have forgotten that I am an outsider. Recently when friends came to see a play in which I was acting, they said that they were suddenly reminded again that I am a foreigner.

As a member of Seinendan Theatre Company, I abide by the same rules as everyone else. However in working with other productions, while I am always welcomed, I am still treated as an outsider.

Being a Japanese-speaking foreigner has opened many doors, which cannot be said for the way an immigrant is treated in many other societies. However to go beyond that initial hospitality to create something meaningful to Japanese audiences takes just as much dedication, attention and hard work as anywhere in the world. In the last couple years I have felt at times that I am hitting my head against a brick wall by trying to go beyond the outsider’s defined place in Japanese culture. There are days when I am extremely lonely and depressed, and wonder what I am doing in a foreign land, where I will always be an alien. However I am also grateful for the support and community of many great friends and colleagues. I do not know yet how long I will stay, but having been here for most of my twenties, Japan has certainly shaped who I am today. It may be that we are all alienated in our own ways, trying desperately to fit into a community, whilst pretending that we are normal, unlike the outsiders. I would not know because I have only ever been on the outside.

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