“God Bless Baseball”: Playwright Toshiki Okada probes international relations through baseball

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Prizewinning playwright Toshiki Okada’s God Bless Baseball examines Japan and South Korea’s complicated ties with the United States through the lens of sport, also offering a new way of looking at the two countries’ own troubled history. Over a century since America’s national pastime arrived in both nations, Metropolis heard from Okada about the motivations behind his new piece and the differing Japanese and Korean approaches to the sport ahead of the work’s staging as part of this year’s Festival/Tokyo.

Why did you choose baseball as a subject for this Japan-Korea project?

Director Toshiki Okada

I’d wanted to create a work about baseball for a long time, but I didn’t know when I would be able to do it. When this year’s Asian Arts Theatre festival in Gwangju invited me to participate, I thought to create a joint production bringing together Japanese and Korean actors. It may have been intuitive to choose baseball because of the popularity of the sport in both countries. And as baseball implies a strong American influence, it made sense to include [the U.S.] too. The influence of America is an essential question for both countries, and both are trying to figure out how to think about the U.S., so it made [for] an ideal theme.

Tell us about your personal experience of baseball.

I played as a kid—but only because my father strongly wanted me to, and it wasn’t much fun. One coach would beat us for no reason. So for me, baseball was a traumatic experience; it’s actually the worst memory of my life. For that reason, I’d long wanted to write a play about baseball.

How does baseball differ in Japan and Korea?

Korea seems to lack the connection with spirituality, the earnestness, the sometimes coercive nature of Japanese baseball. The fans I saw in Seoul come for the excitement. Fans are invited to hold drinking competitions or propose marriage on big screens in the stadium.

How can baseball provide a new way for Japan and Korea to approach America?

I hope the play can help us think about what America means to the people of both countries. One way to consider the U.S. is through the popular sport of baseball, as America looms large for both countries. But this means I was lumping together Japan and South Korea, which created various challenges. When you think about both countries, historical problems come to mind. Approaching historical issues that divide us through the lens of America helps to offer a new way of looking at our differences. Baseball provides the ideal means to attempt this.

Differences between American and Japanese baseball have been explored in books like You Gotta Have Wa and films such as Mr. Baseball. How does God Bless Baseball add to this work?

Unlike these, I’m not considering the differences between Japanese and American baseball. Rather, the comparison is between Japan and Korea at one level, with America standing above us. For example, the fact that Japanese and Korean players now go to the major leagues is a way to judge how much both countries have improved. We compete over how many players we have in the major leagues. I’m interested in these kinds of relations between the countries.

Who are the South Korean members of the team, and how did you come to work with them?

Yoonjae Lee is an energetic and effective actor. Actress Sung Hee Wi is a veteran of physical theater, and also a choreographer. I auditioned them both last summer in Seoul.

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Wrecking Crew Orchestra: Street dance meets Japanese hi-tech

wrecking-01-380x215Irregular hours are a fact of life for a dancer. Metropolis’ Skype call to Yuichi Yokoi finds the leader of Osaka street dance group Wrecking Crew Orchestra about to begin rehearsal at 11 in the evening.

“We were all once dance instructors; usually we worked during daytime,” Yokoi explains with a laugh. “So the only time we had to practice was at night after work. It’s a habit we can’t seem to drop.”

The eight members of Wrecking Crew are rehearsing what may be their biggest show yet: A 10-day residency at Tokyo’s Zepp Blue Theater.

“We wanted to test our limits of expression,” says Yokoi of the production, which employs sophisticated projection mapping. “With Doodlin’, we go beyond street dance to create an entertainment spectacle. We’ve used projection mapping in our performances before, but we wanted to try something new in terms of integrating technology with street dance.”

Doodlin’ melds street dance with Japanese hi-tech, taking the integration of projection mapping with performance art to a new level. Working with visual director Takehito Suzuki and a pack of costume and stage designers, Wrecking Crew Orchestra employs what’s called a “see-through screen” that allows them to seamlessly blend the dancing and visuals.

Yokoi says the title Doodlin’ stands for graffiti. “The theme is based on childhood,” he offers. “Kids have a limitless imagination. For example, if you have kids draw a cat, but they don’t do a very good job, the cat’s ears may look like mountains. Then they draw a sky as background, and what was supposed to be a cat becomes a landscape. That’s the idea of Doodlin’—images transform before your eyes into something completely unexpected. When we become adults, our freedom of imagination gets hemmed in by social expectations and common sense. With Doodlin’, we want people to recall the freedom of their childhood. We hope to inspire people to open their minds.”

After decades as a dancer and stints representing Japan at overseas events, Yokoi speaks with the voice of someone who’s had time to consider the meaning of his life’s calling. “It has to be a conversation between the dancers and the audience,” he believes. “Dance isn’t just a tool to entertain—but also to tell a story.”

When they go abroad, Wrecking Crew find themselves in the intriguing position of representing Japan via an art form that began on the streets of the United States. “Street dance isn’t Japanese culture, so for us to represent it to Myanmar people was a bit strange,” he recalls forthrightly. “[The] Japanese first imitated American culture, but then we made it our own over time. So we tried to bring that to Myanmar. It was a powerful experience.”

What makes Japanese street dance unique? “[The] Japanese are subtle,” he says, pondering a good answer. “And precise. We’re able to take advantage of that for performances that, for example, involve projection mapping. We try to bring those aspects of Japanese culture to street dance; and Japanese hi-tech—mixing that with street art.”

Rather than finding overseas habits strange, Yokoi says it’s the local response he finds odd upon returning to Japan. “Japanese people are very shy—they’re always checking other audience members out before they decide how to respond,” he responds. “Nearby Asian peoples are more open. So rather than finding other countries strange, when I get back, I find Japan different. I wish Japanese would learn how to enjoy themselves more easily, and not be so uptight.”

While amateur dance forms from salsa to ballroom to Jamaican-style twerking are wildly popular here, dance at the professional level is still a tiny community divided into factions from street dance to ballet to butoh.

Japan needs someone who can unite dance fans, and in Yokoi they may have the right person. Whether it’s in front of audiences in big Japanese cities, or on international tour, what comes through from Yokoi is that he enjoys being on stage at least as much as his fans take pleasure in watching him.

“It’s all I know,” he concludes. “I’ve been dancing professionally half my life. It’s also the area where I express myself best. And it provides a way to interact with people. I even met my wife through dance—and the members of Wrecking Crew, too. More than art, for us dance is a communication tool.”

http://wreckingcreworchestra.com/

Carl Stone: Resident expat computer music seer

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Computer music pioneer Carl Stone’s career took a left turn when he joined the Department of Information Media at Chukyo University in Aichi. Stone had begun to explore sonic collages via cassettes and turntables in the 1970s, and in the ’80s innovated the use of laptops to create live electronic music. Invitations to Japan led to a faculty position, and Stone now splits his time between Japan and the US. The native Californian spoke to Metropolis about the computer’s evolving role in music and how Japan shapes his sound.

Computer music is now omnipresent. What have been the biggest changes since the ’70s?

Miniaturization and portability. When I was a student we had a synthesizer studio that probably cost about a half-million dollars. Now that studio’s power can be roughly represented in a ¥5,000 iPad app. I used to tour with about 50kg of gear. Now all I take is a laptop, audio interface and toothbrush.

Is the computer now just another musical instrument?

It depends on how one chooses to use it. It definitely can be an instrument, but it can also be a tool for composing, for recording and more.

Much computer music lacks traditional identifiers of music such as melody and rhythm. What differentiates “sound” from “music”?

In John Cage’s theory, nothing. Not only did he feel that any sound could be repurposed as music, but in fact the distinction between even unintended sound and music was artificial. I remember listening to a conversation between Cage and Morton Feldman, another great composer. Feldman was complaining about the time he was walking on the shore, lost in thought, and some people were blasting music from a radio. Cage, who often used unintended sounds including random radio transmissions, laughed and said that it wouldn’t have bothered him because, “I would think they were just playing one of my pieces.”

Tell us about two or three of your defining works, and what you were trying to achieve with them.

Probably my most notorious work is called “Shing Kee,” which takes a small sample of German art-song sung in English by a Japanese pop singer, and methodically stretches it until it becomes a new sonic world. A more current series of pieces I’ve done recently use an electronic process I call “skinning,” where the shape and rhythm of one piece of music is “wrapped” around the harmony of another. Some very interesting things can result. Probably the best example of this is in my piece “Al-Noor.”

How have your many years in Japan influenced your music and career?

In many ways. First of all, just being in Japan serves as a place of constant stimulation, not only because of the arts scene but because of the fascinating urban soundscape. I rarely go outside without a handy portable recorder. But also the music scene itself here is interesting, and I’ve found a lot of musicians I enjoy playing with. I’ve been lucky to improvise with great musicians like Yoshihide Otomo, Yasuaki Shimizu and Yuji Takahashi.

What are some of the challenges you face as a foreigner on the faculty of a Japanese university?

The usual issues of language and culture differences, which of course get mediated over time. I was a freelance composer for many years before I took this job, so I had very little experience in academia besides my early years as a student at an American art school. Academic bureaucracies are problematic enough, but the Japanese seem to have raised them to an art form.

Japan is a hub of computer music. Tell us about a few favorite Japanese computer music composers.

Electronic music has a lot of important history here, going back to pioneering work by Toru Takemitsu, Yuji Takahashi, Akira Ikufube. These days I’m enjoying music by Ryoji Ikeda, Satanic Pornocultshop and Chihei Hatakeyama.

Tell us about your upcoming performances and new groups.

I’ll play on June 6 with Brian O’Reilly from Singapore, who performs as Black Zenith. In the fall, I’ll play with new group Tapakasa, featuring the great Akira Sakata on sax, Yumiko Tanaka on shamisen and Pearl Alexander on bass. We performed earlier this year as an experiment and liked the results so much we are planning to keep it going.

Metropolis, Jun 4, 2014

Gamarjobat: Mime duo jacks Tokyo

Japanese acts that first find success abroad often then have to convince domestic audiences to reimport them in a bit of legerdemain called gyakuyunyu. Something of a fallacy exists that overseas acclaim immediately translates to success here as well. “We are originally from Tokyo, but ended up performing overseas a lot,” Ketch! (the red-mohawked one) says about comic mime duo Gamarjobat’s trajectory since their discovery at Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival. “We tour Japan every year but we hadn’t done Tokyo much, so this time we decided to devote ourselves to the capital.”

Metropolis, Aug 2, 2013

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Festival/Tokyo 2012: Japan’s marquee theater fest defends free speech post-3/11

“In recent Japanese media… we can see a critical and dangerous increase in one-sided denunciations of risk-taking artists and art,” says program director Chiaki Soma in her notes for F/T12. To combat what she sees as a “nonchalant oppression,” Soma cobbled together a hard-hitting lineup of political theater for the fest’s fifth edition.

Metropolis, Oct 11, 2012