Ground and Floor: Toshiki Okada/Chelfitsch

Amongst the new generation of Japanese theatremakers, Toshiki Okada and his company Chelfitsch stands out with a unique theatrical vision and a willingness to tackle their country’s social malaise.

His work has also become very popular in Europe, programmed at many prestigious international festivals such as the KFDA and the Festival d’Automne in Paris. He made his international debut with Five Days in March in 2007, a production which introduced us to his unique style, blending strange, but characteristic movements with repetition to explore the concerns of Japanese youth.

His work always has a humorous element, a strong sense of irony, and sometimes a production can be hilariously funny in the ways it depicts the embarrassment incumbent on social conformism. This humour is derived from the performances given by Chelfitsch actors, who manage to invest everyday movements with something deliciously absurd. Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and the Farewell Speech, shown at the KFDA in 2010, made me laugh until I cried and yet it was also sad and I felt a deep empathy with the characters rendered ridiculous by their own sense of embarrassment and fear of making a social gaff.

The new work, Ground and Floor, is set in the distant future, or, as the surtitres tell us, maybe not so distant. Japan is under threat of invasion by China and Japanese is no longer the primary language spoken. The characters seem indicative of a society of people turned in on themselves, living in an apathetic present, resentful of the past and scared of the future. It is certainly more pessimistic that some of the previous Okada works I have seen.

The primary juxtaposition is between the dead mother and the wife of her eldest son. The mother refers to the wife as ‘this woman’ and the wife, who is pregnant, and soon to be a mother herself, complains that the mother’s ghost is haunting her, following her even though she is invisible.

The mother is an almost constant presence on the stage and her grave is marked by a glowing circle, a place where the youngest son goes to talk to her. He has been unemployed for two and a half years and eaten up with shame. Now he has found a job as a construction labourer and has salvaged his masculine pride. He will work to rebuild the land, and, when the war comes he will volunteer.

The wife on the other hand longs to leave Japan with her child; she doesn’t believe the living owe a debt to the dead, because life is hard and the living must protect the living. She will protect her child at all costs. Here, the parallel with the mother is clear, though they might have entertained different ideas about social norms and what maternal protection itself entails.

This piece is sad, full of loneliness, misunderstandings, doubt, insecurity, and a profound apathy generated by ambiguity towards Japans’ past as much as the decades of consumerist prosperity that have eradicated attachment to the land and to traditions..

The Chelfitsch style is still there, especially the strange movements, the simple staging, and there is even some humour. One character, a young woman who doesn’t speak English, and doesn’t want to learn, even though advancement in Japanese society is impossible without it, has retreated inside herself, left for a space where she can be alone. She is, ironically, the perkiest of the 6 characters, with a repertoire of appealing gestures and movements and well as a great deal to say for herself.

Breaking with the fourth wall, she starts to complain that surtitres are a nuisance because she speaks too quickly for them to keep up with her. Moreover, they are not synchronised with her speech. The surtitres represent difficulties in communicating, between individuals and cultures and the language issue also introduces social marginalisation into the equation.

The two sons seem instable on their feet, especially the youngest. The ground seems to be shifting under beneath him so that his body is occupied throughout with a sort of balancing act, like tightrope walking or surfing. The mother watches, wanting to reach out and help her children, incapable of intervening. Her ability to protect has reached its limits.

Ground and Floor is an apt title. The ground evokes the land, the soil, the earth in which the mother is buried and Japan’s historical culture. The floor is level, not so much in terms of equality, but in conformity. Okada shows in this work that conformity closes doors and silences expressions of personal feelings. But he also presents us in Ground and Floor with a disturbing present and frightening future: apathy, conformism, isolation, impotence, suicide, nationalism and war.

In spite of the slow, Noh-like pacing, this is a very courageous project, a voice of dissent.