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The Methuen Drama Book of Contemporary Japanese Plays

Tomohiro Maekawa, Satoko Ichihara, Shiro Maeda, Takuya Yokoyama, Yuko Kuwabara
Methuen Drama
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The Methuen Drama Book of Contemporary Japanese Plays

Given that, regardless of empire, the British tend to be an insular race with an aversion to any foreign language, it is hardly surprising that we know very little about contemporary Japanese drama.

Indeed, Japanese culture in general is a closed book for most in this country. Therefore, this new collection, supported by The Japan Foundation, is very welcome, shining a light on the work of Japanese playwrights born in the 1970s and 1980s.

Those that have some familiarity with contemporary Japanese novelists such as Haruki Murakami will know that they often appear to have a very different sensibility from those in the English-speaking world and what we might see as that quirkiness is also apparent in some of these plays.

In the fullness of time, it would be good to think that some of these plays might make it to a UK stage.

The Bacchae Holstein Milk Cows by Satoko Ichihara

Ostensibly, this is a modern reworking of the classic Euripides drama. However, unless you are familiar with the structure of ancient Greek plays, you would be unlikely to notice the parallels.

Instead, this comes across as an ultramodern meditation on the fevered imagination of a lonely woman whose views on life, family and artificial insemination are novel, sometimes amusing, sometimes confusing.

One Night by Yuko Kuwabara

One Night also tends towards the surreal. The play opens with a kind of prologue during which we discover that its protagonist has murdered her abusive, violent husband in order to prevent further physical harm to their children.

We then roll forward 15 years to follow the activities of a taxi company, a useful tool for playwrights as August Wilson demonstrated in Jitney.

As mother returns, all kinds of unlikely goings-on enliven a couple of hours of playing time, many of them rather strange and not always entirely clear to Western eyes.

Isn't Anyone Alive? by Shiro Maeda

This likeable absurdist drama contains much black humour and is set around a university and hospital in the aftermath of what might be a large-scale, fatal rail accident.

For the most part, it follows a group of people going about their relatively mundane lives, in particular focusing on an impending wedding, which has been thrown into confusion after a former lover of the groom informs him that she is pregnant.

What might have been a simple tale with soap operatic overtones takes on a much darker mantle as the protagonists start to die with increasing rapidity.

The Sun by Tomohiro Maekawa

The Sun takes us into an alternative future where society has been divided into Curios (people like us) and Nox (nocturnal beings who never age).

A virus is involved and relations between the two groups are inevitably strained, even though it is possible for Curios to transform into Noxs.

Tomohiro Maekawa has written an intelligent play that asks some challenging questions about our own lives through the medium of racy science fiction.

Carcass by Takuya Yokoyama

The final play in the collection is a gritty black comedy set in a slaughterhouse.

As the introduction explains, this is as low a job as Japanese society can offer but contrarily, as there is nothing else, the workers are keen to remain in employment.

The tale is sparked off when a brain stem disappears, with an implicit threat that BSE could be spread.

Two experienced workers leaders through the drama explaining the significance of their jobs along the way. They are kept company by a young visitor, who just happens to be the heir to a meat empire that could secure or destroy their futures.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher