Life isn’t all about drama and conflict. In a world filled with stories of philandering, violence, slapstick comedy, and bombastic expressions of love, we encounter stories that stand out as simple as they may be. It may be a group of students forming a band, a young girl working in a restaurant, or a bartender serving drinks to problematic people. Japanese enthusiasts may be familiar with this literary genre, known as “slice of life”.
In literary terms, “slice of life” relates a character’s ordinary experiences, with no clear plot or conflict, and capped at times with an open ending. The theatrical arts expands its definition as the naturalistic representation of everyday events. It can go as far as presenting the misadventures, and struggles of characters as they go about their lives.
Japanese playwright and director Oriza Hirata captures this form of realism, with his focus on the quiet and uneventful moments in a person’s life. The effective expression and depiction of such moments is the gist of his theater theory called the “contemporary colloquial theater” or “quiet theater”.
Hirata discussed his theory in “How to Write? What to Write?”, a lecture held on July 13 by The Japan Foundation, Manila in cooperation with the Cultural Center of the Philippines and Tanghalang Pilipino Foundation, Inc.
The birth of modern theater in Japan began with the adaptation of Western theater styles. However, Hirata says importing these styles caused problems in the local scene, particularly because of the flow of the Japanese language. This resulted to a mismatch between Japanese and Western writing styles and logical structures. Actors, who had to work on such irrelevant styles, ended up practicing distorted acting styles, which, Hirata adds, pushed away their viewers in the process.
Hirata created the Seinendan Theater Company in 1983 as a means to develop the “contemporary colloquial theater” theory, and create an innovative theatrical style that will adapt to these changes. This theory would gain popularity in the 1990s, which saw a revolution among a younger generation of playwrights.
Hirata believes that the role of contemporary art is to express what artists think, and give their audiences the chance to react. His goal is for actors, writers, and directors to use the theory to express themselves in their own words, in the hopes that a new and practical theater art will lead to a true depiction of Japan’s contemporary society.
Hirata further stresses the importance of his theory by comparing rural and urban settings. In rural areas, residents hold boisterous and colorful festivals to ease the monotony of their environment. Urban life, on the other hand, introduces too much stimuli, causing stress and leaving little chance for peace and quiet.
The “quiet theater” celebrates these peaceful moments. It acknowledges that life can be entertaining, graceful, funny, and stupid. Theater practitioners need to abstract and reconstruct these elements to convey them directly on stage.
Contemporary colloquial theater reflects on the quiet moments in the lives of Hirata’s characters, while staying true to the norms of society. Hirata’s most popular play, “Tokyo Notes”, examines the interactions of the characters visiting a museum as they reflect on their lives, future, and roles in society. Some characters talk with their backs to the audience, while others speak at the same time, mirroring a realistc scene inside a museum, thus providing an example of his theory at work.
An earlier work, “Citizens of Seoul”, looks into a Japanese family’s life during the occupation of Korea in 1909. By capturing the innocently exuded superiority complex of Japan as Korea’s colonizer, Hirata poses to its audience the question “How does it feel to rule over another?”
Contemporary colloquial theater is gaining popularity among theater practitioners as an original theater theory. Hirata acknowledges that his theory may influence other creative minds outside the theater scene. He believes the application of his theory can be seen in the popularity of the “slice of life” genre, which emphasizes the creation of realistic stories and characters in anime, manga, and other forms of entertainment.
Seinendan has collaborated with theater groups from France, China, Korea, Canada, and other Southeast Asian countries to develop and practice Hirata’s theater theory. Their latest project involves plans for an adaptation of “Tokyo Notes”, aptly called “Manila Notes”. How a scene in a museum in Manila will be portrayed in this manner will surely be worth looking forward to.
By understanding Hirata’s quiet theater approach, a theatergoer encountering plays with such themes may find himself reflecting on the simpler, quieter aspects of life amidst the noise and chaos of society. This may help him find his place in a fast-paced society that needs a breather and some time to enjoy a “slice of life”.