On Ishinha’s Final Show: “Amahara”

This article was originally published in the Japan Times Newspaper on September 27 2016.

Performing on deserted beaches and in villages, temples, dockland warehouses and urban railyards, few theater companies can have traversed the range of landscapes and settings that have inspired Osaka-based Ishinha.

Yet though journeys real and imagined have been key themes in Ishinha’s recent works, with the death of its founder and artistic director, Yukichi Matsumoto, in June at age 69, its members have decided the company, too, has sadly run its course.

Next month, however, with Matsumoto presiding in spirit, Ishinha (meaning “revolutionary or radical change”) will perform its final piece, titled “Amahara” (“Heaven Field”), in the grounds of the eighth-century Heijo Palace in Nara.

Matsumoto was first introduced to the UNESCO-listed World Heritage site by a friend in the late 1990s, when he was greatly impressed by the natural amphitheater with mountains and hills on three sides and the historic town of Asuka, seat of the Imperial throne from 538-710, to the south. At once he imagined it as a performance space, and wrote: “Standing on this meeting ground, which evokes history, one can feel the vast sense of space and remarkable depth of time.”

Although it’s a new work, “Amahara” draws heavily on elements of Matsumoto’s past plays, in particular what he called his “20th-century trilogy.” Loosely themed around the idea of migrations, that comprises “Nostalgia” from 2007, about poor Japanese emigrants to Brazil; 2008’s “Kokyu Kikai” (“Breath Machine”) about war orphans in Poland; and 2010’s “When A Grey Taiwanese Cow Stretched,” which draws on historic movements of people to and from Japan across the islands of Southeast Asia from Okinawa to Taiwan.

Hence in the upcoming final production — which features atmospheric, multifaceted music by Kazuhisa Uchihashi, Ishinha’s longstanding musical director who formerly founded and played guitar with the famed band Altered States — geographic references to sites around Heijo Palace tie into a broader spiritual sense of geography that was so fundamental to Ishinha’s work.

In addition, it will follow staging notes Matsumoto left — including one specifying that an abandoned, wrecked ship should be constructed in the palace grounds.

“Amahara,” too, marks the end of a formidable stage history dating from 1970 when Matsumoto, then a young fine arts graduate and butoh dancer, founded his Nihon Gekidan Ishinha (Revolutionary Theatre Company Japan), most of whose early works he wrote, directed and performed in. Then in 1990, he changed the company’s name to Ishinha and led it in a new direction.

The first major change was to create what Matsumoto called “yagai engeki” (outside theater). On one level, although he always argued that Ishinha’s aim was “to create entertainment,” this reflected his determination to position it apart from commercial theater structures in a radically different configuration from the status quo. On another level, it referred to his idea of “one-time theater”staged on temporary structures built by company members, local and other volunteers and aimed at opening small windows onto poetic landscapes for audiences to experience as participants in the exploration.

Another key change Matsumoto introduced was the company’s signature “Jan-Jan Opera” style. In Japanese, the onomatopoeia jan-jan means “relentless,” but it is also the name of a working-class area of Osaka near the company’s office. As a performance style for Ishinha, though, it featured choral chants, often in Osaka dialect, based on an irregular five-beat structure repeated seven times that Matsumoto conceived to reflect the vibrancy of Osaka street life.

With “Amahara,” performed by more than 40 people clad in Ishinha’s trademark white shirts, shorts and hats — including many with white-painted faces — comes a wonderful opportunity to enjoy Matsumoto’s final work, and an opportunity to reflect on his major contribution to Japanese theater culture. It’s not to be missed.

Cover image: Ishinha’s cast rehearse “Amahara” (“Heaven Field”) at the Heijo Palace in Nara. Photo copyright Ishinha.

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