Mourning in, as and for the Theatre: the case of Ishinha’s Amahara

Paper given at the 15th International European Association of Japanese Studies Conference, at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Lisbon, Portugal. 31 August 2017.


Performing on deserted beaches, and in villages, temples, dockland warehouses and urban railyards, few theatre companies have traversed the range of landscapes and settings that inspired the Osaka-based Ishinha. Yet though journeys real and imagined had been key themes in Ishinha’s recent works, with the death of its founder and artistic director, Yukichi Matsumoto, in June 2016, its members decided the company, too, had run its course.

In October, with Matsumoto presiding in spirit, Ishinha performed its final piece, titled Amahara (“Heaven Field”) in the grounds of the eighth-century Heijo Palace in Nara. Impressed by this natural amphitheatre with mountains and hills on three sides and the historic town of Asuka, seat of the Imperial throne from 538-710, to the south, Matsumoto quickly saw its potential as a performance space.

Although Amahara was presented as a new work, it drew on elements of Matsumoto’s past plays, including what he called his “20th-century trilogy”: three plays loosely themed around the idea of migrations. The trilogy comprises Nostalgia from 2007, about poor Japanese emigrants to Brazil; 2008’s Kokyu Kikai about war orphans in Poland; and 2010’s When A Grey Taiwanese Cow Stretched, which looked at the historic movements of people to and from Japan across the islands of Southeast Asia from Okinawa to Taiwan.

Hence in Amahara, geographic references to sites around Heijo Palace tied into a broader spiritual sense of geography that was fundamental to Ishinha’s work. The piece followed staging notes Matsumoto left — including one specifying that an abandoned, wrecked ship should be constructed in the palace grounds as the setting for the production.

In the wake of the director’s death, the production took on a different meaning. The site became a funeral ground, and the performance a ceremony, attended by “pilgrims” to celebrate forty years of stage history. Reading Amahara as performance, site and community, this paper will ask what it means to mourn in, as and for theatre in the 21st century.

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