By Takamichi Asakawa and Yuka Matsumoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WritersFeaturing actors' expressions and movements but little to no dialogue, nonverbal theater is becoming an increasingly popular form of nigthtime entertainment in Japan as performers dazzle audiences with sophisticated feats and clever visual stunts.
These nonverbal productions — sometimes called physical theater — feature mimes and acrobats. Its popularity spans the globe, with Cirque du Soleil and Blue Man Group from North America and the South Korean slapstick cooking show Nanta among the best-known acts.
Japan’s own nonverbal theater has set its sights on foreign tourists visiting Japan, with the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games presenting demand for entertainment that transcends linguistic barriers.
A scene from "Alata" at Alternative Theater in Tokyo
Characters are portrayed through magic, mime, break dancing and more in "Gear."
A performer clad in ninja attire greets audience members in the foyer of the Alternative Theater.
One example is "Gear," which is performed exclusively at the Art Complex 1928 theater inside the 1928 Building, a classical structure facing Sanjodori avenue in central Kyoto.
"Gear" premiered at the theater in 2012 after preview performances two years earlier. The show reached its 1,900th performance on July 24, having attracted around 140,000 audience members thus far. The venue’s 100 seats are almost always sold out, with foreigners accounting for 20 to 30 percent of viewers. On some days, more than half of the audience is from overseas.
Keito Kohara, the show’s executive producer, is committed to its long-term success, saying, "It’s important for people to believe you can watch this show any day."
Set in the dystopian near future, "Gear" takes place at a former toy factory manned by humanoid robot workers. The venue is visited by Doll, a former product of the factory.
With no spoken dialogue, the story is poetically conveyed using the latest projection mapping technology and excellent performances by the cast, who break-dance, mime, juggle and perform magic. The cast members change daily.
The production does not feature ninja, geisha or other icons of traditional Japan. Nevertheless, "Foreign viewers praise the show as very Japanese," said Kohara, who worked as a theater lighting designer for kabuki and other shows.
"I aimed to re-create the essence of kabuki, a form of composite art, through a contemporary approach," he said.
In "Gear," various types of performing arts are compactly combined in a way that might be likened to a makunouchi bento, a traditional boxed meal for theatergoers packed with rice and a variety of delicacies in small portions. Kohara believes this approach is fundamentally Japanese in a way that can’t be replicated by foreigners.
The play also benefits from its long run as it attracts an increasing number of repeat customers, who appreciate the show’s continual evolution.
Samurai entertainment in Tokyo
Meanwhile, last July, a new theater exclusively used for nonverbal shows opened in the Yurakucho district of Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo. Called the Alternative Theatre, it targets international tourists.
Its inaugural production, "Alata," which it plans to run for a long time, is an adventure fantasy in which the eponymous protagonist, a samurai, time-travels to the Tokyo of 2020 from the Sengoku warring states period of the 15th and 16th centuries. The protagonist meets Kokoro, a young female company worker, while also fighting evil spirits. Yuki Saotome plays the lead character, with Elina portraying Kokoro.
The show features superb sword fights and sophisticated dance sequences.
The 462-seat theater is run by Studio Alta. Its president, Kazutoshi Tanuma, said foreigners visiting Japan have told him that Tokyo’s nighttime entertainment is lacking.
Such comments motivated Tanuma to run a theater featuring shows that non-Japanese speakers can enjoy.
"Saotome has been trained by theater companies since childhood, while other cast members belong to a young generation that learned dancing as part of their compulsory education," Tanuma said. "I hope the audience appreciates the sophistication of their performances."
The production showcases elements that catch the eye of foreigners, like a congested train car and high-tech toilet, as a means of blending traditional and modern Japan on the stage. Visitors are greeted by performers dressed as ninjas in the foyer as part of the theater’s efforts at hospitality.
Other examples of emerging nonverbal theater are the Meijiza theater in Tokyo, which put on nonverbal performances last year, and Osaka’s OSK Revue company, which broke into the nonverbal genre earlier this year. In November, a theatrical adaptation of the popular Osamu Tezuka manga "W3" (Wonder 3) will also premiere at a theater in Shibuya, Tokyo.