At the outset, Toshiki Okada (b. 1973) and his theatre company chelfitsch (a coined word implying a child attempting to say the English word “selfish”) has gained their domestic and later international recognition, perhaps rather reluctantly, as a spokesperson of the so-called “Lost Decade generation.” In Japan, young people born between 1973 and 1982 entered the workforce around the turn of the millennium during the precipitous economic decline, which, in turn, decomposed the solid structure of society that sustained life-long employments, stable birthrates and reliable social insurances. Due to this unanticipated social change, Japanese citizens became literally lost. Naturally, thereby, their way of living as well as their way of thinking shifted drastically from the previous generation. Little wonder Okada applies a theatrical language different from the former Japanese theatre makers who, mostly, with certain exceptions, tend to resort to Western influenced canonical theory to develop poetically structured laconic verses. For Okada, in order to appropriately convey the concentrated sense of disquiet floating around in society, there was no alternative but to cultivate a new theatrical language per se from the contemporary soil.

In Five Days in March (2004), one of the company’s representative works, it is not difficult to discern that the performers’ speech acts as well as their movements are deeply reflecting the uncertain mindset of present Japanese society. For instance, the lines uttered are repetitive, diffusive and never logically coherent portraying their precarious minds. Further, as if to suggest the illusory permanence of individual identities, this discursive form of narration is delivered interchangeably by several performers on stage, who collectively share the fragmented thoughts of a single character. In accordance with this precarious speech act, physically, the performers on stage sway, tremble, mumble and wobble: quite simply their torpid bodies are never stable. By its own nature, Okada’s so-called “super colloquial Japanese” which experiments with the muddling everyday language of socially unsettling young people, alongside the wobbly yet eloquent “noisy style” of physical movement, gained recognition as the theatrical method distinct to his generation and his work.

For Okada, however, developing idiosyncratic theatrical language is a means to an end and not an end in itself. The director-writer asserted in a previous interview that the reason why he is experimenting with this diffusive verbal-corporeal theatrical method is because he is searching for a novel form that could effectively generate the “uncertain mood,” or the “kûki (literally, the air),” that pervades the contemporary Japanese society. “If that could be expressed in full effect,” he stresses, “it doesn’t matter which method is employed.” Therefore, as Okada elucidates in his latest book Sokou: Henkei shiteiku tame no engekiron (Towards the Upstream: For Malleable Theatrical Theory, 2013), he has constantly transformed or, to borrow his own words “updated,” his theatrical methodology according to the various uncertain “kûki” he intended to reify at that moment.

Especially, after 2007, when the company’s international debut took place in Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Belgium, which subsequently lead them to their expansive global success, Okada’s theatrical language transformed accordingly. This was due partly to the his upward social mobility which inevitably parted himself from the socio-economically vulnerable “Lost Decade” generation depicted in works such as Five Days in March (2004) and Enjoy (2006), and partly due to his decisive artistic choice not willing to espouse to the company’s own imputed modes. In short, chelfitsch has modified their theatrical language in consonance with the director’s and the company’s career shift, although, the creative point of departure has remained always the same: to detect and depict the “kûki” of the everyday life.

This peaceful everyday life, however, was disrupted in Japan after March 11, 2011. On this day, the country’s northeastern coastline, known as the Tohoku region, was hit by a complex catastrophe of earthquake and tsunami that later triggered mass nuclear fallout. And when what seemed to be a permanent normalcy suddenly disappeared, Okada could not help but to seek a theatrical language that speaks beyond the ephemeral quotidian struggles. One major shift observed was that he lost interest in updating the “newness” of theatrical language and, alternatively, gained interest in seeking contemporaneousness in the “oldness” of theatre. Another significant change was that a theatre maker who once declared his total lack of interest in creating “fictitious characters and stories that could undermines the power of reality,” suddenly started to develop fictional stories. For instance, Current Location (2012), which was presented in the aftermath of the event, was a Science Fiction-like story that portrayed the life of an ominous village rumored to perish in the near future, which ended in several villagers’ evacuation from Earth on an eerie spacecraft. In the line of thinking, one could assume that the director-writer is now seeking a traditionally rooted art form that could thrive beyond the readily perishable everyday life, which, in turn, may provide hope to the devastated people through an alternative reality called fiction on stage.

One of the latest productions, Ground and Floor (2013), is infused with theatrical vocabularies engendered by the Fukushima crisis: physically and aesthetically, the traditional Noh theatre form is employed in order to communicate with the dead; a soundscape reminiscent of a tremor and massive tsunami is composed by Japanese experimental music group Sangatsu; and performers provided with fictitious names deliver unsettling stories of the not-so-far future in Japan. It may well be that a company once labelled as an exponent of “the Lost Decade” generation, is now venturing to interpret a story of the lost nation.

Kyoko Iwaki

Kyoko Iwaki is a theatre journalist and researcher based in Tokyo and London. For over a decade, she has constantly contributed to major newspapers and journals. In 2011, her bilingual book Tokyo Theatre Today: Conversations with Eight Emerging Theatre Artists (Hublet Publishing, London / Tokyo) was published. In 2013, a biography Ushio Amagatsu: Des rivages d’enfance au bûto de Sankai juku was issued in France (Actes Sud, Paris).