Ōta Shōgo’s Theatrical Vision

This essay is derived from Mari Boyd's book Aesthetics of Quietude.

Ōta Shōgo's artistic aim in theatre is to create a perspective of death that enables the audience to distance itself from society and see humans, not as individuals nor even as social beings, but as a species travelling from birth to death. His method of divestiture creates plays dominated by silence, slow movement and empty space.

The underlying principle of divestiture is passivity. Instead of trying to actively transmit meaning to the audience, passivity compels the audience to participate imaginatively in the pursuit of signification and pleasure.

Ōta's passivity is an adaptation of the concept of "doing nothing" set forth by Zeami Motokiyo, a major nō actor, playwright and theorist of the fifteenth century. On the surface, traditional nō characters may hold a static posture, but a heightened dynamic energy is maintained so that there is a subtle liveliness to the pose. Extrapolating from this acting technique, Ōta applies passivity to all aspects of performance.

While Ōta's affinity with Zeami is strong, it would be a mistake to assume that Ōta modelled his performance code on nō drama from the very beginning. When Ōta decided to produce his seminal work, The Tale of Komachi Told by the Wind (Komachi fūden, 1977), on a stage, his initial objective was to pollute the stage with contemporaneity. However during rehearsals, he felt that the stage with its 500-year history had rejected the flimsy dialogue of his play. He suppressed the lines of the main character, Komako, and in doing so found the power of passivity in the ensuing silence.

When passivity is operative, the audience is able to experience the perspective of death, a hypothetical viewpoint outside human life. Phantasmal nō also offers a similar perspective. In this kind of nō, a traveler arrives at a place famous for some hero or event; a local person (called the shite) relates the story of the place to the traveler and then reveals himself to be the ghost of the legendary personage. In the second act, the ghost returns in his former human identity and performs his tale as a dance. Ōta's perspective of death can be interpreted as a contemporary way of presenting the shite's view of life from the other side of the river.

Ōta notes that metaphoric death experiences such as illness, anaesthesia, or space travel can often elicit an overwhelming affirmation of life. In his theatre he wants his audience to have such near-death experiences so that they are assailed by feelings of strangeness and dislocation when stepping out of the theatre building and back into the ordinary world. Then they will be able to see their man-made environment with new eyes, with sadness and hope.

The three components of Ōta's code of divestiture-silence, stillness, and empty space-work together to create the metaphoric distance necessary for the defamiliarizing effect of the perspective of death. The stripping of dialogue, and by extension of characterization, and plot, leads to a distancing from the verbal and social dimensions of human life and relations; the lack of speed creates dissociation from the frenetic pace of urban life, and the minimalistic stage sets of basic elements like water, sand, and wind create distance from socio-political concerns and invite the viewer to a larger, cosmic outlook on human existence.

Ōta's best known play, The Water Station (Mizu no eki, 1981), exemplifies his theatre of divestiture. It won him the prestigious Kishida Kunio Drama Prize in 1981.

Overview of Ōta's Plays

Ōta Shōgo's dramatic output can be divided into two groups-his silent Station plays and his spoken plays with the latter including a subdivision of modern nō-like plays.

Written between 1977 and 1998, his Station plays are dynamic illustrations of his vision of theatre. Silent, still and set in elemental landscapes, they include besides The Water Station, The Earth Station (Chi no eki 1985), The Wind Station (Kaze no eki, 1986), The Sand Station (Suna no eki, 1993), The Water Station 2 (1995) and The Water Station 3 (1998). While the early Station plays portray scenes of sterility, devastation, and cultural collapse, the latter ones dating from 1993, are more hopeful of the regeneration of civilization and are brighter in tone.

Ōta Shōgo wrote almost thirty spoken plays during his career. In general they reiterate the same concerns about human existence as the Station plays but with a stronger absurdist touch. Particularly noteworthy are Afternoon Light (Gogo no hikari, 1987), Sarachi (1991) and Elements (1994).

If we consider 1977, when he wrote The Tale of Komachi Told by the Wind, a watershed year, the eight spoken plays he devised before 1977 comprise a subgroup that explores the subject of the body that dies through the themes of old age, death, and social marginalisation. From 1977, Ōta's focus shifts to using the actor/character's body itself as a new decodable language (rather than words). Particularly in the subgroup of modern -like plays-The Tale of Komachi Told by the Wind (1977), Home (Sumika 1977), Afternoon Light (1986), and Sarachi (1991)-Ōta's debt to and its non-naturalistic use of the body is conspicuous. Their prominent similarities with drama are in the use of the pattern of remembrance, beauty in old age, and rhythmic structuring through ja-ha-kyū and yin-yang. For further discussion on these plays, refer to Boyd 2006.

Contribution and Influence

A major figure in the angura (underground) theatre movement that began in the 1960s and a vocal critic of shingeki realism, Ōta Shōgo nurtured the avant garde spirit by encouraging artistic risk-taking.

While Japanese playwrights are inspired by his daring experimental theatre, few directly apply his method of divestiture. The influence seems to take more subtle and diverse forms. A number of non-Japanese experimental directors and actors have been attracted to his art and have taken up the challenge of producing his Station plays or applying his method. Those fascinated by its quiet possibilities include director-actor Phillip Zarrilli (The Water Station, 2004), who uses yoga-based kalarippayattu training techniques to achieve the same quality of divestiture, and some younger emerging artists like playwright-director Wang Chong (The e-Station, 2008) who apply the method to create new plays.

Ōta himself was acutely aware of the greater importance of experimentation itself than the need for the transmission of particular performance codes. Whether as head of the Tenkei Theatre Company (Gekidan Tenkei Gekijō 1968-1988) for eighteen years or as artistic director of the Fujisawa Civic Theatre in Kanagawa Prefecture for a decade, he was a prominent social force in the arts world, providing daring emerging artists with venues to showcase their art.

Ōta in the Context of Japanese Theatre

The socio-theatrical background to Ōta's career is defined by the development of modern Japanese theatre, which is usually divided into two movements: from the end of the Meiji period (1868-1912) to the 1960s and from the 1960s to the present time. Each movement provoked a major paradigm shift: the first from traditional theatre forms to modern realistic shingeki, and the second from shingeki to angura theatre. Looking back on modern Japanese theatre history, it is clear that Ōta Shōgo was nurtured by shingeki with its rich evocative drama. Yet he quickly rejected its textual basis, its espousal of socialism as a means of depicting the nature of reality, and its commercial concerns. Thus his theatre belongs to the angura period that spawned a variety of presentational theatre forms.

The most striking change that underlies the shift from shingeki to angura is the restoration of the actor's body as the fundamental means of dramatic expression.

Eager to privilege the physicality of the actor, angura artists sought new dramatic theories and work milieus. In terms of theatrical vision, they were anti-shingeki, theoretical, and experimental; their dramatic works were "larger-than-life" and had a complex, non-linear structure; their creative process, improvisational and collaborative; their venues, found space. In both theory and practice, the angura were at the cutting edge.

These artists belonged to the same generation, possessed a fundamentally modernist mindset, shared certain socio-political experiences-such as their failure to prevent the renewal of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, a desire to expose the contradictions of society, break its taboos, and express its unspeakable yami (darkness). However, they held no common political agenda or dramatic theory. The theatre they created grew extremely diverse as each company found its own mode of unique artistic expression. Included in this diverse group of highly talented theatre practitioners are playwright Betsuyaku Minoru (b. 1937); playwright-directors Terayama Shūji (1935-83) and Satoh Makoto (b. 1943), playwright-director-actor Kara Jūrō (b. 1940), and director Suzuki Tadashi (b. 1939).

Belonging to this period, Ōta Shōgo's theatre of divestiture is the example par excellence of how physicality can supplant verbal text.


The dramatic works of the first wave artists are "larger-than-life" and have a complex, non-linear structure. "Larger-than-life" refers to the tendency of many of the plays to initially portray a mundane routine life, yet later reveal a mythical substructure or malevolent reality that undermines social conventions and values.[i] The characters at first sight seem "normal" but turn out to be social dropouts, the insane, ghosts and the like. Terayama, Kara, and Suzuki Tadashi created flamboyant, stylized figures that made a mockery of realism. Betsuyaku drew subtle portrayals that revealed a malevolent reality.

To enhance the actor's stage presence, first wave companies took two approaches. One was strenuous physical training complemented by gentler methods. For example, the Tenkei Theatre used a combination of long-distance running and yoga, while the Takeuchi Theatre Research Center (1972-88) and butō dance groups employed Noguchi calisthenics to help sensitize the actor's body. The second approach was to adapt acting methods from the traditional theatre arts and from avant-garde European theatre. As already noted, Ōta Shōgo and Suzuki Tadashi profited from concepts and forms. Suzuki, Kara Jūrō, and Terayama Shūji were inspired by the extroverted acting style of kabuki; Suzuki and Kara also adapted surrealistic juxtaposition and displacement to their own purposes; and Satoh Makoto experimented with Brechtian concepts of alienation and spaas.

Performance space is another area in which shingeki principles were negated by the first wave artists. Every effort was made to nullify the fourth wall concept represented by the proscenium arch and dividing curtain, which are basic to shingeki.

In this respect, the use of found space for performance was particularly beneficial for the first wave. Due partly to poverty and partly to social stigma, these companies did not have easy access to commercial theatres or public halls. Their angura stance of ill-concealed hostility and rebellion antagonized the conservative management of municipally operated halls and rental theatre buildings. Turning a disadvantage into a positive attribute, they used nontraditional space in innovative ways: basements, coffee shops, warehouses, private homes, tents pitched in parks and shrines, or the street-all became places for theatrical statement.[ii] Most of these spaces had limited capacity, with shōgekijō venues of this period typically having seating for 300 or so. Indeed, it could be argued that many of the plays and their acting style were made for small spaces and that the effect of the performances would have become diffused in a larger area.[iii]

Of these companies, the most radical-those in environmental theatre-viewed theatre as a socio-political movement and used mobile methods to reach their audience: tents and the street. For example, Kara Jūrō's Situation Theatre used a red tent and Satoh Makoto's company a black one. Terayama Shūji's company also experimented with street theatre.

Their approach to the audience ranged from educational to transgressive; indeed, their purpose was to make the audience question ingrained notions of the role of the audience. Being the audience had to mean more than just being a passive consumer of entertainment; it had to be a creative participation, though not necessarily a physical one. Thus to stimulate self-awareness, the productions were often designed to make the audience feel uncomfortable in the performance space-sometimes physically, but more often psychologically.

In this way, the first wave artists of the shōgekijō tried to transcend the modern as represented by shingeki.


[i]. The term "larger-than-life" and its paired opposite "life-size" were formulated by Yamazaki Tetsu, a second wave playwright. See Senda Akihiko 1983, 348.

[ii]. Theatre critic Miyagishi Yasuharu is one of the few who argue that the disuse of the curtain and proscenium arch was mainly circumstantial and not theoretically validated. See Miyagishi, 99-101.

[iii]. Senda Akihiko professes that from the 1960s on, the maximum capacity of a shōgekijō space is considered to be 400 (1999).

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