Ōta Shōgo: Biography

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

Ōta Shōgo was born in 1939 in Jinan, China, and lived in Beijing until Japan's defeat in World War II brought its occupation of China to an end. Eventually Ōta matriculated to the political science department of Gakushūin University in Tokyo and, during the turbulent 1960s when the consuming political debate was on the renewal of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, he was active in both protest and theatrics. He left the university in 1962 without receiving a diploma.

Ōta's career can be divided into three periods. The first and short period was between 1962 and 1968, when he tried working in new shingeki (new drama) companies but was not satisfied with the quality of their art.

During his second and major period from 1968 to 1988, Ōta grew into a central figure in the angura (underground) counterculture and in the Tenkei Theatre Company (Gekidan Tenkei Gekijō, Theatre of Transformation) specifically. In 1970 he became the head, playwright and director of the Tenkei Theatre; over the ensuing years of collective activity, Ōta produced twenty-one plays with the company.  

It was through his collaboration with its members that he found his theatre of divestiture. In 1977 he produced the nō-inspired Tale of Komachi Told by the Wind (Komachi fūden), which made startling use of silence and stillness, winning the prestigious Kishida Drama Prize for it. In 1981 he produced The Water Station (Mizu no eki), his seminal play that epitomized divestiture, and for their performance his company received the Kinokuniya Theatre Award in the group category. Ōta led the Tenkei Theatre on international tours of The Tale of Komachi Told by the Wind and The Water Station to many venues in Europe, Northern America, Australia, and Korea. He disbanded the company in 1988 due to financial reasons, a few years after they relocated to the T2 Studio in western Tokyo.

In his third period from 1990 to 2007, Ōta was active as an independent artist, promoting not only his own but also other experimental performance work and criticism. He served as artistic director of the Fujisawa Civic Theatre in Kanagawa Prefecture between 1990 and 2000 and as vice president of the Japan Playwrights Association from 1992 to 2002. He was also senior professor at Kinki University from 1994 to 1998 and later chair of the Theatre Department at the Kyoto University of Art and Design and chief editor of its Performing Arts periodical.

Forces Shaping his Life and Art

In retrospect, we can see how certain childhood experiences worked as a shaping force in his aesthetics. He was six years old when his family undertook the long repatriation journey home from China. This involved long marches, living in tents, and further travel by freight train and ship. Ōta recalls in particular the extended march to Tianjin under the strict surveillance of the Chinese army. The Japanese ex-colonists were permitted to take whatever belongings they could carry with them. However, during the difficult trek that took two months, many people, losing strength, began to discard items that had become more burdensome than their worth. At rest points, these objects would rapidly pile up into mountains of junk.

The themes, scenography and style of his theatre can be related to these childhood memories. His intense concern with the ontology of human existence can be traced back to the need for sheer survival in his early childhood. A sense of the hardship of living and of the proximity of death characterizes his plays. Wide, bare landscapes through which characters travel, carrying their scanty belongings, provide the setting of all six of his Station plays written between 1981 and 1998. Piles of junk are prominent in The Water Station and The Earth Station (Chi no eki). The weak, disabled, and unwanted are featured in many of his plays, such as The Tale of Komachi Told by the Wind, Plastic Rose, and the Station plays.

Politics and Theatre

What also helped shape Ōta's orientation in the arts was his involvement in the major political crisis of the times, the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty in 1960. This treaty is a mutual defense agreement between Japan and the U.S.A., first ratified in 1951. In reality Japan could not come to the defense of the United States as it had and still has a peace constitution that forbids the deployment of its defense forces overseas for purposes of war. At the same time, the treaty's provisions allowed a substantial American military presence in Japanese territory. American submarines carrying nuclear armaments, which were also forbidden by the aforementioned peace constitution, were sometimes allowed in port. Due to these and other contradictions, the treaty was considered highly problematic by the younger generation of that period.

Ōta sympathized with the anti-JCP (Japan Communist Party) Bund faction and engaged in political consciousness-raising activities. However, his political activism was short-lived. His participation in rallies and agitation made him feel the futility of political expression-the inadequacy of the language of student activism and the limitations of its subculture. The aftermath to the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty turned into a long unsettling period of confusion for him.

Ōta's interests broadened from specific political issues to philosophical and cultural concerns. He read widely in existentialism, anthropology, psychology, cultural theory, theatre of the absurd, and the arts in general. His skepticism eventually made him choose theatre that was not overtly ideological as the best way to express his criticism of culture and his outlook on life. In his view, socialization breeds unquestioned cultural biases and fixity of mindset, leaving us unaware of the extent to which the values of the dominant culture are instilled in us. Thus, what seems like impartial observation and logical conclusions may be merely an exercise in a rigid perspective. Each of us must seek ways to subvert the prevalent cultural code so that new meaning can be engendered and recognized. While we each must live in culture, Ōta feels we must not be of it.

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