Ikichatte Dousunda (What’s the point in living?)
Review by Matt Perkins, (Dec. 2012)
Ikichatte Dousunda (What’s the point in living?) was a darkly comic epic, a one man montage to mark the 50th birthday of its creator Matsuo Suzuki. The show swept through almost 100 years of Japanese history in its search for the immortal figure of Suzuo-chan. A series of character sketches were strung together with the help of projected newsreel footage, text and video art. The play was glitzy, absurd and irreverent, remoulding real world tragedies such as Hiroshima, the 2010 Tsunami and the Fukushima disaster around the surreal story of its fictitious mystery man.
I ought to strike a word of caution when it comes to trying to see comic theatre, especially a one-man play, in Japanese. Unfortunately, neither the inventive flashy projections nor Suzuki’s infinite ability to warp his voice and his body to fit each larger than life persona was enough to make up for, as a non-native speaker, feeling totally baffled and a little stupid. The packed theatre was in stitches. I straining to listen out for the one word in twenty that I knew. Seeing a film or a play in a foreign language can feel a little like learning, the hard way, to know your limits. But this shouldn’t encourage tourists or elementary Japanese speakers to lose hope if they do want to investigate Japanese contemporary theatre. Just keep your expectations realistic and don’t imagine you will always chuckling along with your neighbour.
When we first met Suzuki he was in drag, framed by a throne of red-roses, playing a down and out chanson singer who had undergone an impossible number of transgender operations. She spoke allusively of her mentor Suzuo-chan who had mysteriously disappeared. Next we were in a railway office where a young man was being questioned by a railway staff member after touching a girl on a train. The young man started babbling about Suzuo-chan, a model who he’d fallen in love with while working as an art teacher. He also told the railway staff member that Suzuo’s descendants had all been born with horns on their heads and had all suffered the same fate: their horns grew, doubled back and pieced their hearts, heads or genitals. Next we were with the instructor of zombie film extras taking us through his peculiar art. He too had come across the mystery man on a research trip to an old people’s home (the elderly being natural zombie method-actors). Next a rock-and-roll councillor, drinking whisky and leaning back in a leather chair, listened to the worries of a robot who wanted to be a pop idol. The councillor was the grandchild of Suzuo and he too had a horn growing from his head which, at the end of the interview, pierced his jaw and stabbed him in the heart. The last figure, an impostor posing as a policeman, told a pack of lies to a film director about discovering his father’s gun in the wreckage of the Tsunami. The film director, offstage, explained he was looking for Suzuo-chan. The impostor had know Suzuo and lived with him for several years. The imposter the director and, after a second’s blackout, had changed into his clothes. Having killed the film director, the impostor stole his truck and set off for Suzuo’s secret hideout, a bunker below the wreckage of Fukushima.
Mad and complex, I understood very little of all of this. Misato kindly explained these ins and outs over an hour after the show. Fortunately, I was able to tell her that I hadn’t been completely bored. There was a warm sense of triumph when something clicked or I found something funny. The chanson’s singer’s mimed battle with a shower head in a crumbling business hotel and her terrible songs were universally hilarious; the convicted pervert’s short epiphanies were played slowly in a pre-recorded deep voice, were just about at my level of Japanese and surprisingly comprehensible; the zombie instructor’s bizarre tutorial, his thrashing out at invisible zombies, his angry insistence that ‘a zombie doesn’t eat human food or other zombies’ needed no translation. The most enjoyable segment by far was when we actually met Suzuo. The set was transformed into his bunker. Plastic Asahi-beer crates propped up a kind of underground shanty. The 100-year-old man himself, as in the poster-image, was wearing nothing but a loincloth he cut off from his bed sheet. He did a mock ballet across the stage to Tchaikovsky preparing a bowl of ramen, breaking a couple of eggs against the back-wall before finally eating the noodles and spitting them everywhere crying ‘attsui!’ (too hot). I didn’t need Misato to explain the significance of the final minutes in which Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ played over the speakers and Suzuo-chan ran on the spot, evading falling bombs as flames engulfed the stage.
I might hesitate before seeing another one of his shows anytime soon though and learn to know my limits. Perhaps I just need to cram a little more vocabulary next time around. On the other hand tourists or non-Japanese speakers shouldn’t be put off seeing even a show as mad as this. Allow for a little frustration and settle for what you can understand, you still might learn a little bit about the incredible mind of a hugely talented performer.
I studied English Language and Literature at Oxford University and am currently studying Japanese at the Japan University of Economics in Fukuoka. I enjoy writing, directing and watching plays, theatre and dance. I am interested in learning more about Japan’s performing arts. As it can be tricky, especially with elementary Japanese, to track down the best shows I started this guide as a way to help English speakers stay up to date with what’s on. Keep checking the Fukuoka Now blog for up to date information about the performing arts in Fukuoka.