Ian Carruthers and Takahashi Yasunari. The Theatre of Suzuki Tadashi.
More has been written in English about maverick theater visionary Suzuki Tadashi than any other contemporary Japanese theater director. This is no doubt because of his acclaimed international productions of Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, and Chekhov, in addition to his renowned Suzuki Method, a highly physical approach to acting, which is taught and practiced throughout the West. While Paul Allain's recent book The Art of Stillness (Menthuen, 2003) took the first step in updating earlier studies (namely articles by James Brandon, Yukihiro Goto, and Frank Hoff, and J. Thomas Rimer's landmark The Way of Acting) to incorporate the director's recent productions and activities, Carruthers and Takahashi's The Theatre of Suzuki Tadashi is able to offer, on the whole, a more illuminating account, thanks to their access to Japanese-language materials. Tremendous insight into Suzuki, his company (really, companies), and its critical reception is gained as a result of their incorporation of Japanese secondary sources, reviews, scripts, and Suzuki's own writing, much of which has yet to be translated into English.
Structurally the book is similar to Allain's, which it strangely does not acknowledge. It is divided into nine chapters and covers five main areas: (1) Suzuki's early influences and his oeuvre, (2) how Suzuki's work fits into the landscape of contemporary Japanese theater, (3) the impact of Suzuki's quest to decentralize theater and relocate his company outside of Tokyo, (4) the Suzuki training method, and (5) an examination of major productions. The book also includes several excellent photographs and a chronology of Suzuki's life through 2001. While the book is well written and highly informative, the authors neglect to position their work against Suzuki studies in Japan and the West. Nor do they explain, at the outset, their own personal interactions with Suzuki, which is a shame, as it becomes clear later in the book that Carruthers has had an ongoing relationship with Suzuki, as a practitioner and veteran observer. Partly because this is never done, the intermittent use of the first person "I" is jarring. The lack of a conclusion, not to mention why the final production discussed took place in 1998, six years before the book's publication, also raises questions about the study's currency. At the very least, some clarification of the choices for including certain productions and omitting others would have been useful, but perhaps the authors are to be excused, as the untimely death of Takahashi, who is credited for writing only two of the nine chapters, must have made the publication realization even more challenging.
At no point do the authors attempt to hide their enthusiasm for Suzuki's daring productions, stating that "he, more than any other living Japanese theatre artist, has contributed substantially to the modernization and postmodernization of Japanese theatre" (5). This claim is substantiated with concrete examples of Suzuki's work in which he has fused aspects of world classics and traditional Japanese theater forms, generally from Noh and Kabuki. Lest the reader mistakenly think that Suzuki has left these great traditions in their pure forms, the authors demonstrate how he leaves no classical dance step untouched, no text unaltered. He is constantly paring away words and movements, so that, in the case of many Western plays, only 5 percent of the original text remains. The authors take pains to defend such actions, showing that these works can only have meaning in Japan if, in Suzuki's words, it makes "reference to the specificities of Japanese society and theatrical history" (238). Just how Suzuki's relentless "return to roots" and engagement with social issues--ranging from the destruction of war, mental illness, imperial authority, and doomsday cults--differs from other current Japanese directors is a subject left unexplored.
How Suzuki differed from his contemporaries in the 1960s, however, is given due attention in the introduction, which clearly offers the reasons for Suzuki's decisive break with the left-wing, Stanislavski-inspired theater prevalent when he was a student at the prestigious Waseda University. After forming his own company with the playwright Betsuyaku Minoru, Suzuki, like other directors of the "small theatre movement," grew increasingly interested in prioritizing the actor's body over the text, a realization that would cause his rift with Betsuyaku, and inspire a life-long mission to work with the texts of mainly dead authors, from whom he could much more easily borrow and blend with other texts of his choosing, to create a "collage" effect. The fruits of this methodology are explored in excruciating detail in the six chapters that address Suzuki's individual productions.
The chapter on the "age of decentralization" tracks Suzuki's courageous move in 1976 to relocate his successful Tokyo-based theater company to the rural Toga Village in landlocked Toyama Prefecture, and then to Mito City in 1989, before becoming the director of the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center in Shizuoka Prefecture in 1995. Motivated primarily for economic reasons--owning land, much less organizing an international theater festival in Tokyo was and remains prohibitive--Suzuki was able to ride on the Japan Railway tourist campaign to "Discover Japan" as a means "to encourage tourism to remote, scenic areas" (36). Such a boon enabled the journey to isolated Toga, where Suzuki was able to realize his dream of an international theater festival, to "achieve the status of a secular pilgrimage" (39), which was often as important as the work itself.
As far as the chapter on Suzuki Training, Carruthers is at pains to explain the method as he is to disentangle what he sees as some misunderstandings that were reported earlier in English. Armed with some seven-years experience as a participant-observer of Suzuki (from 1991 to 1998), he shows how many of the so-called disciplines (referred elsewhere as exercises) have been inspired by, if not recycled from, traditional forms of Noh and Kabuki, but are never unadulterated copies. By juxtaposing several of the reports on Suzuki training that were written between 1976 and 1998, he shows how the method has not remained fixed, but has evolved as the needs of performers have changed over the years. He further offers a clear description of how disciplines incorporate a mixture of stomping, sitting, walking, squatting, and posing, over what can be very long periods of time, in order to foster mastery of bodily and breath control for the high-intensity productions that Suzuki famously demands. More than other past descriptions, Carruthers shows how vocal work is incorporated in the corporeal exercises, as for Suzuki, speech, too, "is an act of the Body" (95, 186).
Questions are raised about Suzuki's scorn for the Stanislavski method and psychological realism, however, when his actors, at times, appear to embody techniques that smack of the Russian director's methodology. Most telling is an anecdote in which one actor describes how Shirashi Kayoko, Suzuki's lead actress until 1989, refused to bathe in order to play her part with the right "smell in mind," and then later, encouraged actors to tie her up and whip her onstage, so that she was "able to create the feeling ... even when she wasn't hit" (108). Content aside, these exercises resonate with the very interior psychological posturing that Suzuki has disavowed. Unfortunately, this story is passed over without any additional comment.
The book's greatest contribution is the laborious documentation of Suzuki's productions, namely his adaptations of Japanese classics as well as his renditions of The Trojan Women, The Bacchae, Three Sisters, Ivanov, Macbeth, and King Lear. Once again, Carruthers deftly shows how these productions have evolved over time, often decades, as Suzuki is always tinkering With the material in a way that accommodates his performers and the chosen performance venue. Given Suzuki's own view "that, like the actor-centered texts of kabuki, his productions 'have no value in printed form'" (100), the production-centered analysis is much appreciated. Still, there are times when these readings get waded down in dense plot analysis, making it difficult to retain any sense of the overall intent or meaning of the production. The thick descriptions are rescued, however, by accounts of how the plays were received in Japan and abroad, and by due attention to how specific actors collaborated with Suzuki to create each production.
Indeed, while Suzuki is inevitably credited with crafting every production, it becomes clear that his work is only as good as the performers he trains. Carruthers and Takahashi have produced the most comprehensive work on Suzuki to date, giving readers the opportunity to vicariously experience Suzuki, and the inspiration to see his work live onstage.
CUNY Graduate Center
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2005|
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