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French Theater in Japan


2006 will see the thirtieth anniversary of the Guy Foissy theatre in Japan, where our classical contemporary playwrights – as well as Yasmina Reza and Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt – are staged on a regular basis. But what about our other contemporary playwrights? The International Institute of Theatre in Japan wants to promote them and has organised a contemporary French theatre festival in March for that purpose. A symposium will bring together Japanese directors and academics with French playwrights.       
Actes du Théâtre has asked Shintaro Fujii, a critic and academic, to take stock of the current state of contemporary French theatre in Japan.

What place does French-language theatre and playwriting have in Japan today? The answer is not very encouraging. French theatre does not have great visibility in contemporary Japanese society, despite the latter’s high consumption of cultural and ‘‘agricultural’’ products made in France such as films, songs, novels, poetry, dance, fashion, perfume, wine, cheese, champagne, foie gras… (and did you know that the museum most visited by the Japanese is inside the Louvre Palace?). French theatre seems to have moved to the fringes of the current Japanese landscape, although it was still the benchmark for modern theatre until quite recently.

The Current Response to the French Repertory and its Consequences

The 1960s and ’70s were a rich, almost euphoric era for theatre exchanges between France and Japan. The catalyst for this was Jean-Louis Barrault, who brought both traditional and contemporary Japanese theatre troupes and figures to Paris. A group of researchers got together with Barrault and founded the Franco-Japanese Theatre Association (afjth). In 1966-1967 this association published five volumes of plays and texts about the theatre entitled Théâtre français aujourd’hui, and it members left behind an impressive legacy of translations of French plays. Finally one could read all or most of the works of Corneille, Molière, Racine, Marivaux, Dumas, Giraudoux, Anouilh, Cocteau, Ionesco, Arrabal and Beckett.
The subsequent era was unexceptional. The Japanese people’s interest in what was happening abroad declined in the ’80s, a period when the country’s economic position was strengthened and the level of general culture plummeted (people became rich and stupid). Directors and audiences showed little interest in foreign plays. Oriza Hirata and Hisashi Inoue, two playwrights, had this to say in a book about Japanese as a spoken language: ‘‘The Japanese people undoubtedly have more to learn from themselves than from the Europeans’’ and ‘‘Japanese playwrights are at a very high level – among the five top nations.’’ One should not be surprised that these assertions are unfounded. That vague feeling of no longer needing to refer to European sources was a societal phenomenon of the times. Translations and performances of French and European plays became rare. The Franco-Japanese Theatre Association gradually became dormant (it is currently experiencing a reawakening), with one notable exception – Guy Foissy. Thanks to the enormous enthusiasm of Masao Tani, the Compagnie Guy Foissy was created and continues to exist in Japan. It is exclusively devoted to plays by Foissy, about thirty of which have been performed in Japan since 1977.
Luckily, an upswing in exchanges between France and Japan has been developing over the past ten years. This is due on the one hand to the development of public theatre and its concurrent subsidies – a recent phenomenon that only started in the ’80s on the part of community authorities and in the ’90s on the part of the Government – and on the other hand to an increasing interest in exchanges with other people in the theatre world. Two platforms for exchange have resulted: the Setagaya Public Theatre and Oriza Hirata (and his Agora Theatre).
The Setagaya Public Theatre, with two stages inaugurated in 1997, was mainly financed by the city of Setagaya and founded on the model of European, and especially French, public theatre (evident in its name). It is by far the most active theatre in Japan in terms of co-productions and international collaboration. Thanks to its French-speaking producer Megumi Ishii, the Setagaya Public Theatre not only buys many foreign performances (Oh les beaux jours, L’Homme qui… and La Tragédie d’Hamlet by Peter Brook as well as numerous French dance and circus productions), but also presents a large number of plays from the French repertory in the form of performances (Roberto Zucco, Dans la solitude des champs de coton by Bernard-Marie Koltès, directed by Makoto Sato), co-productions with French and French-language artists (Frédéric Fisbach for Les Paravents, Josef Nadj for a new work at the Festival d’Avignon 2006, or Robert Lepage for a Japanese version of Projet Andersen) as well as staged readings. This last aspect is of particular interest to us, as the theatre has produced J’étais dans ma maison et j’attendais que la pluie vienne by Jean-Luc Lagarce, Théâtre by Olivier Py, Les Drôles by Elisabeth Mazev, La Nuit juste avant les forêts by Bernard-Marie Koltès, La Demande d’emploi by Michel Vinaver, Anne-Marie by Philippe Minyana, Souterrains by Emmanuel Darley, and Histoires d’hommes by Xavier Durringer. It also collaborated with the Théâtre Ouvert in 2002 (staged readings of the four above-mentioned plays by Koltès, Vinaver, Minyana and Darley), with the Mousson d’été and the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 2004 on a staged reading of Durringer’s play directed by Michel Dydim.
Hirata’s theatre, a small and convivial space, has hosted French directors such as Frédéric Fisbach, François-Michel Pesanti, Laurent Gutmann and Arnaud Meunier. Several contemporary plays have been or will be performed there as part of the exchanges, including Nous les héros by Jean-Luc Lagarce, staged by Fisbach and Hirata in 2001, La Demande d’emploi by Michel Vinaver, to be staged by Meunier in May 2006 in Tokyo with Japanese actors.
Add to that the x Theatre (kaï), an alternative space in Tokyo, which frequently presents plays in translation with outside partners, although the quality of the productions is uneven. In March 2006, it organised a French theatre festival with iit-Japan featuring Erreur de construction by Jean-Luc Lagarce, La Ballade des planches and Jeux de planches (excerpts) by Jean-Paul Alègre, Les Cendres et les lampions by Noëlle Renaude, Babel Ouest, Est et Centre by Jean-Yves Picq, and Le Sas by Michel Azama (the translator for all the plays was Yasushi Sato, a member of the afjth). One shouldn’t forget the network of French cultural centres and above all the Villa Kujoyama in Kyoto, a residence for artists and writers run by afaa and the Kansai Franco-Japanese Institute.
Nonetheless, this list cannot hide the reality that French plays do not have sufficient visibility in Japan. With the exception of plays by Yasmina Reza and Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt, who have access to a wider public, French theatre strikes Japanese audiences as too artistic, too abstract and too distant. Few plays have enjoyed true productions, and even fewer have been published. The only title we have is the volume of three plays by Koltès (La Nuit juste avant les forêts, Dans la solitude des champs de coton and Roberto Zucco) which came out in 2001, translated by Takayuki Saeki and Megumi Ishii. What is the explanation for this absence or lack of French theatre?

Translation Problems

The first misfortune for our play translations is that the translators have most often been academics like me (alas!) who are far from being poets. Many academics don’t understand the idea of faithfulness (they often cheat in order to remain faithful), and tend to give preference to text over texture, and to meaning over sensations and sensuality. As a result the plays translated are unperformable and produce very little enjoyment when read. Furthermore, most Japanese speak badly. The gap between the oral and written language remains huge and is getting bigger as the oral language is evolving faster than the written one. And in the theatre, considered above all an art of the spoken language, audiences have great difficulty accepting the written word.
An even more fundamental difficulty is that translations are only conceived of on an ideal and imaginary plane between two standardised languages that are supposed to have perfectly corresponding systems of reference. Indeed, the grammatical and lexical regulation of the Japanese language undertaken after the Meiji Restoration undoubtedly made up for some of its deficiencies with respect to the new political, economic, scientific, social and cultural realities coming from the West, brought the two languages closer together and facilitated the job of translating up to a certain point (which is being done through economic globalization today, by bringing consumers’ lifestyles closer together). But poetic language is full of digressions and deviations from normal usage. Plays on words, double meanings, polysemy, deliberate vagueness – all characteristics of contemporary writing – are the enemies of our desire for word-to-word faithfulness (for instance, how can you translate the subtle difference in Quebec French from the French spoken in France without resorting to the use of dialect?).
Moreover, the organisation of the French and Japanese languages still differs so radically that the translator often has a feeling of powerlessness about the difficulty, and even the impossibility, of translating. Even to translate the simple word ‘‘I,’’ the translator hesitates about what solution to choose. The most neutral equivalent would be ‘‘watashi ha’’ (ha indicates the introduction of a subject), but with a slightly feminine nuance. If the subject is male one could also use ‘‘boku ha,’’ or even ‘‘ore ha,’’ with its greater feeling of virility and familiarity. But the most natural choice in Japanese would be not to have any subject at all in the sentence (a bit like in Italian). That would also be the most desirable choice, because if it were translated as ‘‘watashi,’’  the very light ‘‘I’’ would have four syllables in Japanese, completely altering the musicality of the text. This detail could become a major issue if for example one wanted to preserve the dry, rough and jerky tone in La Demande d’emploi. But it isn’t easy to respect the materiality of a language without sacrificing the meaning. 
This example of the pronoun is a sign that human relationships are not expressed in the same way in France and Japan. Japanese pronouns (and along with them, verbs and adjectives, and everything relating to levels of politeness) change according to the gender of the person and their relationship to the speaker. Japanese is a heavily gender-based language endowed with infinite degrees and varieties of polite phrases. This means that neutral expressions are practically  non-existent, making it a complex affair to translate a play such as J’étais dans ma maison et j’attendais que la pluie vienne. The play involves five women from the same family who are anonymous, speaking to one another through a choral voice that is only slightly differentiated. In Japanese, forms of address must be differentiated according to age; and feminising speech loads it with too many undesired connotations.
The Japanese language sometimes seems unsuited to transposing French plays. The specificity of theatre language resides of course in its double nature – reality and fiction, speech and writing; yet modern and contemporary Japanese theatre have always given preference to realism (and thus remain highly vulnerable to the criticism ‘‘that’s not how people talk’’). I believe this preference has a historical origin. After the failed attempt to modernise kabuki, traditional theatre contented itself with its own preservation and codification, controlling the way the ancient language was written (which has become almost foreign to us today) in rhymes, and endowed with great musicality, often sung and danced, and consequently far from realism. This left modern theatre with the sole task of constant renewal (resulting in productions that are continually repeated) and prose, in a modern language almost devoid of any musicality that is more spoken, more realist and poorer than the written language. For instance, modern Japanese has numerous homonyms typically used only in writing and not very suitable for the theatre, where everything must be understood the moment the word is uttered, with no confusion.

Translation, an Impossible Task?

‘‘Traduttore, traditore’’ : our profession indeed involves betrayal, as if we were doomed to fail. But I am not pessimistic. Translation, like love, is an impossible undertaking. It is useless to believe in partial or biased faithfulness. My question is this: if it is impossible not to betray, could we at least betray without cheating, and allow the play to reveal its own secret dimension? Meanwhile, we dream of one day being capable of inventing a new language for the stage that would enable us to have the writing heard and the speaking read.

  Fujii Shintaro
Associate Professor, School of Letters, Arts and Sciences,
Waseda University (Tokyo)

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