1 October 2005

Squatting on the Philosophy of Performance ---- Tadashi Suzuki and Body Reconstruction

Today (6 Aug) is the sixtieth commemoration of the nuclear bomb in Hiroshima and this reminds me of a line from Yukio Mishima, “the sky of war is as blue as the sky of Greece”. He urged post-war Japanese literature to take modernity as its vantage point and to reflect on the post-war Japan with a new concept. The active reflection and optimistic attitude were some of the common traits of Japanese post-war arts scene. The Japanese little theatre movement is one of the examples.

Japanese little theatre started at the pre-war era and bloomed in the 1960s and 1970s. Following Ibsen’s social realism, the pre-war theatre was primarily concerned with individuality and social reality. This was the germination period that transformed theatre from sheer entertainment to theatre with a social function and set the background for Japanese modern theatre. After the war, Japan came under America’s greater capitalist system and was virtually a subordinate nation to the US in terms of politics, economy and military. After the failure of the anti- “US-Japan Security Treaty” movement, young Japanese began to seek alternative channels for their political views and there, they found the little theatre. The 60s witnessed the setting of students’ theatre groups which had a great impact on Japan’s modern theatre in the years to follow. Among them were Tadashi Suzuki, Shuji Terayama, Yukio Ninagawa, etc. These groups started with reflections and criticisms on Japan’s responsibility for the war as an invader and later moved towards the investigation of the theatrical body at the wake of the “self” under the existentialist influences.

Tadashi Suzuki is one of the theatre masters and theorists
emerged from the 1960s. For Suzuki, the actor’s body is not a tool to progress the plot but “the plot in progression”. An actor is the centre and subject of drama. It is only through his/her body that theatrical tensions and climaxes surfaced. Instead of serving the drama as one of the many elements, the body should be served by the drama to reveal its inner energy. The traditional relationship of body and drama is completely reversed in Suzuki’s theory. Suzuki’s earlier works such as Matters Related to Theatricality I, II, III (1969 – 1970) were exploring these principles. In the process of experiments, Suzuki found the classical body in Noh and Kabuki. He was attracted to Noh’s animal-energy in theatre (as opposite to modern theatre’s extensive deployment of electricity and technology) and the creation of theatrical effects through pure bodily movements and expression. Suzuki thus employed the unique virtues of Noh and Kabuki to create his own theatrical language and training – the Suzuki Method.

Suzuki’s method of training consists of two parts, the abdominal breathing and the stomping steps. The abdominal breathing is to train actors to “speak powerfully with clear articulation”, and even when they remain static on the stage, their bodies continue to speak to the audience. In other words, this is, for Suzuki, how an actor exists on stage. Suzuki also divides the body into upper and lower halves. The actors have to stomp on the floor in a semi-squatting posture for a certain period of time without swaying the upper body. This training is “to develop concentration on the body through controlling the breathing”. Suzuki believes that the “consciousness of the body's communication with the ground leads to a greater awareness of all the physical junctions of the body”. This is also a reflection of the close affinity between the body and the floor in Japanese culture.

In fact, these two techniques are innate survival skills for pre-war Japanese. Suzuki pointed out that in traditional Japanese houses there were wooden roka (hallways) situated between rooms which were constructed with paper walls and doors. Since walking in socks on the wooden floor would be very slippery and that somebody might be sleeping inside the rooms, everyone acquired the skill to walk with concentration and in semi-squatted gesture which is similar to Noh or Kabuki techniques. However, America’s two nuclear bombs destructed 80% of the traditional houses and the post-war apartments no longer provide the necessary environment for the training of the classical body.

Another effect of Americanization on Japanese life is the introduction of
Western toilet. Quoting from the post-war director, Takeshi Tetsuji, Suzuki explained that the traditional Japanese toilet requires one to squat and lower the hips. In order to maintain balance, one needs to learn how to put strength in their lower body in a specific way. Since this is not a very comfortable gesture, one learns to finish one’s business very quickly and this requires the skills of controlling breathing and the lower body muscles that regulate the breathing. Now, with the sit-toilet, one loses the physical ability to concentrate the energy in the lower part of the body.

Though this theory is not without fault, Suzuki is able to take the classical body as the basics of Japanese culture as well as the basis of his theatre works. Such as in Euripides’ Trojan Women, the actors used squatting posture to express their innermost feelings. By the deployment of modern theatrical techniques, Suzuki masters the skills of translating classical Greek tragedies into the contemporary socio-political context. Other adapted plays include Shakespeare’s King Lear, Chekhov’s Three Sisters, etc.

Today, Suzuki is the founder and director of SCOT (Suzuki Company of Toga) as well as the Artistic Director of Shizuoka Performing Arts Centre of Fujiyama. He also organized Japan’s first international theatre festival, Toga Festival, in 1982. This September, LCSD is going to present one of Suzuki’s important works – Dionysus. Through dealing with the conflicts between Dionysus, the god of wine, and Pentheus, the king of Thebes, Suzuki introduces his world-view to the audience.

Further Reading
Tadashi Suzuki. The Way of Acting: The Theatre Writings of Tadashi Suzuki, trans. J. Thomas Rimer. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1986.

1 comment:

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