Tonight, The Room Nobody Knows by experimental Japanese company Niwa Gekidan Penino opens at On the Boards.
It promises to be a surreal sexual psychodrama in the mind of an "overworked and undersexed" Japanese student. (Penino's leader—the playwright, director, and psychiatrist Kuro Tanino—says it's loosely autobiographical.) It features claustrophobic spaces, human/animal hybrids, the awkwardness of a relationship between brothers, and lots of phalluses, some of them quite large. You can watch them build the set here:
This week, I had an email exchange with Tanino, translated by the helpful folks at the Japan Society, NYC, in which we discussed his strict upbringing, why he stages plays in such tiny sets, and the US obsession with the psycho-sexual landscape of Japan. (I've edited it just a little for clarity.)
The Stranger: You worked as a psychiatrist and grew up in a family of psychiatrists. What areas of psychiatry did you and your family specialize in? Were there experiences you had as a psychiatrist that directly influenced The Room? (I’m sure you get asked that question a lot.)
Tanino: In Japan, the field of psychiatry is not refined or subdivided the same way as in the US. But if I try: My father mostly takes care of the patients with schizophrenia while my mother is specialized in mental disorders of adolescence. Because I was rather influenced by my mother, I specialized in the same field as her, but I also took care of patients suffering from schizophrenia.
The experience of being psychiatrist has directly affected this piece. This is my very last piece as a double career [he is leaving psychiatry to become a full-time artist] and I created it based on my own experience and the result of self-analysis.
The Stranger: There was a Noh stage in or near your childhood home, right? Was it used for performances when you were a kid?
Tanino: It was not a Noh stage but Noh rehearsal space in my home. I have never used the space for performance. The place belongs to my father and it was a sacred area for him which I couldn't casually go in.
The Stranger: Why was there a Noh rehearsal space in your house? Is that unusual?
The Stranger: And why was it a sacred space for your father?
Tanio: If you have small kids, you don't want them to mess around with your stuff in your room??? My father was very strict to his kids. There was a tea ceremony room at home and he also did not want kids playing around there. My father studied in Urasenke denomination of the tea ceremony and was on the board of directors of the local tea ceremony masters of the group. He often invited people in his tea ceremony room for tea parties. There was also a room for calligraphy which kids were not supposed to play around in either, and there was a traditional storehouse called a "kura" behind the calligraphy room.
The Stranger: Did he have experience with or strong feelings about theater/Noh?
Tanino: I don't know. I remember when local Noh dancers (performers) came over to my house for rehearsal. When I was little, my parents were busy with their jobs and we rarely had a chance to eat together as a family. As I was eating alone in dining room, I often heard people practice Noh in the rehearsal room.
The Stranger: What initially drew you to performance? And are you a full-time artist now or do you still work in the mental-health profession?
Tanino: While I was a university student, I formed a drama club. That drew me into the world of performance. I am now a full-time artist. Technically speaking, I am an artist but I help patients sometimes. For example, there was a serious lack of mental doctors in the Northeast part of Japan after the disaster. I already changed my career when it happened, but I happened to help patients sometimes. I created this particular piece during/after the earthquake.
The Stranger: Many of your works involve small or claustrophobic spaces. Why is that?
Tanino: There are two reasons. One is because I created some pieces in my atelier which was inside my apartment. The other reason is I wanted to create one-glance-box performance. When you try to direct, a theater stage is usually bigger than "one look" and you have to move your head from right to left or up and down to view the whole thing. And the bigger the stage, the more people you need for help. Moreover, if you can see what you want to direct in one glance, you are more aware of what you care about the most.
The Stranger: Phalluses and hybrid human-animal creatures are also recurring themes. Can you tell me why you keep returning to that imagery?
Tanino: The productions I bring overseas happen to be that way. I have variety of productions which are totally different.
The Stranger: Is there an attitude or frame of mind you want your audiences to bring with them when they approach your plays?
Tanino: I personally feel I am not doing anything outrageous or outstanding. It is a story of one man's mixed emotions and conflict. The attitude or frame of mind I expect for the audiences would be no different from seeing Shakespeare.
The Stranger: The United States has an obsession with the psycho-sexual landscape of Japan—erotic video games, hikikomori, and the recent surveys about young asexuality, for example, have generated lots of curiosity and articles in the US. As an artist and former psychiatrist, what do you make of this peculiar interest in Japan’s national psyche?
Tanino: In Japan, there are variety of choices to satisfy your sexuality. For example, even erotic video games have so many kinds and forms to choose from and it keeps developing as a business to meet precise requirement of users. To me, if they find something to match their particular needs, they are simply satisfied with it and don't want to try to go further, which is to have actual sexual intercourse. In the case of the US, you might have less variety to choose from or maybe simply the business introduces someone to have sex and that's it. However, one can actually be satisfied by sleeping next to a young girl on a bed (just sleep together) or peeking at a woman without actual communication, or be devoted to a celebrity, and it feels much better than ejaculation.
In general, Japanese people and their business are consistently developing and usually done in a very short period of time. When you see it from the outside, you probably see the result of development (or after the development) which might seem so new.
I don't know much about young people and how their sexuality differs, but generally speaking, it costs a lot of money to pay for sexual intercourse in business. Young people prefer something inexpensive.
The Stranger: Tell me a little bit about how you design and build your intricate sets. How long does it usually take to come up with a complete stage design? Have you kept all the sets intact for showing in the future, perhaps in a gallery or museum context?
Tanino: The actual work took me about two months. Including the process of thinking or developing ideas, it took me a half year. I used to put them in my atelier but now I can't. I have been asked to display my props in museums or galleries, but never have done that because of budget issues, etc. to make it happen.
The Stranger: Can you tell me about one or two great Japanese theater artists (contemporary or historical) that the English-speaking theater world should know more about?
Tanino: I don't really know who to name for that question.
The Room Nobody Knows opens tonight at 8 pm and runs through Sunday (with late-night shows Friday and Saturday).