GIRL X at the Japan Society

Photo Credit: Ayumi Sakamoto

If you have never been to the Japan Society, tucked away on East 47th Street between 2nd and 1st, make it a point to go there this year. Better yet, go there this week. I promise you will be amazed that such magnificent beauty was hiding in plain sight. I paid the Japan Society my first visit this past weekend to see a production of Girl X by Suguru Yamamoto, and was delightfully surprised. My only previous experience with Japanese plays had been the works of Toshiki Okada produced at JACK (The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise and Quiet, Comfort) and my mind raced to start comparing and contrasting their two styles, but for now, let’s look at Girl X all on its own.

The story takes place on the 2-year anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011 (the same quake that set off the nuclear meltdowns at the Fukuskima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant). Yamamoto discussed — both in the program note and in the talkback — what a violent aftermath he and his loved ones were still grappling with, even two years later, and how the natural disaster forced him to confront his mortality and the stakes of his life rather early for a 20-something. Throughout the play, characters speak to the personified “Shinjuku winds,” with a respect for nature and an acceptance that certain universal forces are out of their control.

Contrary to what the title evokes, the two actors — Kazuki Ohashi and Sachiro Nomoto — are men. Girl X is a story of aging and alienation, and the human pursuit of love and happiness. Ohashi and Nomoto orbit around Girl X, an ex-girlfriend of the former and an older sister to the latter. For scenes in which Girl X is present, she is represented by projected text, silently “speaking” her lines. The male actors dance and swerve around her projected lines, Ohashi even caressing them at one point, as if rubbing her back, creating a human form out of light and space. Once you acclimate to this conceit, you can almost hear Girl X speaking her lines aloud, akin to how you hear a character’s voice in your head when reading a novel.

The physical absence of Girl X was discussed in a talkback following the show, with Yamamoto explaining that he didn’t want a female actor’s body on stage to be forced to assume the sexually perverse events discussed in the play. (Perhaps something was lost in translation here, or else we skirted discussion of a significant cultural divide, if Yamamoto was suggesting that a female actor couldn’t handle such events, or her own sexual identity would be too distracting for the audience.) Another explanation offered was that we interact so frequently via text these days that we have become “characters” to our friends and loved ones, via the way we write our messages. I prefer this millennial, anthropological interpretation of Girl X’s absence, asking the audience to work their imagination.

Overall, projections were a clever and central element of this production, and Yamamoto and the actors discovered some beautiful work with silhouettes, casting enormous shadows across the rear screen. In another scene, Ohashi and Nomoto sit down at a dinner table together, but have to lie on their sides like tipped over turtles that can’t right themselves, because of the birds’ eye perspective of the table projected onto the back wall. The overt humor and spastic energy from the performers complimented the formal, architectural structure of the projected Japanese characters in the background.

Moreover, the structure of the storytelling was delightfully different from American theater, from the haiku-like simplicity of the text, with sparse lines like, “Then I had beer and clenched my teeth and went to sleep,” to the bent-knees physicality, in which both actors kept their weight low to the ground, often prancing and romping much more playfully than American actors typically do, to the exposition of the story, starting with juvenile comedy and ending with profound tragedy. In the first minutes of the play, I was concerned that it would be too silly, but as the story got darker and the stakes got higher, the levity of the actors’ movements morphed into a moving juxtaposition for the violent reality.

Finally, as is often a perk of theater not made in America, the perception of and commentary on the American lifestyle through a Japanese lens was illuminating. Girl X appeared to have reached a certain level of success (and thereby happiness) because of her spacious new apartment. Her brother comments, “My sister’s house is like America. The interior design is like America. There are 5 rooms. There’s a sauna in their America-like bathroom. No denying it, my sister is a winner in capitalism. Plus, she’s done it by the easiest means, by marrying into wealth.” And yet, later, we read the sister’s own internal monologue, shattering this image of the American dream, saying, “If that is so, that is correct. I am happy. But Mother, to continue being happy is pretty hard.” While Girl X may remain an enigma, she is certainly capable of expressing universal wisdom.

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