This fall, Japan Society artistic director Yoko Shioya has provided the audience with a twist to the usual JS fare: all artists and companies are from Berlin, focusing, of course, upon Japanese themes and culture.
While a bit strange to imagine, the decision makes sense in a number of ways: the first and obvious factor is that Berlin has become the center of experimental performance in the past decade or so, in many ways out performing our fair New York in quantity, quality, and as always government support.
The second, slightly less apparent reason is embodied in the opening piece of the fall, Heavenly Bento, by the Post Theatre. The simple staging is an artistic examination of the rise of the Sony Corporation, featuring Jun Kim and Alexander Schröder as the engineers that made the company what it is today.
Bento takes place in the round (a bento box, perhaps?), with a simple, white platform, decorated only by projections from above. The emptiness of the opening is brought to life with static, the snow of televisual noise, the decoding of Stein’s “There’s no there there.” I’ve written about the significance of static before in reference to Rinne Goff’s Ruby Sunrise (2005), but in Bento, it seems as though the world of the piece is initially saturated by the static, and the stage is the screen to come, both in how we view the performance and explicitly in the engineering by founders Morita and Ibuka of the Sony Trinitron, which would revolutionize color television worldwide.
It’s hard to imagine that the origins of the company lie in two lone men, desperately trying to think of a product to sell, and even harder to believe they failed in their first attempt: a rice cooker. Not to fear, though! The two men labor, travel the world, and think creatively to bring the world the first pocketable transistor radio. It’s only a few short leaps to Sony becoming one of the big six film distribution companies and getting teenagers around the world addicted to carjacking in Grand Theft Auto (though video games are sadly outside the purview of this piece).
And here’s where the worlds of Japan and Germany are shown to intersect in a brilliant way: Bento opens, literally in the rubble of post-war Tokyo, with two men faced with the task of rebuilding a government and industry when most of the population doesn’t even have food. One almost feels guilty in this collusion, sitting in a U.S. theatre watching the shared devastation of the two cultures, brought about by the U.S. Oops!
But the parallels remain for better or worse, and we watch as industry and innovation overtake even the U.S., and walk the constant tightrope of maintaining a sense of dignity through cultural pride and the growing need to globalize their product and mentality. It’s even difficult to parse out the performance style of Kim and Schröder—reserved, quiet, meditative—as hopelessly Japanese or hopelessly German in its sensibility. Morita even finds himself stuck in New York, unable to return to his family in Japan, bringing Sony to international stages (and Hollywood!, he’s very excited about Hollywood).
And the problems of capital and industrial exchange are both the biggest promise and stumbling block of Heavenly Bento. The most interesting moments are their interactions with the incredibly simple, synched interaction with the lighting projections, and their personal conversations through business. When the piece gets too biographical it seems either too A&E or an outright commercial for Sony (and indeed, you don’t need to glance at the program to know the piece is largely underwritten by the company). This has the unfortunate side effect of marginalizing dancer Kazue Ikeda and the gustatory treat, both at the very end; it’s as though Post is making a last-gasp gesture to say, “Look! Look! It’s not all history. There’s experimental art-crap or whatever in here, too!”
So Heavenly Bento is both an examination and a product of globalized industry, and, for better or worse, culture and arts. And perhaps it’s just my opinion, but many times, corporate performance makes for bad performance. But it does set a tone of uncanny and powerful resonance for the “Japan Transatlantic” season.