Playwright Toshiki Okada and the “New Noh”

©Kikuko Usuyama

Toshiki Okada (born 1972) is arguably the most significant Japanese playwright of his generation. He won the 49th Kishida Kunio Award for his play Five Days in March in 2005. In 2021, his Unrequited Ghosts and Monsters: Zaha, Tsuruga earned the 72nd Yomiuri Literature Prize. 


Okada has an international reputation, and frequently premieres his works in Germany and stages his plays around the world. His work is known for its combination of hyper-real, colloquial monologues and dialogues and a choreography of “noisy bodies” that crosses generic boundaries of drama, storytelling and dance. His work has particularly focussed on portraying Japan’s “precariat”—meaning a condition of existence without predictability or security—and in particular young people struggling to find meaning and livelihoods in the wake of the burst of Japan’s economic bubble in the 1990s. 


Since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, Okada’s work has taken another direction, exploring a world haunted by spirits of the dead and of entities that are not even human, in an environmental theatre increasingly influenced by the dramaturgy of Noh. This was evident in his 2012 play Time’s Journey through a Room, about a man struggling to make a new life for himself after the death of his wife, whose spirit haunts him. Ground and Floor (2013) also features a ghost. Both plays allude to 3/11. Okada’s interest in Noh was made explicit in two plays he premiered in Germany in 2018, in a production called Nō Theater, featuring the ghost of a stock and bond trader who committed suicide in a Tokyo subway in the aftermath of the Lehman shock of 2009 (Roppongi), and the sexual harassment of a Tokyo municipal representative (Tochō-mae) in 2014.


For Okada, the structure of Noh enables him to explore more openly political themes—unusual in Japan these days. His recent work, Unrequited Ghosts and Monsters, is composed entirely in the dramaturgy of Noh, with a shite, waki, ai-kyōgen, chorus and orchestra (hayashi) of contemporary music performed on the daxaphone—an electronic instrument that can mimic flute, string instruments and percussion—under the direction of composer Uchihashi Kazuhisa. The work premiered at Kanagawa Arts Theatre in June 2021 after a year’s postponement due to the pandemic. Zaha, a play in which the ghost of Iraqi-born English architect Zaha Hadid haunts the site of the new Tokyo Olympic Stadium, was performed and danced by Moriyama Mirai, who also performed at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in August 2021. Tsuruga featured “the ghost of Japan’s nuclear fuel recycling policy.” 


Okada contrasts Noh’s dramaturgy with the “phoniness” (wazatorashisa) of theatre, writing that Noh is more a kind of augmented reality, like Pokemon Go. The actors in Noh don’t try to become the characters they play; instead, they become like screens that the text, music and dance project onto their characters. Ultimately, however, Noh’s appeal for Okada and many other contemporary Japanese theatre artists is that it presents them with a dramaturgy that is, in essence, a readymade liturgy of mourning.


For those interested in learning more about Okada, the best guide in English is Toshiki Okada and Japanese Theatre (Performance Research Books, 2021):

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