By Leow Puay Tin
(1535 words, 10-minute read)
The performance event R.I.P. Tokyo began life as a commemoration for a cat which died at the grand age of 22, five years ago. The cat belonged to director Shirotama Hitsujiya who helms the Yubiwa Hotel theatre company. For three years, she has marked the occasion by hosting a soup dinner party for friends at her apartment in Ekoda on 17 May (the death day), under a project called ‘Tokyo Soup, Blanket and Travelogue’ (‘Tokyo Soup’). The elements of the name stem from actual events: the blanket which Hitsujiya wrapped around the cat, the soup brought by friends who had come to help her take care of the dying cat, and I am guessing that ‘Tokyo’ and ‘Travelogue’ might have come from its five-year sponsorship by the Tokyo Arts Council under its Art Points programme which funds artistic events to connect people , art, and places in the vast Tokyo Metropolitan region.
On July 17, I travelled to Ekoda town for R.I.P. Tokyo, the latest incarnation of the ‘Tokyo Soup’ project, and learned that some changes have been made. The event has moved from Hitsujiya’s apartment into the public spaces of the Ekoda “shopping streets”. Instead of one, there will be five commemorative events this year: 19 June, 17 July, 11 August, 14 October and 17 November. Additionally, she has brought in a dramaturg to frame three events: (17 July) Manami Maeda, theatre critic, director and choreographer, (11 August) Hidemi Nishida, an environmental artist who studied art and design in Norway, and, (14 October) Kenichi Abe, a theatre practitioner who is doing a PhD degree in community and urban design.
A question naturally arises: What’s the connection between an essentially personal and private event and the town of Ekoda? Listening to the brief talk given by Hitsujiya at the dinner table, I gathered that her feelings over the loss of her cat have spread outwards to her neighbourhood. She spoke of seeing changes. Old “important” shops closing down, as well as the old market place. Residents and shopkeepers moving out, and possibly some dying. New people and businesses taking over. R.I.P. Tokyo is her response to these inevitable changes, for which she has organised a kind of procession through the shopping area for 20 participants and her team members, ostensibly to buy ingredients from local shops to make a soup dinner later in the evening.
As a participant, this procession or parade felt ritualistic. It reminded me of the small-scale neighborhood ‘matsuri’ in Japan which are community-based festivals involving music, dance and a noisy celebratory street parade with floats. But Hitsujiya’s parade was rather solemn, with no music or dance. In place of a gaily decorated float, we had a tradesman’s goods cart which was manually dragged by someone from the front. This might seem coolie-like or unnecessary labour to someone who hasn’t experienced a matsuri with its juggernauts of solid timber floats, often laden with decorations and musicians, carried or hauled through the streets by euphoric gangs of men working as one.
As we meandered through the narrow streets in Ekoda following the cart, the procession subtly began to feel funereal. Along the way, stops were made to make purchases from a bread shop, a vegetables and fruits shop, and a children’s sweets and toy shop, which seemed to have no other customers except us when we were there. The final stop was a new brightly-lit supermarket which had taken over the site of a previous one, and this place was bustling. The things bought were put into the cart, and on we trouped before finally ending up at a little restaurant in a quiet street that was closed for the day.
As a participant, I knew about the director’s cat and had walked about in Ekoda during a short stay last year. Yet the event gave me a different experience of the place, now that I was seeing it from up close or from the ‘inside’. Efficiency wasn’t the point of this event. We could have divided up the shopping list and gotten the ingredients in a shorter time and in a less conspicuous manner. That was what made me to start thinking of it as a kind of ritual. I began to appreciate the simple orderliness and repetition of actions that walking behind a cart, at the pace of the person pulling it, could have on the human body and mind. If you just fell in, a certain rhythm emerged and carried you along, and suddenly you were one of a group moving together (although not in mechanical union); even stragglers who had paused somewhere to take photos and selfies were connected to the moving mass by invisible threads that drew them back to the group. Later, the meal seemed to have a rhythm to it from the simple passing of plates of sliced bread and bowls of soup from person to person down a long table, and at the end, the passing back of empty bowls and cups and the remains of the meal on plates back to the centre to be collected for washing.
Group participation included working together in the tiny kitchen downstairs, where potatoes were boiled and mashed, honey melons cut, bread sliced, eggs boiled and vegetables washed and cut. The meal was served in the small dining room upstairs with all of us tightly seated on two sides of a long narrow table. This allowed us to converse easily among ourselves as we ate. And up to that point, there was a sense of the ad hoc collective at work. This was halted by a dialogue between the director and dramaturg which I found interesting on the point of whether the event had become a performance or not. Which would have been a curious discussion given its obvious performativity, but for the fact that ‘Tokyo Soup’ had originally been created three years ago with an intention to avoid making a performance. But the recent “parade” in the shopping streets had drawn attention and made seem like a performance. The discussion seemed to end without a conclusion. But from what had been translated by my neighbour, I felt that Hitsujiya had, whether consciously or not, sited R.I.P. Tokyo (and probably the whole ‘Tokyo Soup’ project) in the narrow undefined space which allows leaching and melding rather than cleanly separating real life and performance, and the personal from the public.
There is one thing which was puzzling. It was the introduction of actual stones and fiction at the start of the performance event. On the cart was a simple handmade sign with this cryptic message: “Once upon a time, there was a hungry traveller in Tonkyo [but why not Tokyo?]. One day the traveller found a stone on the road and picked it up.” We each received a small round stone in exchange for our 1,000 yen payment for dinner and so had it on us as we went about the shopping trip. It would seem we had been cast as ‘hungry travelers’ in a fictional Tonkyo. Our stones were collected back by the team members in the kitchen and we later found a stone in each of our bowl of soup. At the end of the event, we were invited by the director to go home and make a soup with our stone and share the soup with others if we wished.
At the time I didn’t know about the ‘universalist’ folklore of the stone soup, which, incidentally, is not of Japanese origin. But even if I did, it would still feel like the imposition of a parable and frame that were not related to the more cogent real world story of the cat that died and the decay and transformation of an old township in Tokyo. For me, the whole experience had been novel and meaningful enough by itself without the fiction or the stones. There was so much happening already. And more than an enjoyable and interesting way to spend an evening in the company of strangers, I had been involved actively and creatively with fellow participants, as Hitsujiya put it, as “collaborators” in the making of a collective performance event.
A final word about the stone. Following my neighbour’s example, I took a sniff at ‘my’ stone, and found as he did, that it smelt strongly of shrimp! This unexpected discovery made us laugh, and made me see him in a new light – most people wouldn’t be imaginative enough to think of smelling a stone that had been sitting in their soup. It made me think of the consumed shrimp in a new light too. Considering there weren’t that many shrimps in the pot, and they were small ones at that, and it was a big pot with many vegetables, it was surprising to discover that the little shrimp had such tenacity and power. May they rest in peace.
Guest Contributor Leow Puay Tin is a playwright and text curator who is in Japan on a 6-month-long fellowship from Japan Foundation Asia Center. Currently on leave from Sunway University in Malaysia, she is looking at site-specific performance events or location-based performances which are carried out in non-theatre spaces, while collecting materials to make a new text for performance.