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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Podcast 92: Critics Live: OIWA by The Finger Players at SIFA 2021

Critics Alice Saville (UK), Amitha Amranand (TH), Matthew Lyon (SG) and Taisuke Shimanuki (JP) discuss OIWA: The Ghost of Yotsuya by The Finger Players, presented at Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA). The performance took place from 28-30 May 2021 at Victoria Theatre, and from 5-20 June via video on demand.

Critics Live! is a critics-led programme series created by ArtsEquator to give arts audiences an insight into how critics formulate their responses to performances. Through Critics Live!, critics will share their experiences watching the show either in-venue or digitally, and discuss how the artists’ choices shape these respectively.

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Transcript

Matt: Hello everybody, thank you for joining us and welcome to ArtsEquator’s Critics Live! I’m Matt Lyon and I host the theatre podcast at ArtsEquator and teach theatre at the School of the Arts. Critics Live! is part of the Asian Arts Media Roundtable and it’s an open conversation which brings together critics from Southeast Asia, the US and the UK to engage with the works that have been presented as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA). The production we’ll be talking about today is, as I’m sure you know, OIWA: The Ghost of Yotsuya produced by Singapore’s own The Finger Players.   

The way this is going to work is that the four of us critics will discuss the play amongst ourselves for the first 40-ish minutes. And then for the remainder of the one-hour programme, we’ll take questions and comments from all of you. And you can post those comments either in the Zoom chat or on the Facebook Live comments section, depending on the platform that you’re watching us on. And of course, as I think you already know from the Zoom chat that I’m looking at, you don’t have to wait till the end to start saying your piece so feel free to type anytime. 

The critics joining me this evening – or morning for some of them – are Amitha Amranand, who has been a theatre critic since 2006. Her theatre reviews and articles regularly appear in The Bangkok Post. She currently sits on the artistic board of the Bangkok International Performing Arts Meeting (BIPAM) and is the co-founder and co-host of Bangkok Offstage, the first bilingual podcast on the Bangkok performing arts scene. Thanks for joining us, Amitha!

Amitha: Thank you. 

Matt: We also have Alice Saville, a London based theatre critic, editor and writer. She is editor of Exeunt Magazine, an online publication that specialises in experimental and longform theatre criticism, where she writes regular columns. She also contributes freelance articles to publications including Timeout, Stagedoor, The Stage, and The Financial Times. Hello, Alice! And we also have Taisuke Shimanuki, who is an art writer and editor born in 1980, and based in Tokyo and Kyoto. He writes and edits for art and culture magazines and websites such as Bijutsu-Techo and CINRA.net, among others. His latest work was in the production and writing of a book related to Pratthana: The Portrait of Possession by the novelist Uthis Haemamool, director Toshiki Okada of Chelfitsch and performed by Yuya Tsukahara in Tokyo in June 2019. Hello Taisuke! 

Now, I’m the only one of us in Singapore and so I’m the only one who watched the show live in the Victoria Theatre, with everybody else seeing the filmed version online, which of course I’ve also seen. I’m pretty sure that most of the people watching have also seen the show either in person or online. Otherwise, why are you here? But maybe you’re here because you love watching us all talk. In that case, a quick reminder. OIWA is a retelling of a traditional Japanese ghost story in which a jilted wife haunts her money-grabbing husband for his many transgressions. And it was staged in a very interesting way, with masked human actors pretending to be inanimate puppets, which are then brought to life by black-clad semi invisible puppeteers standing behind them. It’s not something you see very often, I think. 

We’re going to begin the discussion proper by asking Taisuke to tell us about the origins of the Oiwa story in Japanese folklore and what changes playwright Chong Tze Chien has made in his retelling. Now, Taisuke will be speaking in Japanese. So assuming you’re watching us on Zoom and need an English translation, if you roll over the bottom of your Zoom screen, where the bar appears, you’ll see an interpretation button, and you should select English. And then fingers crossed, you will hear an English translation whenever Taisuke speaks. Also, if you’d like to read subtitles of what we’re saying, you can turn on the closed captions feature in much the same way. And if you run into trouble with any of this, please ask a question in the chat, and our tech team will support you. Okay, so with all that out of the way. Taisuke, how did this production of OIWA relate to the original story?

Taisuke: Thank you, Matt. The title of this production is OIWA. In Japan, it’s called The Ghost Story of Yotsuya. And it’s a very popular production. Not only for [the] performing arts audience, for [the] general public, it’s a very familiar horror story. This production of OIWA, for me as a Japanese, it’s a very spectacular, strong entertainment production. Of course, there are some scary aspects too but in Japan, it’s more like a chic, subtle kind of horror production. The more abstract productions are the more popular productions. But in Japan there are a variety of stories of OIWA. So let me briefly explain the original story of Oiwa. 

In this production, Tamiya is the main character. Tamiya and Oiwa [have] been husband and wife but Tamiya is such a bad person, and described as a villain. He falls in love with someone else. And [from] the bond between Tamiya and Oiwa– the boy was born. However, after giving birth Oiwa becomes ill, and that distances two of them. Meanwhile, Tamiya falls in love with someone else and kills Oiwa. So the focus is on the relationship between Tamiya and Oiwa. However, in The Finger Players’ OIWA, the location is very different. Different characters, villages, they are all haunted so the haunting is threading. So it’s a more modern horror story I would say. In terms of performance and context, instead of context I would like to focus on the storyline.

Matt: Okay, thank you very much. So we have this story of villainy, which it seems in the Singapore production has become even more horrific with maybe even more supernatural elements and more haunting going on. It kind of seemed to me that that haunting was a way of spreading the particular type of villainy and making it seem omnipresent, just like you might get in Shakespeare. 

Amitha, the themes that contributed to that villainy and amplified the supernatural elements. What do you have to say about the thematic content? 

Amitha: I feel like the haunting sort of came… Yeah, when I was watching, I didn’t feel that interested in the haunting itself. I felt like that was part of the story. But in a way, I was kind of waiting for The Ring part. Because, you know, when she– if anyone’s watching The Ring. And of course, I was intrigued by the part sometimes when she speaks and there’s another voice that Tamiya hears and all of that, but I am not sure I’ve figured all those things out exactly. And I felt like the whole thing was more about how she became a ghost. Rather than… Yeah, I think most of the story is more focused on that, and I feel like… 

But I went back, and because Taisuke told us last time when we were talking last time that this is so different– and I went back and looked at what the– how the plot, you know, unfolds in the original. It was on Wikipedia, so I’m not sure whether that’s original, because I understand that it’s been adapted so many times, and there’s so many subplots, and in some versions, I read that there’s not even a haunting in it, there’s not even a ghost element in it. And so given how different it is from the original story, I feel like this is very interesting in terms of how it explores the theme of class. And you know class relations and one’s sense of self and how that informs one’s relationship to wealth. And you know, like one’s class identity and how that kind of informs the way one sees the other. 

And like we said the other day, it’s very Macbethian and I think the director and the playwright also said that when he discovered this story, he feels like ‘oh, this is like the Japanese Macbeth,’ as well in an interview. And you know, the ruthless, murderous greed of Tamiya. And I feel like the play attempts to tell the story from two perspectives, like a he-said-she-said from the beginning. You know, he’s like, ‘Oh, this ghost who tricked me into the marriage. My wife tricked me into this terrible marriage. And then she’s like, ‘no, never believe the story of men.’ But I’ll come back to that a little bit later and how I have a bit of a problem– I think it’s a very difficult story because it’s so detailed, it’s a very difficult story to tell in a short period of time from two perspectives, and get really both perspectives fairly and equally. 

 

Photo: Arts House Limited

 

Amitha: And Tamiya himself, he’s such a fascinating character for me. He started off as a real victim, he was beaten by his father. But then he quickly descends into this terrible human being – very cruel and completely consumed by his greed. And as the play progresses, he never shakes that perception of himself as a victim. And because if you think of his class background compared to Oiwa’s family’s class– and there’s a very revealing scene, I think. After Oiwa told him, after they were married– and Oiwa told him that there’s more gold than what she had shown him. And I was like, ‘oh, now he’s going to go tell his best friend about how there’s even more to it and how we’re going to get this.’ But instead, he confided in his best friend and said, “Look at these people, there’s so much secret in this family, and he felt so resentful of why he’s not privy to this. He feels he never truly belongs. And I feel in the end, he never… And like to them, he’s always the poor man or the outsider, an undeserving man, and in the end, he blames Oiwa and her family for his demise as well. And saying that this is, you know, this has always been the war against the rich, you know, the rich and the poor, the rich against the poor. And you know, at the beginning too he said he was tricked into this marriage, the marriage became a bondage to him, he kind of blamed everything on her and even though he totally covets that wealth, and he exploited the kind of guilt that the typical upper middle class or stereotypical rich people. Like, he made her work, he made her do these charitable things, make it work, and she felt good about it. She feels like she needs to sacrifice to kind of like, you know, make up, or overcompensate for this wealth that she feels she didn’t deserve or something. Because it was built by her, it came from her father. It didn’t even come exactly from her father, her father kind of found it accidentally. 

But when it comes to greed, if we… I mean, he’s obviously the greediest, but Oiwa and her father also have a certain kind of greed and they kind of covet things that are, in some destructive way too, they kind of covet things that they probably feel never belonged to them. Tamiya, I think, first covets something but not as simple as material wealth, but rather a sense of power, status and acceptance that he felt all this can belong to him if he marries into this very rich family. I think her father, for example, covets praise and gratitude from the villagers. And he created this moral competition, this thing called the daily honour roll among the villagers, right? In which he honours good deeds to the villagers, but they’re silly, good deeds, like ‘Oh, so-and-so climbs up to help a cat’. And ‘so-and-so, oh, yeah, impregnated his wife’. You know, ‘they’re nice children so congratulate him.’ But in a way, he’s rigged it in a way that would favour his type of good deeds in the end, which is the kind that only the wealthy can truly give, which is the charitable kind of good deed. And, you know, so he treats the village as his charity case, which means he has to give only so much for people to be happy, but not so much that they no longer need this harvest because there’s its annual harvest that his entire family gives every year. 

And Oiwa, she covets, to me, love, right, she asks him to marry her after her sister dies, knowing he has never loved her. And in a way, all these relationships, all these main relationships in the play are very transactional. Always family and the village, very transactional, Oiwa and Tamiya. Like her father, who you know, buys respect from the villagers through the harvest through this honour roll game. She buys love from Tamiya, perhaps not intentionally, but she gives him access to her wealth in return for, you know, marriage to him. 

And like I said earlier, I feel like the stories didn’t do so much. In general, I really loved the play and the whole production and the storytelling. But my problem was that, the writing at the end when Tamiya is haunted by Oiwa’s ghost and says to her that it has always been about the rich against the poor, and she says suddenly, “no, this is not what this is about. It’s about men against women”. And I feel like I was like so is that…? At that point I was kind of thrown off. And I was like, wait, is that the playwright wanting to say that… Is it that the playwright wanted to say that this is Oiwa’s perspective, because I never felt that was the case throughout the play. But, or is it the playwright’s attempt to be like, “oh, by the way, we kind of want to address this issue of men against women or the gender issue, but it never kind of occurred to us, so we kind of stuffed it in there.” You know, to say that, oh, it’s also about this, it’s about this gender war. And I feel like the only gender issue- I was kind of like, what if we could do like a gender swap thing? And I realised, oh my god, this may be the only gender thing that could be explored that would be interesting. It’s that they kind of flip the gold digger trope on its head, you know, he’s literally almost the gold digger in this story. So, yeah.

 

Photo: Arts House Limited

 

Matt: Yes, I also thought that the male-female dynamic came in rather unexpectedly, and I wasn’t exactly convinced to learn that that was what it was supposed to be all about. I mean, I guess there’s also the idea that it was a time of even greater male privilege, where the man is the one who will inherit and marrying kind of makes him the new patriarch. But I just read that as part of the period rather than something it was trying to explore. And it did really seem to be exploring class, as you say, and wealth differences more than anything else. What interested me is that both you and Taisuke talked about the villainy of this guy and how he goes on this Macbeth-like journey from… Well, you know, Macbeth arguably goes from good to bad, whereas Tamiya kind of goes from bad to worse, to worse, to worse, to “Oh My God!”. 

But what was fascinating for me there is that there are only three human human actors playing humans, three characters where that applies, and he’s the main one of them who’s on stage for the most part. And nearly all of the people he interacts with are the humans acting as puppets. And being puppeteered by the people in black, as we said. And that for me made him more sympathetic, because we see him up against, you know, these hard jointed, kind of wooden looking creatures, which we have to imbue with life, and which have a very vivid form of life to them. But it’s also constrained and limited, amplified in one direction, it doesn’t have the range of a standard human performance who’s able to communicate with their eyes. And so it was… about halfway through I find myself realising he is absolutely irredeemably evil. Why do I like him? And it was a little bit of a kind of a Tony Soprano moment where you know, you see Tony Soprano, kill someone and you’re like, ‘why am I rooting for this guy?’ And I think that that was partially accomplished through this very unique aesthetic, which we’re seeing pictures of now. 

And I don’t know what your screen quality is like at home if you didn’t see the show, but hopefully you can see the bump over the woman in white – Oiwa’s head there. And that’s somebody manipulating her at the back. I’ll just talk a little bit about the puppetry generally, before we go to Alice. And I think The Finger Players have been fascinated with this idea of humans being puppets for a long time, and it’s such a strange aesthetic. But way back, I remember seeing a production called I’m Just a Piano Teacher, which was written and directed by Oliver Chong, one of Tze Chien’s peers, obviously at The Finger Players. And he had humans with very strong kind of Beijing opera style makeup, wearing puppet bodies around their necks and manipulating those puppet bodies. And in order to make the actual puppet bodies aesthetically match with the face, the facial performances became again, very vivid but very constrained in what they would do almost as if you’re very conscious of where the joints in your face are, and how much you can manipulate them. So facial expressions became extremely amplified. I found that very successful. 

The next time they tried it, though, it was much less so. That was a production called Pinocchio’s Complex. Where they had a human performer acting as a puppet, but she wasn’t puppeteered by anyone, she was just acting of her own volition. And it didn’t work at all. And at the time, I theorised it was because when we see a masked performance, or we see a puppet performance, we know, you know? We know we’re looking at something inanimate. But we also recognise the striving of the performer, the puppeteer, or the wearer of the mask, we recognise that they want to imbue it with life. And so as an audience member, we go with that, and we see the life in it. On the other hand, I thought at the time that if we see a human acting inanimate, then equally, we go with that intention, and we start seeing that the human performer is lifeless, and uninteresting. So I thought that it was, you know, having a human act full body as a puppet, I thought that was never going to work. 

But then a production called Shun-kin came to Singapore, where we saw this manipulation of a human body, this puppeteering of it, and it was incredibly effective. And it has this uncanny valley kind of look, which is haunting in itself and pulls you in and makes you question, ‘who are the figures that are puppeteering us in real life?’ And I think it boils down to the idea that you need, if you’re going to act as a puppet, you can’t do it with your own volition and your impulses. I think you maybe need to channel somebody else’s impulses. So the puppeteers at the back, often they just had like one hand on the puppet actors back, and maybe another hand on their arm to help them gesture. But of course, it’s still the case that the human puppet is doing a lot of the work that is not enough to control a whole body. But it appears that the impulse is able to create that sense that this is an inanimate object, which wants to come to life and the audience goes with that idea. 

Indeed, the only times I found it unconvincing was when there was a clump of three, a kind of a chorus of three characters who traveled around sometimes on stage and made announcements. And often the puppeteer would only have the hand on one of them. And the other two were still acting. And at that point, it didn’t look right. Didn’t look right for me, it was very odd. Of course the design for this entire production is quite spectacular. I was lucky enough to see it in person. So the puppets, part of that, the masks, the beautiful costumes. Alice, do you have anything to say about the design? And I guess as well how it looked on screen?

Alice: Well, I mean, I guess my expectation, sort of before I came to this production was that it would be sort of really visually impressive, because it’s something with such a rich visual tradition. And I think, yeah, the sense of what came across on the screen – I’m not sure what it was like in the space – was this very sort of natural environment, this huge sort of forest of sort of bamboo reaching right up to the heavens. And I thought that sort of snippet, initial scene you got with this sort of cascade of thunder and sounds was really exciting in terms of immersing you in this space. And the sense that maybe this is quite a small, vulnerable community, surrounded by the elements where life is quite precarious, which is perhaps why the village has got locked into these really unhealthy and strange dynamics. Because this is a place where it’s tough to survive. And yeah, and sort of this sense of like shafts of light coming through the wood. I found that really exciting and I think that was something, that was the moment that it sort of clicked for me when they mentioned this idea that the compound was built on all the bodies of sort of victims and their gold. So the idea that this is really a very cursed and dark place that everyone’s inhabiting. 

I mean, I think that theatre design is always incredibly hard to capture on camera, because obviously it’s not the medium it’s designed for. And I think that actually non-naturalistic and very stylised designs, like the kind we see here work so much better, because you’re not kind of looking for the edges, if you see what I mean. Like, you’re accepting this as a creative, artistic environment. So yeah, I found that really effective. But I think that it is nonetheless kind of hard to capture the full sort of overwhelming sense of being in the theatre. I mean, something this production did which I thought was really interesting, which I’ve never encountered before, is the idea of being able to choose three different camera views. And I think that did a lot in terms of creating a sense of liveness because you know, if this is in the theatre, your eye can kind of freely travel around the stage, you can choose what you want to focus on. I think you sort of got a bit closer to that. But I think that it’s like, I’m kind of interested in the potential of what was happening if you took that further. Because sometimes I found myself really wanting to look at a particular performer closely, like really wanting to see their face. 

So I’m kind of imagining what if you had loads of camera angles, and you had some that were really close up on particular performers, so you could follow them through the action. But then also, there’s maybe an argument that like, if you’re sort of almost being the film director of your own experience, you’re choosing your angles, it maybe almost takes you out of the moment, and out of the liveness of the experience, because suddenly, you’re thinking, ‘wow, I’m going to toggle between this view and this view.’ And this story is so incredibly fast moving, that you have to be following it really closely. Otherwise, you’ll miss a really important moment. And I guess that was something I maybe wasn’t expecting, I think, that when I’ve seen sort of this kind of stylised puppet performance in the past, maybe there’s been a sense of, there’s more breathing room in the story, there are more moments, which are more about pure atmosphere, and you can take in the kind of emotional resonance of what you’ve seen. Whereas it felt maybe that, you know, each death would happen so fast, and suddenly we run to the next stage. It almost reminds me of flicking through a comic book, you know, when you’re sort of reading all the panels really fast, and you’re kind of sucked in, but none of it emotionally lands. 

Photo: Arts House Limited

 

I mean, I really agreed with what you were saying Amitha, earlier about the sense that you kind of expect this to be Oiwa’s story. And you don’t actually see much of her perspective here. And I think that’s maybe something to do with the lack of space in the story, because you don’t really have a sense of time to appreciate the suffering she goes through. And I think also because you don’t have that sense of her having facial mobility and sort of… She’s almost like a symbol. Like when you first meet her, all you can see this black straggly hair right over her face. She’s hunched over. She’s almost like a comical figure, you meet her and her sister and they’re kind of giggling in this almost quite stereotypical young girl way. And then as she sort of gains in confidence, she’s convinced she’s loved. You do see a bit more of her face, but you don’t really get her perspective. And yeah, I’m kind of interested in that choice that was made to have Tamiya played sort of more by a human actor and to have her taking a more puppetry approach. But yeah, I guess that’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about in various forms, is this idea of liveness and how you can translate it on the screen. And what benefits you get from seeing a filmed piece of performance and what makes that different from a film. And, yeah, I’ve never seen a filmed puppetry performance before. And I think in a way, seeing it on screen really drew my attention to the artifice and the layers of effort that had gone into creating it. I think that maybe, instead of being sort of sometimes fully transported, and sort of relating to each of these characters, I maybe sort of was looking at the scenes and thinking about the effort that went into creating each scene. Yeah, which is kind of exciting. 

But yeah, I found myself almost, I feel like, I almost would have been excited to see the actors doing more to acknowledge and play with the artifice of the devices they were using. I found myself thinking of something that… There’s a director called Emma Rice, who does a lot to sort of play with the idea of how you stage films on stage, and how you create really complex technical effects, without faking or without pretending. So for example, if a character is going to fly, you see the strings come down, they clip the ropes to themselves in a very conscious, acknowledged way, and soar across the stage. So yeah, I think maybe there were moments where I almost wanted to see the artifice be acknowledged and kind of broken down a little bit. That also, yeah, I think it did have a real power in the form we watched it in.

Matt: Yeah, it’s interesting you say that because obviously I saw it live as well. And you do get more immersed watching it live, although you’re sitting in the darkness, those incredibly high contrast streams of light that were put all over the stage really seem to surround you. And when you’re looking at a screen, it’s so flatly presented. Fair enough, it was a very two-dimensional presentational performance – deliberately so. But it flattens out so much in the screen that I did find my eye wandering to the SIFA logo on the top right, which was bright white, and they didn’t put any opacity, they didn’t put any transparency on. So it was all the way through. And then you’ve got the numbered cameras that you can choose from at the top and then… And yes, you do also I think when you’re investigating that, also want to investigate the artifice of the performance. And you can yourself, as you said, curate your own performance. How did you respond to that, Amitha, the idea of curating your own performance there?

Amitha: I was really excited. I was like, I haven’t seen this done before. You know, I’ve seen quite a few online performances already in different formats, like sometimes live recordings, sometimes not. Or sometimes really set up. And this one, I don’t know whether Alice or everyone else had the same experience where when I tried to click on the different cameras, they just kind of stopped. Like it just goes to black. Okay, so it’s everyone’s experience. So, yeah. And one thing, maybe I’m spoiled, but in some, you know, in some festivals, and some shows you kind of can go back and forth. Like you can go- I couldn’t. I don’t know, I just don’t, I know it’s less live when you do that, of course. But at the same time as a critic or something, it’s really, you know, practical, and it’s really useful to be able to do that. But of course, it is not going to feel this live. And yeah, it just became distracting. So I kind of stopped except, you know, once in a while, I would just go to camera three or one of the cameras to kind of like change a little bit of perspective. And I don’t think it changed my perspective that much. I thought we will be able to see from above, or something like that. It just, yeah, it’s a good sort of experience to think about like, you know, for the future. But it just hasn’t, it’s not working that well yet, or it’s not that successful yet.

Matt: Yeah, I must admit, I found the same and probably more so. I found it really quite problematic. Certainly going black for a second and losing the audio before you get the change was a bit of a big problem. And it taking up so much room on the screen was a problem. And as you say the cameras were not vastly- One of them was a lot closer than the others. 

Amitha: Yeah.

Matt: But the other two were actually just basically front and centre with one just a little bit lower down. So there was really little point in changing from camera one to camera two. And yet camera three felt like it had been filmed by somebody who didn’t know the play that well, it was closer up, but it sometimes just missed the relevant point. And it wasn’t done with a zoom lens. So they couldn’t reframe. I would have greatly preferred someone to curate that for me. Because already I think the screen experience, as Alice suggested, takes you out a little bit, and then having to do your own editing work. I mean, come on, pay someone to do that, is my opinion on that one. If it were a lot smoother, maybe if it didn’t take up room on the screen, and it just worked instinctively. I can see it being interesting. But even then, I think we lose so much when we go to screen, that for me the way is to say we can’t win the theatre game. But maybe we can start scoring some points in the film game and just choose the very best angles. I don’t know. Nonetheless, it did– I think it was a high quality recording where you could always see what was going on and it’s streaming so it’s you know, it’s probably not Blu Ray level or anything like that, but not too bad. And it was able to show off some absolutely beautiful design and performance techniques that apparently are somewhat inherited from Japanese traditions. Kabuki and then another one…. I’m going to let Taisuke tell us about those, please.

Photo: Arts House Limited

 

Taisuke: The switching of the screen. I think any angle was set in an objective way. So you can watch the screen in a neutral way. There was some kind of frustration. But with that frustration, we can focus on the movements of a particular actor. So I think in that sense, using the toggle can be an interesting feature. Let’s move on to the puppets. Puppet theatre, or mask theatre. The interesting thing is that there is a character and the physicality, the double physicality I would say. And to feel that, the actors and audience has to share the space and time and that can be something difficult online. However, in regards to OIWA, physicality or the multiple personalities are not so important, that’s my impression in a negative way. But in a positive way, I think we are going back to the topic we were discussing at the beginning of this discussion. 

I think the original story of The Ghost of Yotsuya has something to do with multiple personalities. The basic story of The Ghost Story of Yotsuya is the murder case, caused by grudges between man and woman. The original story was developed by Nanboku Tsuruya and back then the scenes from The Ghost Story of Yotsuya were performed alternately with other productions. So in total, they spent two days to perform those two performances. The other production is called Chūshingura. This story is more popular and famous in Japan. Let me briefly explain the story of Chūshingura.

There’s two areas governed by feudal lords. The powerful feudal lord was treating the other feudal lord very poorly. And one day, the feudal lord who was being treated poorly, got really upset and swung his sword and injured him. And as a result, the whole area was destroyed. And the retainers of that feudal lord established an army to take revenge on the powerful feudal lord. So that’s the basic story of Chūshingura. The Ghost Story of Yotsuya took place in the same era. So it’s like a side story of Chushingura. So the reason why they performed those two productions at the same time is because, one, to gain more audience because Chushingura was very popular. But also it really shows us, Samurai society like bureaucratic society. However The Ghost Story of Yotsuya is more [about] civic society. And so you can compare those two societies and I think that’s the thinking behind producing those two performances together. The family that Oiwa belongs to, in the original story, this family isn’t a wealthy family. So the reason why The Finger Players focused on the wealth is, I think, it’s a strategy for them to sort of criticise this structure of wealth and poor to have some critical viewpoint of the current society. So this production maybe refers to the modern history of Singapore or Southeast Asia perhaps.

Matt: Yeah, absolutely.

Taisuke: The relationship between poor and rich, I think that’s what’s very interesting.

Matt: Yes, and to me, despite the aesthetic, which is so obviously traditional, it may be innovative in the, you know, in the way that the human puppetry was handled, but the aesthetics are traditional, but it did really feel quite up to date in what it was saying, at least in the in the critique of class. 

Shall we – since we’ve had about 40 minutes of this– shall we go to some questions? I believe they will magically appear. We have from Max, “I feel puppetry is an interesting form to tell the story as it turns the stage into a giant puppet show stage where we have to use our imagination to fill in the gaps.” Did any of you feel yourselves filling in those gaps and kind of mentally painting the stage?

Maybe I’ll start a little bit like that. In the theatre, I think we got a little bit more of a sense, obviously much more of a sense of the three-dimensional and the depth, especially if you were watching I think it was camera two, your eyes were absolutely level with the floor. So that when people moved away from you, they didn’t appear to move away, they just appeared to get smaller, which was an interesting effect. But obviously seeing it live, I was aware of this kind of cavernous stage which is so often essentially painted black and just interrupted by very, very focused bright beams of light. And it did make you often imagine what’s going to just step out into the light quite a lot of the time, it was very much a proposition of you’re either brightly lit and incredibly present, or you’re not there at all. And that really facilitated kind of suspense and shock tactics and made me imagine things that weren’t even there a lot of the time. Does anybody else have any thoughts about that? 

Taisuke: Let me say a few words. In Kabuki, for example, there are some methods where an actor plays a puppet and human at the same time, it’s called the Ningyoburi technique. What’s unique about this is the actor who plays a role. But however, all of us had gone without any clue, that same person starts acting like a puppet, and then goes back to a human. Historically. It’s not mainstream, it’s not authentic, according to the Japanese history of Kabuki or traditional performing arts. And I think that’s because in performing arts it is important to know what kind of illusion the actors can provide to the audience. And also culturally the audience can share that kind of thinking. In that mind, the method that was used in OIWA influenced the Theatre Du Soleil, and brushed up the traditional form of puppet theatre. So it’s more like a real actor’s performance. That’s how I felt.

Matt: Thanks very much for that, Taisuke. 

Can we have another question, please? It appears. “I like being able to flick the cameras, but my one issue was that you can’t pause it. Somehow watching on a screen. I need breaks in a way that I don’t with live shows. Yeah, we mentioned that a little bit earlier, but maybe we can flesh it out. Is there any reason you can think of that we shouldn’t be able to pause in our own homes? 

Amitha: We shouldn’t or we should? 

Matt: Well, either way. I mean, you know, whichever side of that argument you’re on, I’ve prejudiced it, obviously, I think it’s stupid. But maybe you can persuade me otherwise.

Amitha: I think we live… we can’t deny the fact that it’s such a… Yeah, it’s annoying. Actually, it annoys me every time I have to watch something live online. It’s just been like this for over a year. And it’s just yeah, and we can’t deny the fact that we’re sitting in a totally different reality at home. Like, I was watching this video on the designers of OIWA. And at one point, the sound designer was like, oh, we’re like second-class citizens, because visuals come first. And I was just like, yeah, like, I don’t get the atmosphere, you know, when you do these things. And it really brought up a lot of things. So when you’re on… but yeah, like, I get distracted way easier. My behaviour is totally different when I’m at home watching because I would never pull up a phone when I’m bored, you know, in the middle of, when I’m at the theatre. I would never, I don’t know. If I’m hungry, then I just try to ignore that feeling. Whereas if I’m at home, I’m like, ‘What can I eat?’ Or when I need to go to the bathroom, I’m like, ‘well, I have to hold it in,’ you know, like, your body totally reacts differently to this thing in front of you. It’s just so two-dimensional. 

And you have like, with all this technology now, there’s so many things to distract you. And like at home too, like maybe you have other things to distract you at home. You’re not in the same space with… you’re in two totally different realities, two totally different spaces, you’re not with the atmosphere of what’s going on on stage at all. So yeah, I would prefer… As a critic as well, I prefer to be able to take notes. And, like Alice said, I didn’t notice the rhythm of how fast it went and how like you never, and it would be so much nicer. I don’t know whether when they designed they knew that they would have to be streamed live as well. So maybe they didn’t think of creating, you know, slowing things down and creating more of an atmosphere in a filmic sense as well. So I feel like yeah, I realised that maybe it could have been more atmospheric in a way for us at home. I don’t know whether when they designed they had that in mind, or they thought this is going to be only live, we’re not going to stream it because maybe by that time, we’re going to, you know, all be back in the theatre or something.

Matt: Yeah. Did it contribute to the liveness for you, Alice? That not being able to pause it and the idea, I suppose, that we’re going to create this atmosphere in your own home?

Alice: Well, I feel like there’s a bit of a paradox sometimes where when you’re watching live streams, you get the worst aspects of liveness, but not the good ones. So the most annoying aspects of liveness is that you’re like trapped here, you have to do it now, you can’t go to the toilet or, you know. You’ve got that but you haven’t got the good aspects of liveness, which is the response of the audience, the energy, the sense of occasion and event. 

I mean, I’m kind of, I am interested in how you can create that sense of specialness and occasion at home. Something that I’ve been doing with my flatmates since the pandemic is, we watch theatre live streams together. We have a meal beforehand, we turn off all the lights, we’re not allowed to look at our phones. We’re not allowed to talk, we just have to super focus and we did an Angels in America day like that, where we watched the whole seven hours in the dark in the living room. It helps that it was like snowing outside. So it wasn’t like a beautiful sunny day that we were missing out on. But I think that you can invest in that experience. And here I think, here I feel like it was a middle ground because as you said earlier that the fact he had the logo and the toggles meant that you couldn’t do that sort of full, I’m gonna try and make a mental leap into this world. But at the same time, it didn’t let you pause and sort of, you know, go and be a human and the way that human beings are in their home, so yeah, it was like a weird middle ground for me.

Matt: Yeah, yeah, interesting. Tze Chien a play last year called Murder at Mandai Camp, which also you couldn’t pause, but for the very good reason that it also… You had to go on Telegram. And there was a live chat that kind of supported and interacted with the show that you were watching, which was a murder mystery. And so when there’s that level of– you mentioned, having a meal with your friends, but yeah, when there’s that level of community, I can absolutely see the points to get it through. But just looking at chat, there’s all people saying, “yeah, what if I want to go to the toilet?” “All it takes is for my mother to innocently knock on my door and ask how to forward a message on WhatsApp ah? and I forget entirely what transpired so far in the show.” 

Yeah, you can’t control– you think you’d be able to control your own homes. Right? But they’re far less controllable environments than the theatre. So when you don’t give us the opportunity to pause…

Let’s go to another question. It may be one of the last couple, I think. “What is the value or implication of staging a play that is so straightforwardly centered on a male Machiavellian protagonist today? I enjoyed it aesthetically, but viewing this piece of work through a feminist lens, I felt very let down.” So let’s go to either Alice or Amitha on that one. 

Amitha: Alice, do you want to start?

Alice: Yeah, I mean, I guess I kind of, I had this very much, a preconception coming to the work that it was going to be all about this kind of vengeful, twisted feminist icon. I was kind of thinking of, you know, classic stories like Medea, where you have the female antihero. And yeah, I feel like, I do agree that it wasn’t that, it wasn’t perhaps what you were led to expect from the title. And I think that that’s a shame in a way, because I think that we’re kind of at a moment where we are looking for stories from the past, with really strong female characters. And I think sometimes there’s this perception that, you know, writing interesting female characters is something that’s happened more recently, and in the past, that we don’t have those models. 

But actually, I think there are, you know– myths and legends are full of these really complex, with dark women. And this seems like one of those examples. So it’s kind of a shame, that we didn’t perhaps get the richness of that I think. I’m kind of also interested in the humour of this story, because I think I kind of, I wasn’t… I think it was quite jolting. Like in the very first scene, you have the, you know, the man and his apprentice in the forest. And when they both wet themselves because of the ghost, and then you have the joke about sort of being a virgin. I was like, oh, okay, this really isn’t what I was expecting. I wasn’t expecting it to be kind of funny and a bit tongue in cheek. And I think I really enjoyed that. Because it does, it does make that world more accessible in a way. It’s sort of… it does kind of humanise those people, but at the same time, I kind of wonder what it would be like if Oiwa kind of was also able to make jokes, or what if she was a complex character who was able to kind of express her own level of fear and doubts and yeah. Because her trajectory is so interesting that you don’t see it from inside, you see it more from sort of outside and how she transforms in the eyes of those around her. 

 

Photo: Arts House Limited

 

Matt: Amitha, your thoughts on that?

Amitha: I wouldn’t say I was disappointed, but I was just a little bit surprised that the story was a bit more focused- but I was quite, you know, engaged in the story. It was such an interesting story, but at the same time, yeah, it was just weird that… or maybe in the writing, my biggest problem was when they kind of tried to stuff it in at the end. It was like, ‘no, this is about women and men’ and I was just like, ‘no, you didn’t – you didn’t do that at all.’ You know? But yeah, I wouldn’t say I was disappointed by the fact that it was less feminist then than expected. I just didn’t feel like she was that interesting of a character. I was fascinated by the fact that nobody, like there was no real face seen, like even the mask, they were either masked or just like, even Tamiya was almost completely covered. You never see real faces. And I thought that was interesting that you never really see. 

Matt: Yeah. 

Amitha: One of my theories was that maybe they wanted to explain why she came out of you know, she became a ghost with hair that covered her face to begin with. So that’s why they always do it, you know, that’s why even when she was living, they cover her face that way, or maybe like Alice said earlier, she’s more of a symbol of this weak, submissive kind of character. Yeah, but I don’t know. But then like, when you look back at the images of Oiwa from paintings and all that she was a bit bald, and she… you can see her face, right, and all that. So I don’t know. I would say I was intrigued. I don’t know why they made that choice with OIWA.

Matt: Yeah, I think I was eventually a little bit disappointed by it. Although for a long time, I wasn’t really thinking in those terms, because as we discussed earlier, I wasn’t really even thinking it was about gender relations. But when that started being mentioned, and especially when she had the scene where she basically wasted away for 15 minutes, because she was no longer beautiful after being burned. I did start thinking that this is a rather retrograde thing to do, especially in a story where her name is on the billboard. 

She looks like she’s, you know, she’s a blank white canvas with ink running down it essentially. And she doesn’t really have her own character, she seems to be about, you know, with the main character being Tamiya there, and having so much of the… taking so many of the actions in the play. It really does seem to be him projected on her in a way that seems old fashioned. Possibly the play thought it was questioning that, but I’m not sure if I saw enough agency from her, or even enough necessarily critique of her lack of agency to be able to think of it as anything other than a somewhat old-fashioned story.

Amitha: I think she does have a lot of agency. That’s why I was kind of annoyed that at the end, she said no, this is about men and women. And it was just like you kind of consented to a lot of things that were terrible for you. So, you know… I don’t see why she suddenly saw herself as a victim when she totally made all those choices herself. So I don’t think it was about agency or submission.

Matt: Okay, interesting. I read it, perhaps incorrectly, as her feeling she had to play that submissive role. Possibly because of the gender-

Amitha: Her choice, yeah.

Matt: Yeah. But maybe I think I’ve read it that her choice was influenced by her circumstances as people’s are..? I don’t know.

Amitha: But then don’t forget her sister was totally different. Then they killed her off, you know, so…

Matt: Yeah. All right. Shall we go to one final question? Do you feel– Ah yes, good, I’m glad we got to this one. “Do you feel the horror was more appropriate for the stage more so than for the screen? Since the stage magic was a huge part of the production and the horror for the screen has its own genre conventions? What are your thoughts on the stage magic too?” 

Well, having seen it live, I should probably lead on that one. And I was never at any point scared. But I don’t really get scared by such things. I do get entertained by them. I often think that horror in the theatre, even when it’s done really well, is something that you get a jump scare, and then everybody in the audience laughs and they’re not necessarily laughing because they found it funny, but rather because of a release of tension. But then that laughter kind of gets read sometimes by the audience as it’s funny and I just find it self-undercutting of the horror experience. 

But oddly enough in the Victoria Theatre this time, because we were so spread out, there wasn’t that critical mass of humanity which can result in laughter. So it was a far more stiller and more silent and more contemplative experience. And maybe that let the horror in a little bit more for some people. I’m not sure but it was more about entertainment than horror for me. What about the rest of you? Did you find it scary? And did that matter?

Taisuke: To describe the fear on the stage can be quite difficult. So, I think it should be an immersive experience in that case. And from the context of the question OIWA, just like The Ring, OIWA is a very strong feature in Japanese horror. About 10 to 20 years ago, Japanese horror started booming and in that, the female ghost or female vicious spirits, are somewhat a strong feature of Japanese horror. And it can be somewhat typical. That’s what I saw when I first started watching Japanese horror. And OIWA is very typical of that. So, rather than feminism or gender, it’s more about society or class. Or, you know… Oiwa was combing her hair and she started talking about the citizen class, where she said, “we can’t maintain our reputation without having the respect from the general public”. It’s almost like influencers on Instagram. So I thought it criticised, it’s depicting the population or social influences, or through female identity. I think it is not well done in terms of showing the female identity.

Matt: Thank you. Amitha, let’s finish up with the point that you were going to make.

Amitha: Oh, I just said, it was important for me to– I was kind of wondering, because I know I wasn’t going to be in the theatre. So I was like, how am I… am I going to be scared? There’s gonna be such a distance. But then again, I also told myself, there’s no way in hell I’m going to watch this in the dark. Because I do get scared easily unlike you. I do get scared, like, even like when it’s comedic, and it’s not supposed to be that scary, I get scared. You know, I turn the lights on at night. For a while, like I remember watching The Woman in Black in theatre and that was terrifying. Like, I was scared for days. And for me that was like, I think the only experience so far where I was really scared in theatre, but with – in a play, not in movies. In movies, I get super scared. But this one I was a little bit scared when – because of her physicality – when she was coming out of the well. And I think this ghost is, I think she’s known- I think she’s less scary because of her hair but I think of her physicality. I watched The Ring before and I feel… The Ring, I didn’t feel was that scary? Except for- Sometimes it’s this silence that makes things scary as well. And I thought it did really well in the movie. But in this part, yeah, it’s just my imagination, too. So, at the end, I was a little bit scared during that part. When she was coming out of the well. 

Matt: Yeah, that was really well handled. 

Amitha: But I think I would be super scared in a mostly empty theatre watching that, I think, you know? I’ll be nervous about it, like, is it going to be scary? Or am I going to get anxious? Sorry.

Matt: Okay, well, we are over time a little bit. So I think we’ll leave it there. Thank you everyone very much for joining us. OIWA: the Ghost of Yotsuya is still available on SIFA On Demand from now till the 20th of June 2021. You can check out the SIFA website for details on the show and the other shows available online. ArtsEquator would like to thank the Arts House and Singapore International Festival of Arts for inviting us to be part of the programme through the Asian Arts Media Roundtable. And for more information on the Asian Arts Media Roundtable, you can visit the Roundtable website for more details. Thank you all very, very much and goodbye!


OIWA – The Ghost of Yotsuya by The Finger Players took place online from 28 to 30 May at Victoria Theatre, and from 5 to 20 June on SIFA On Demand as part of the Singapore International Festival of the Arts 2021.

Critics Live! is a programme of the Asian Arts Media Roundtable (AAMR), which ran from 15 May – 12 June 2021 as part of a collaboration with SIFA 2021. 

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