This article was originally published in The Japan Times on 7 January 2015.
Central to William Golding’s dystopian novel “Lord of the Flies” is the notion of violence as a social construct. “Maybe there is a beast … maybe it’s only us,” says the protective Simon before a hostile assembly of other schoolboys marooned on the uninhabited island where the English Nobel laureate set their blood-soaked descent into savagery.
Since it was published in 1954, the deeply disturbing tale has been the subject of several notable film and stage adaptations, including Peter Brook’s stark black-and-white screen rendition in 1963 and Nigel Williams’ acclaimed version for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1996. This month, “Landslide World” by the Tokyo-based Shika Goroshi theater company, is the latest work to join that august canon.
Founded in 2000 by director Chobi Natsuki and playwright Maruichiro Maruo during their undergraduate days at Kansai Gakuin University in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, Shika Goroshi — which translates as “deer killing” — first made its mark in the Kansai region staging works by the Korean-Japanese playwright Kohei Tsuka and through street performances heavy on visual kei (literally “visual style”) — a made-in-Japan fashion and music style involving lots of makeup, fancy hairstyles and showy costumes.
After relocating to Tokyo in 2005, one of the company’s major successes came in 2009 with a national tour of “Beelzebub Brothers,” its first attempt at an adaptation of “Lord of the Flies” — a project now expanded into “Landslide World.”
Here, though, Maruo has shifted the story’s setting from Golding’s idyllic island to a remote mountain village called Nameya, some 10 hours from Tokyo. As well, he swaps the original’s warring schoolboys for the Haneda family, through whom he explores the abrogation of values and standards at a more intimate level.
As Natsuki put it in a recent interview with these writers, “Even at home, with your family members — or in the wider world — you want to be friendly and happy but you cannot avoid fighting with others.”
That’s certainly the case with the Haneda family, a complicated mix of two pairs of brothers, absent mothers and dead fathers. One father, Daichi, was abusive, prompting his elder son, Shimon, to flee to Tokyo to pursue his dream of becoming a musician. Fifteen years later, when Daichi dies from a cause never made clear, the four brothers gather in Nameya for a funeral shrouded in doubt.
However, they soon start to escape reality through an obsession with the microscopic world — a metaphor, perhaps, for their need to control the fraught family relationships swirling around.
Gradually, the brothers’ childhood memories become the focus of the play, brought to life through different theatrical conceits, one of which is a comical visual-kei band the brothers used to imitate in their youth.
While the action on stage is confined to the locales, memories and struggles of a family coping with loss, this play’s conceptual scope is far wider. Indeed, with Natsuki hailing from a rural town in Fukuoka Prefecture, and Maruo from the city of Osaka, the director explained that the play is partly a response to the complicated urban-rural relationship some people experience — a relationship that she said is also a great source of comedy here.
Another key influence on this new version was, Natsuki said, a study trip she made to Canada on a government scholarship in 2013, when Shika Goroshi decided to take a year out so members could pursue their personal projects and the group could affirm a new focus for its work.
In meeting a wide range of people during that time, the director realized that the standard values she’d upheld till that point in her life had been limited to Japan. It was a revelation which, she said, has led to a great broadening in her portrayal of characters on stage.
“I don’t necessarily try to describe complicated families,” she explained, “but I do want to expose all those family members who deep down want to love or be loved. Hence my stage characters often complicate simple situations by pursuing this desire for love as I strive to show intense and passionate moments rather than bland, everyday life.”
The title for this revival also mirrors that shift in focus. Although the word “landslide” evokes images of the natural disasters constantly besetting Japan, Natsuki noted that while the title was not a reference to a particular event, she was certainly mindful of the fact that after the March 2011 tragedies, many people left the afflicted northeastern area of Honshu and went overseas or to distant rural parts of the country in search of safer places.
Consequently, “Landslide World” was, she said, “a reflection of that anxiety as well as the desire to explore new horizons which had naturally accumulated in people’s hearts.”