Reflections on “The Unknown Dancer in the Neighbourhood”

On Wednesday 22nd of March, 2017, I had the good fortune to attend a performance of Yamamoto Suguru’s innovative new dance and theatre hybrid show The Unknown Dancer in the Neighbourhood. The performance was hosted by the Japan Foundation, Sydney. Unbeknown to me, this performance touched on many of the scholarly themes with which I have been grappling in my recent work and so I have decided to write a somewhat scholarly review of the performance here. I should also mention that I was personally touched by this performance, even if at times I found the subject matter somewhat confronting or uncomfortable. Please be advised that spoilers will follow.

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Kitao Wataru performing in Yamamoto Suguru’s dance performance piece The Unknown Dancer in the Neighbourhood

Here is a brief summary of the performance from the Japan Foundation’s official site:

Drama and dance hybrid show, The Unknown Dancer in the Neighbourhood, is a drama about apathy and anonymity in a Japanese suburb on the city fringe. During the day, the neighbourhood bustles with people who treat each other indifferently; and at night, it transforms into a dangerous zone, festering with crime. Through the powerful movements of a single actor, the play introduces the neighbourhood’s inhabitants and reveals their past, present and future.

Tokyo-based director and playwright Suguru Yamamoto’s skillful blend of theatre, dance and projection art unites with actor and choreographer Wataru Kitao’s intuitive but precise movements. Together, they seamlessly weave the characters’ lives into a captivating story onstage.

As is evident from the above summary, the play explores the growing feelings of precariousness which scholars such as Anne Allison argue dominate contemporary Japanese society due to Japan’s increasing neo-liberalism. In exploring the sense of apathy which emerges out of the death of a young girl at a train station (she was trampled to death during the evening rush hour), as well as the fleeting nature of human contact in the wake of the vicious murder of 30 innocents at a municipal library, the play also explores the concept of muen shakai (無縁社会), a term which Allison has translated as “a society without human relationships.”

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The single dancer/actor plays a variety of characters, including a young school girl and members of her family, various businessmen, a train station attendant, a prostitute and her pimp (and their unborn child), a dog, and even a train itself. Much of the dialogue is projected onto the screens behind the stage, giving the effect that the single performer is talking to himself. To my mind, this perfectly represents and encapsulates what it means to be living within a muen shakai; one’s conversations are disjointed, one-sided and ultimately disconnected from those around you. This makes for disorientating viewing, with the audience thrown into a “relationless” state similar to that experienced by the characters in the play.

Thematically, the performance explored how Japanese society (and, indeed, human society in general) is moving towards an increasingly impersonal and uncaring social structure based around the individualistic pursuit of pleasure and one’s own selfish needs. Throughout the performance, characters would consistently be questioned by disembodied voices asking why they should even care about the play’s events. This had its most grotesque expression in a (disembodied) character’s refusal to help a small boy rescue Megu-chan, a young girl who had fallen onto the train tracks and was being crushed to death as commuters stepped on her head in order to board a train. The disembodied character (whose language was that of a stereotypical middle-aged man) asked the boy “why he should help.” His was question was not in the sense of why someone should help another person but concerned why he specifically should help this specific girl. The selfishness of the characters is a perfect metaphor for the underlying lack of human relationships and empathy which conditions and produces contemporary Japan’s social precariousness.

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The play also reflected upon the role of the media in producing this muen shakai through its parodying of both the Japanese “twitterverse” and Japanese morning television (in particular, the infotainment genre known as the ワイドショー or “wide show”). The media commentary surrounding the tragic events which bookend The Unknown Dancer in the Neighbourhood is shocking in its manipulation of its viewers’ feelings (with the audience of the performance being positioned as the TV- watching audience of said wide show through some clever staging). By simultaneously portraying the directors, interviewers and interviewees of such shows, the single dancer/actor embodied and expressed how the media is utilised to manipulate affective responses to trauma in ways which limit, rather then increase, empathy. In this section of the performance, clear parallels were made with media coverage in the wake of the 3/11 Triple Disaster.

The performance ended with a direct address to the audience challenging their own passive observation of the play’s events. The audience was accused of being selfish and of selfishly trying to read hope and despair into  what they had just seen. In specifically problematising the human tendency to read hope into moments of pain and sorrow, The Unknown Dancer in the Neighbourhood rejects scholars such as Allison and Genda Yuji who posit hope as the ultimate panacea for social precariousness in Japan. Via The Unknown Dancer in the Neighbourhood, Yamamoto Suguru reminds us that individual reactions to apathy and abjection are in fact much more complex than a simple struggle between those who possess hope and those who do not. Thus, ultimately, I found that The Unknown Dancer in the Neighbourhood challenged by own understanding of “hope” as a “resource” which individuals can deploy to change society for the better (a position developed by the queer theorist Jose Esteban Munoz).

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