10 people and a toilet (and a magical girl)

14Dec10

Over the weekend I went to see the Gekidan Chaukachawan — an amateur theater group made up of Osaka University students — perform their latest production,      十人トイレ.   十人トイレ, which can very loosely be translated as 10 People and a Toilet, is a title that puns on the classic Japanese saying 十人十色, or “ten people, ten colors” — i.e. ‘different strokes for different folks,’ as one translation has it.

The play itself is a dramatic comedy centered on the chance interactions of a group of characters from all walks of life who meet at random in front of the public restrooms outside of Shibahara Station (the closest train station to where I live, as a matter of fact).  These kinds of plays are usually defined by character type rather than character growth since a large ensemble cast doesn’t tend to give enough time to any one character that you can begin to get to know them in any meaningful sense; instead, the audience relies on certain signature types that come with a stock personality and set of character assumptions.  It’s no surprise that a play like 十人トイレ would include a host of such characters: the young couple that can’t decide if they’re really in love or not, the author who is discouraged and thinking of giving up writing, the salaryman who has recently been laid off of work and doesn’t understand his life any more, the wacky guitar player who is stuck in a group home but drops a few philosophical gems about life, the homeless man who’s got a lot more going on than it seems at first, a pair of criminals, a palm-reading fortune teller, a set of high-school students who are at each other’s throats but secretly in love, and so on.  

The problem with a play in which everyone is a type is, of course, that their fates are already played out for them.  You practically know in advance that the discouraged writer is going to find new inspiration, the salaryman is going to learn a valuable life lesson from his homeless counterpart, the criminals who are holed up in the bathroom will be found out in the end, and — of course! — true love will prevail.  However, Midorikawa Gakuryo (緑川岳良) — the author of the play — is much too clever to let things pan out in quite this way.  The first hint of this arrives along with the fortuneteller.  A fortuneteller, of course, is the perfect figure to represent the way in which character type is so often the same as fate when it comes to a play like this; these are stock characters that come with a stock set of expectations and what will become of them by the end of the play is just about as clear as the lines on the palm of your hand.  The fortuneteller, however, turns out to be a fake — she’s really just an amateur with a hobby and a copy of Palm Reader Weekly magazine — and the set of expectations that the play sets up in terms of genre turn out to be a ruse as well.  十人トイレ upsets the genre expectations that go along with its setup not in the usual way —  by having the characters turn out to be something other than they seem to be — but rather by having a single character who appears toward the end of the play turn out to be, improbably, exactly what she appears to be — a Magical Girl.

About two-thirds of the way through the play a young woman wearing a magical girl costume is chased into the women’s restroom by a man in black who spends a large portion of the final third of the play imploring her to come out of the restroom.  The assumption that the other characters have (and the audience members as well) is that this is some kind of bizarre cosplay fantasy gone dreadfully wrong.  However, the man in black keeps insisting that “She’s a real Magical Girl!”  At this point the palm reader, who has been offstage for awhile, returns and starts reading palms, only to discover that no one has a life line anymore.  (Something like this actually happened to me once.  When I was in grade school I was heavily into palm reading and had made a habit of reading the hands of my fellow students, and even those of a few of the teachers.  One day on the schoolyard I asked the principal if I could read his fortune and was rather perplexed to find that he had no intelligence line at all.  Being the smart cookie that I was, I lied to him about it.)

When people’s life lines start to disappear you know the play has lost the plot — but in a good way.  At this point the man in black explains that the world is going to be destroyed by a giant flying creature hovering over the city unless two people can be found who are truly in love, at which point the Magical Girl in the bathroom will use the force of their power of love to banish the monster from the face of the earth.  Which is, of course, exactly what happens.  What I loved most about the way that  十人トイレ panned out (aside from the fact that it was incredibly entertaining) was that rather than being the 十人十色 character sketch that it was initially shaping up to be, it ended up being a  十人二色 clash of genres that, in eminently postmodern fashion, ended up undermining the very idea of character itself.

And speaking of magic and performance, I’ll leave you with this beautiful quote from my friend’s five-year-old son who had just seen The Nutcracker for the first time —

When something is too beautiful, it makes my lips shiver.



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