Universality in a Japanese Story: Kuroko premieres in Vancouver

The main character in Kuroko – Maya – is hikikomori, an extreme recluse, who explores Virtual Reality. | Photo courtesy of The Cultch

story of isolation, family ties, and virtual reality is set to hit the stage in Tetsuro Shigematsu’s play, Kuroko. This new play is directed by Amiel Gladstone and the world premiere will take place Nov. 6–17 at the Cultch Historic Theatre.

Shigematsu is the visionary behind Kuroko and many other successful plays like Empire of the Son, which had a sold out theatrical run at the Cultch Theatre when it premiered. Kuroko is a multi-layered tale which focuses around Japanese family dynamics in an age of ever-evolving technological feats.

“The more time we spend looking at screens, the less time we spend looking at each other. So I wonder, what are we [sic] moving towards?” says Shigematsu.

The concept of hikikomori, an extreme recluse, plays a vital role in the play as Maya, the main character, deals with this condition as her father becomes terminally ill. The only interaction young Maya has is through virtual reality and through this medium she meets someone who challenges her to get out of her room, save her father, and change her life for the better.

A playwright in the making

Shigematsu, the son of Japanese immigrants who have resided in Canada since he was a child, has always had an aptitude for the arts and at 19-years-old became the youngest playwright to compete at the Quebec Drama Festival. Shigematsu experienced a turning point in his artistic ambitions when he saw Asian-American actress Amy Hill at the Montreal Fringe Festival.

“It was the very first time I had seen someone who looked like me on stage, telling a story that was from my life. I saw my own existence reflected for the first time. It was just so stunning to have that foggy mirror wiped away and see myself reflected,” says Shigematsu. “But the second epiphany I had was when I looked around and everyone else was laughing equally hard who were non-Asians. That’s the moment I realized that there’s a possibility that maybe one day I could tell my story and other people would be interested in hearing it.”

Cultural commentary

Tetsuro Shigematsu, Canadian radio broadcaster, comedian and filmmaker | Photo courtesy of Tetsuro Shigematsu

Through this play, Shigematsu hopes the audience will leave with a better understanding of Japan. He feels Japan is often only revered for its cultural output, like manga and anime, but it is deserving of its own critiques as well.

“For me, people only see the really shiny parts of Japanese culture,” says Shigematsu. “Every aspect of your daily life [in Japan] is regimented. It has upsides, but there are also huge emotional costs in terms of personal liberty and individuality. People can be really crushed under that system and that’s a lot about what Kuroko is all about.”

The rigidness of Japanese culture, paired with a social setback, is what leads Maya to her situation as a hikikomori. Maya feels she cannot connect with anyone outside of her room and relies on the internet and virtual reality to make any sort of human connection. This play is about Japan, but the story of isolation and finding solace in technology is something that is occurring to people all over the world, every day.

Personal experience into art

Shigematsu had the initial idea for this play recovering from a laser eye procedure that left him in the literal dark for several days. Alone in the dark, with nothing to entertain him but hours of audiobooks, he had time to reflect on the impact of technology and how it will continue to become a bigger and bigger part of our
everyday lives.

“It was a very strange experience not knowing if it was day or night and to be physically wasting away. I wasn’t eating very much, I wasn’t moving much. I could feel my muscles shrinking. But on an imaginative level I was conjuring entirely different worlds and universes,” says Shigematsu. “I wondered if that might be a glimpse of the future of what we are heading towards, a sort of singularity.”

For more information, please visit www.thecultch.com and www.shiggy.com.