An auteur is a singular creative force. In Japanese theatre circles, none are quite like Kuro Tanino. The former psychiatrist, who’s now garnering international recognition, gives new meaning to “triple threat”: he’s a playwright, director and set designer.
This year’s OzAsia Festival will host the Australian premiere of his latest work, The Dark Inn, which won Japan’s prestigious Kishida Prize for Drama in 2015.
When Tanino’s grandparents fell ill, he took up residence at an onsen (hot spring) hotel – between his home in Tokyo and their home near Toyama – to be closer. A bullet train connecting the two cities was in the works and, for Tanino, it marked a physical (and cultural) shift for the area in which he grew up. Reaching Toyama from Tokyo would be easier. But by the same token, it would be easier for locals to leave the rural area, and its culture, behind.
“I feel an intense beauty … when long-existing sceneries, cultures, customs and languages are just about to perish or are altered,” says Tanino. “I imagined what would be lost … and that is how this piece was born.”
While capturing the age-old Japanese hot spring culture, Tanino preserves a piece of history that’s at risk of being lost by an increasingly inquisitive generation. It’s a sort of time capsule.
Set against the backdrop of Japan’s secluded northwest mountains, and inspired by Tanino’s onsen hotel stay, The Dark Inn plays out in a traditional bathhouse. A puppeteer arrives to perform his travelling show but, as he and his father soon discover, none of its residents appear to have made the booking.
OzAsia artistic director Joseph Mitchell sees flashes of Lynchian cult favourites Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks. “There’s a mysteriousness seeping around the edges,” he says. “The way [it’s] constructed, you may well never know whether you’re watching a world objectively or if it’s a very controlled narrative.”
Mitchell chalks up Tanino’s ability to represent alternative perspectives on reality to his eight years observing the human condition as a psychiatrist. His web of characters, and the edge-of-your-seat surrealism that comes from their interactions, will keep you guessing.
Character traits take from the 12 principles of Buddhism. “I think the ideas of Buddha well capture humans,” Tanino says. Though not a Buddhist himself, he’s interested in the religion’s “12-linked chain of causation”, which shows “a relationship between ignorance and suffering.”
OzAsia gives boundary-pushing artists from across Asia an international platform they mightn’t have had before. “[Tanino’s] now hot property,” says Mitchell. “He’s seen as the next significant contemporary theatre-maker in Japan. [The Dark Inn] is a very mature culmination of the first 10 years of his theatre practice.” Mitchell sees it as his “masterwork”.
That’s due, in part, to its intricate staging. “The most difficult part was to bring the inn to life as if it were a living, breathing creature,” says Tanino. “The structure is very complicated.” Mitchell ranks it as “one of the most stunning set designs anyone’s likely to see.” A fully operational, water-filled hot spring is the centrepiece of a multi-level, revolving set.
Originally made for a Japanese audience, The Dark Inn is written in Toyama dialect instead of what Tanino describes as a “smart” Tokyo way of speaking. Granted, only native speakers will be able to differentiate the two, but it’s another dimension to the “old culture” he sets out to preserve. For non-Japanese speakers English subtitles will roll on screens either side of the stage.
The Dark Inn runs as part of OzAsia Festival on Tuesday October 3 and Wednesday October 4 at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Tickets are available online.