I don’t quite understand Takuya Murakawa’s history — but neither does he have much use for it. Last year and this year, he flew into Beijing and Shanghai to conduct two sets of workshops. One of these sets was held with the intention of finding Chinese actors for the 8th edition of Kyoto Experiment. Nobody knew who this young theater director was. Murakawa was offering one person an air ticket for an international return trip, to Japan’s Kansai International Airport. Many people applied, especially in Shanghai, where the response was incredible. The most important condition was that the applicant be a Chinese national who could speak Japanese. Students at both private and public foreign language universities in China don’t just learn Japanese: they love high school girls’ uniforms, catch the latest episodes of their favorite anime series on Bilibili as soon as they appear, and take part in cosplay groups. Their taste in clothing, style of conversation, and bodily mannerisms are a hodgepodge that suggests a desire to divest themselves of their nationality. Under the smog that blankets Beijing now and then, they lose themselves in the clear blue skies of a Japanese storyline, against a soundtrack of background music that they bring with them. In this performance that takes place neither onstage nor backstage, Murakawa’s brand of orderly improvisation is a “struggle,” while the blocking is a process of “natural selection.” He abuses the power and authority that he holds, just like the microphones he used to enjoy “abusing” in his previous works, letting the winners reconstruct (play the role of) the losers. Sitting in the darkness of the audience, those who have been eliminated experience for a second time the profound malice of what is unraveling onstage.
“I feel that the reason I wasn't chosen was because I'm too Japanese. I don't have anything uniquely Chinese about me, which didn't appeal to the director.” When girls who are often secretly delighted in front of their peers because they're “special” encounter Murakawa, they suddenly become aware that they're just “reproductions,” and feel a pang of guilt afterwards. Throughout the entire workshop (which was in fact an entire performance in and of itself), Murakawa played the role of the ruthless judge. If China and Japan constitute a pair, A and B, in terms of linguistic structure, this exercise made them understand for the first time that they were in-betweens, neither A nor B.
China is the world’s largest global factory. It manufactures not only exotic foreign goods, but also exotic boys and girls who belong neither here nor there. Like defective, remaindered goods that have been retained in the country, they have neither trademark nor copyright, nor even a history. Murakawa’s works never have a screenplay. His performing participants (and not performers) resemble the images and words that are freely circulated on the internet, arbitrarily dissected and assembled before being reposted. These reproductions can hardly escape their destiny as copies of copies. So what is this thing we call an “original”? Might it not be a stubborn notion that we cling to that is tied to the idea of copyright? In Baudrillard’s third order of simulationism, the “real” no longer exists: the Gulf War did not happen, China never existed, and neither did Japan.
After the workshop concluded, Murakawa wanted to look for a market selling fake knockoff (shanzhai) toys. He wasn’t able to find one, but after eating a skewer of grilled scorpions on a pedestrian-only street in Wangfujing, he finally found a “Dora-Bmon,” and a magical combination of Pikachu and a Teletubby that I later sent him images of via We-Chat. In the Chinese context, the word shanzhai has no doubt become a term laden with value judgments (which can also be understood as a kind of copyleft). While shanzhai is often used in a derogatory sense, along with the “smart” (copycat Japanese visual-kei culture) and anti-mainstream tribes (copycat Japanese Harajuku kids, Goth and Lolita fans, and so on), it also represents a form of loyalty or devotion to the idea of copyright, and the Platonic world (a metaphor for Japan and other developed capitalist nations).
Over the past few years, the Japanese theater figure that the Chinese theater world has consumed most avidly is Tadashi Suzuki, who might be said to offer a symbolic solution to various problems surrounding Chinese contemporaneity. In a post-WTO era, China has reformed itself, opened up to the world, and entered a bottleneck period. Beijing, with its brand of illusory reality, is perhaps the best emblem of this: it bears a striking resemblance to Macondo, the fictional town depicted in Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Beijing is like a preamble that contains three tenses at once: the past, present, and future are simultaneously compressed into contemporary China.
Murakawa’s new work at Kyoto Experiment spans Japan, Korea, and China. It is an intensely challenging proposition, because the heads of each state have already taken this idea of “transnational dialogue” and demonstratively performed it in terms of political correctness. Meanwhile, the “screenplay” to this drama, so to speak, has been relegated to individual domains. It is my hope that Murakawa’s outsider style will be able to arrive at some sort of unconventional “transnationalism” and “dialogue.
Born in Tianjin in 1986 and based in Beijing. Sun is a playwright, theater director, and critic. He graduated from Central Academy of Drama and teaches theater at Tianjin Conservatory of Music. He formed the theater company en? (What has happened? How does it come to this?) in 2015. Inspired by comic books and online communities for young people in China, his recent work includes Drift Home (2014), Love’s Labour’s Lost (2015), and Here Is the Message You Asked For... Don’t Tell Anyone Else ;-) (2016).