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International: Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker, the ‘sticky and sweet’ show from Tokyo

The company behind Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker [1] cheerfully plugs its eclectic mash-up of pop music, dance and underground culture, confetti, cosplay, anime and tofu thus: “You won’t see anything like this!”

Known in Tokyo as Kakumei Aidoru Bousou Chan, the group celebrates underground pop fan culture in a way that could only come out of Japan. And the UK now gets to witness exactly how they pull it off at the London International Festival of Theatre with the group’s latest, dippily as-yet-untitled new show.

Founded in 2013 by director/choreographer Toco Nikaido, Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker features a core of six performers that gets built up to 30 or so actors for the live performances. What they have created is a show that flows around carefully orchestrated chaos, based on Japan’s phenomenon of the fans who follow the ‘aidoru’ (idol) movement of young manufactured pop singers. This has itself spawned a parallel ‘chika’ (underground) idol scene performed in small venues but generating a similarly fanatical following.

It’s the strange interaction of these devoted fans with their idols that inspires Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker. The fans create infectious routines, and many chika idols find themselves hopping into the audience to join in while waiting for their turn onstage.

When she was still at college, Nikaido put a group together that was driven by her own gigs as an underground idol. Coincidentally, at the same time, to celebrate the company’s 40th anniversary, Sony launched Idol Renaissance, a Japanese pop group, which, although mainstream, threw the spotlight on the underground idols and fans.

Cyclone_A1“The fans are called ‘otaku’,” explains performer and tour manager Amanda Waddell, who hails from the US. “It translates as ‘geeks’ or ‘nerds’ – mainly guys who follow female idols around and come to all their shows. While watching the shows, they develop their own dances and routines – ‘otagei’ or ‘nerd-performance’. Nikaido found herself on stage looking out into the audience and thinking: ‘What they’re doing is more interesting than what I’m doing up here!’

“So she started working on the idea of reversing that relationship and putting that otaku, niche, fetish fan, geeky culture on to the stage, mixing it with her own experience of being an idol.”

As the company’s only non-Japanese member, Waddell’s knowledge of the Japanese language got her involved with the group when she was hired as interpreter for its first European tour in 2013 – “and then Toco asked me if I wanted to join the company and I jumped at it”.

What makes it theatre is that it relies on all the skills actors have in their back pocket

Waddell had ended up in Japan, drawn to its vibrant alternative theatre network. Nikaido and Co. work in the ‘shogekijo’ – Japan’s fringe network located mainly in Tokyo but also in the Kansai region, where the cities of Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe are located, as well as Yokohama.

As Waddell explains: “In Tokyo in particular, there are theatre hubs all across the city so you’ll get a lot of small theatres on one little corner or nook of the city, but these aren’t really big theatres, maybe 100-150 seats max.

“But people are always popping up to do little shows in these spaces, and once you get a name for yourselves in your area, you can move your way to the big league and national public theatres. But it’s not actually that easy because although most of the country’s provocative work is being done in Tokyo, there’s nothing really sponsoring or funding it.”

Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker’s output has proved to be provocative in a pleasingly saccharine fashion whereby Nikaido establishes a loose narrative strung together by pop lyrics and dance to create a style of performance she calls ‘ohagi live’. “Ohagi is a type of sweet, sticky rice ball,” says Waddell, “meaning that the show is very sticky, very sweet and quite a mouthful sometimes because there’s a lot of it.”

DD8A7471The show unfolds over three parts. The first is what Nikaido terms the ‘preset’, where the actors arrive on to a bare stage hung with white traps that create a blank, white slate. The actors then place their props while preparing the audience at the same time. Says Waddell: “Most of the actors don’t know English very well, so you immediately get this culture shock where they’re doing their best to communicate with the audience – ‘Okay, hold this bucket of tofu or seaweed and I’ll come back and get it in 10 minutes’.”

Then comes the ‘medley’, the main rehearsed script put together by Nikaido with music and dance, which combine to plunge the audience deep into the pop idol world. The final section is the ‘compulsory encore’, where things flip into line with Nikaido’s idea that the protagonist is not the performer but the audience.

As Waddell explains: “What Toco is saying is: ‘You, the audience, are the main character. We couldn’t have created this without you, the show is made up from the culture that you produce.’ So everything we do up on the stage – whether it’s Japanese pulp, pop culture, subculture, mainstream culture – this is what anyone interested in culture already has. All we’re doing is just taking that and mixing and mashing it all up.”

Five things you need to know about Japanese theatre

1. ‘Shogekijo’, which translates as ‘small theatre’, is Japan’s equivalent of fringe theatre. It evolved in the 1970s and 1980s from the ‘angura’ (underground) avant-garde movement, which started as part of Japan’s 1960s counterculture. 

2. Angura’s leading practitioners went on to found Japan’s first performing arts festivals and public and corporate performing arts centres in the 1980s and 1990s. Japan’s first international theatre festival took place in 1982 in Toga, a remote mountain village in Toyama Prefecture, organised by director Tadashi Suzuki.

3. The main styles of traditional theatre are: kabuki (classical dance drama), bunraku (puppet theatre), noh (a medieval masked drama with dance and song, evolved from Shinto rites), and kyogen (comedy without masks, performed between noh plays).

4. Mainstream modern theatre in Japan was kickstarted by ‘shingeki’, a ‘new theatre’ movement that imitated European realism via translations and then original Japanese plays from the late 19th century. Ironically, having initially been a reaction to kabuki, by the 1960s shingeki itself had become the dominant traditional form against which innovative playwrights and directors reacted.

5. Holding as much status as traditional forms, contemporary Japanese dance draws on traditional styles (especially kabuki) and Western classical and avant-garde forms. The multi-style avant-garde dance movement butoh is possibly the most high-profile. It was developed in the late 1950s and now enjoys a stronger reputation overseas. The top butoh company, Sankai Juku, is based in Paris while Japan’s first dedicated butoh theatre opens this summer in Kyoto – the Butoh-kan (Butoh Hall) will give 45-minute performances to standing-only audiences of eight per show.

Handily, a lack of knowledge of idol culture is no obstacle, Waddell says reassuringly. “Of course our shows in Japan are far more heavily coded, but in order to give foreign audiences the same experience, we mix in stuff from other cultures to highlight the countries that we’re visiting. Audiences love it because you don’t expect something like Mary Poppins to suddenly jump out of all this.

“But in all honesty, within the group we’ve had to wrestle with the idea of what our genre is, because this does depend on the countries and festivals we play. I’ve tried to twist Toco’s arm and ask, ‘What exactly are we doing? Is this theatre? Is this dance? What is this?’ But Toco doesn’t get bogged down by terminology or trying to categorise.”

A clue lies in the fact that Nikaido casts actors not dancers, placing greater importance on the expressiveness of the pieces and delivery of individual moments than getting the dances down perfectly. The glorious anarchy of each show is only possible thanks to tight timing that pulls together the individual performances. “What makes it theatre is that it relies on all the skills that actors have in their back pocket,” Waddell notes.

While Japan’s provocative work is mostly done in Tokyo, there’s very little funding for it

The company’s first tour in 2013 took in Switzerland, Netherlands and Germany. It has been coming back to Europe ever since, in the process building up a large following. It has expanded to an Asian tour, while also playing Australia. That first break came about when a German dramaturg looking into contemporary Japanese theatre stopped by rehearsals and was blown away by the rigidity of the rehearsal process compared to the chaos of the actual show itself.

“We’ve been really fortunate,” says Waddell, “but I also think that our reception overseas speaks volumes for the work itself, because you won’t see anything like this.”

The idea that precisely this sort of reception overseas must be helping perceptions of Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker back home is met with more than a hint of exasperation from Waddell. “Oh, that’s a whole other bag. We have not been well received in Japan for a number of factors. Through my foreigner’s lens, I see the fact that Toco is a young female director who has done all these international tours that are a very high marker of success means people in Japan have said: ‘This is not theatre.’

“The theatre community has really shut the door on us and refused to accept her into their directors’ circles. On the flipside, the fun thing is that the contemporary art scene in Japan has been really supportive of our work. Top artists like Murakami Takashi and Aida Makoto have come to see the show and speak well of it. Just recently, the underground idol scene has picked us up, which is logical. But it does feel very strange.”

Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker is at the Pit at the Barbican, as part of LIFT 2016, until July 2 [2]

Further reading

Official company site: missrevodolbbbbbbbberserker.asia [3]

Japanese contemporary performing arts site: tokyostages.wordpress.com [4]

Performing Arts Network Japan: performingarts.jp [5]

Modern Japanese Theatre and Performance, by David Jortner, Keiko I McDonald, Kevin J Wetmore  (Lexington Books, 2007)

A Guide to the Japanese Stage, by Ronald Cavaye, Paul Griffith and Akihiko Senda (Kodansha International, 2005)