Image credit: Alexander Newton

This month is the world premiere of Harajuku Girls at the Finborough Theatre. The play, which is written by the Irish- Japanese playwright Francis Turnley and directed by Jude Christian, is set in Tokyo. The story follows three girls Mari, Keiko and Yumi, who love cosplay as it gives them the chance to be someone else. In order to escape fully from their lives which they feel are stifling them they move to Kabukicho – Tokyo’s red-light and entertainment district – and try to pursue their dreams despite the many obstacles they face along the way.

Nomo Gakuji, one of the cast members, describes how ‘Japanese traditionally have a very modest way of life, less greed, thankful to nature and accept and enjoy the life as it is, respect elders, parents and teachers, those aspects have been incorporated in the show.  In terms of contemporary cultures which also derive from traditions, there are cosplays, animations, pop music, love hotels, and karaoke.’ With so many aspects included this show is yet another fantastic example of the influence of Japanese culture in British theatre, which appears to be on the rise at the moment.

Just last year at the summer’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival we saw many hit performances inspired by Japanese culture, for instance Japan Marvellous Drummers, The Sake and even Sushi Tap Show to name but a few. All of which used different aspects of Japanese culture; traditional arts such as Taiko (drumming) and dance, or contemporary themes like popular cuisine! Sometimes both – which really creates a varied theatre performance experience that works perfectly in fringe theatre.

In the winter, audiences were treated to Usagi Yojimbo at the Southwark Playhouse, a play adapted from the comic books of Stan Sakai’s. This play followed Usagi, a rabbit who leaves his home in order to train as a samurai. The production used wonderful design, video projections, well-choreographed fight sequences and live music to re-create a manga inspired highly visual piece. Time Out gave the production four stars and described it as ‘a seasonal treat’.

Another example of late was theatre artist and puppeteer Basil Twist’s Dogugaeshi which was shown at this year’s London International Mime Festival. Dogugaeshi is the Japanese art of creating illusions through perspective, normally seen in traditional puppet theatre. This piece was highly influence by both traditional and contemporary Japanese culture incorporating puppetry, video projection, a specialist set design and live music. The British Theatre Guide described it as being ‘A Zen study delivered in an intimate gallery space’ and also said that it ‘illustrates our artistic hunger for the new in the old, still trading on Western tastes for Japonaiserie and Japanese aesthetics’.

But what could be the reason for Japanese culture’s rise in Britain? Cécile Trémolières, the costume designer for Harajuku Girls thinks, ‘It’s colourful and new, it’s sometimes very challenging because the codes of what is beautiful or sexy is different from what we have in Europe. The details of getting things right can drive you mad but its super exciting when it works. I think visually it is a very strong culture with very contrasted values and styles’. It’s true that the diversity of Japanese culture can be translated in many ways onto the stage. Manga as an example, which was the source for Usagi Yojimbo, is a highly artistic and animated art. This can be transformed into a fun and visual performance.

However, some people may wonder if Japanese culture really is on the rise. As it is true that it is still not a widely used theme in a lot of mainstream theatres. It clear though that the performances that have been created are always of high quality, loved by critics and audiences alike, as some of the shows discussed previously prove. I believe that Japanese themes will continue to rise in British theatre, much like puppetry in theatre in the last few years. Puppetry was an art form which slowly over the course of many years edged its way into theatre, eventually becoming a big mainstream theatre practice as seen in shows like Warhorse. Perhaps Japanese theatre will do the same?

Regardless, Japanese theatre is certainly making an impact for audiences who watch it and with such a diverse culture many different aspects can be chosen to create innovative theatre; whether that be using modern contemporary culture, like Harajuku Girls does or more traditional aspects, like Dogugaeshi. This richness is what makes it such an exciting addition to theatre in Britain today.


Harajuku Girls is on at Finsborough Theatre 24 Feb to 21 March. For more information click here.