When I meet Japanese sound designer, instrument builder, and video artist Sachiyo Takahashi for a lunch-hour interview, I'm not expecting her to bring a couple of actors along. And I'm certainly not prepared for our introduction. Reaching into a slim paper case with a pair of tweezers, she draws her colleagues from their tissue-swaddled slumber and places them gently on the table: a neatly modelled, bee-sized sheep, and an inch-high topless dancer whose billowing red skirt swirls around her tiny plastic knees.
"The performance I'm doing now, I use a very small stage, with very small performers and props," Takahashi says, in careful but heavily accented English. "So I actually brought some of these things to show you. Maybe if you see them, it's a little easier to understand."
Perhaps. It's easy enough to see why Takahashi would be interested in developing what she calls "the world's smallest theatre": after years of working with large-scale sound installations and complex audience-participation events, it must be relatively relaxing to arrange a low-tech, single-camera shoot with a compliant plastic cast.
"What I do is I use the video camera to magnify things," she says. "That's actually kind of the major connection with sound: the sounds I use a lot are recorded sounds, magnified. The microphone is like a big magnifier of the world–all the small things that you hear and go 'Oh my God, that's really interesting.' It's kind of like the same idea with the video camera. You magnify this small detail, this small world, and then project it big."
How Takahashi's work relates to her cultural background is also readily apparent. As she explains, Japan's consumer-driven society is obsessed by miniaturization, not only in its capsule hotels and ever-shrinking electronic gadgets, but also in the tiny collectibles given away to promote the sale of soft drinks and candy bars.
"This kind of thing is very popular in Japan; they're called figure," she says, pronouncing the term "fig-ur-a". "For example, if you buy some sweet, a figure comes with it. And they're buying the sweet, but, actually, people want the figure."
You could call what Takahashi is doing bonsai theatre, but while the art of cultivating miniature plants is filtered through thousands of years of contemplative tradition, her work is both radically free and playfully childlike. To tell her stories, she uses fortune-cookie-sized strips of paper bearing gnomic utterances like "Don't lose my star on your way," or "What do you want?" Tweezered into focus in front of the video camera, these will appear on-screen like manga dialogue balloons. Her staging is equally simple: grabbing a saltshaker, she briefly upends it over her plastic sheep. "If I do this," she says, "it's snowing!
"Pretty much the experiment I'm doing to prepare the show is just going back to the childhood thing," she continues. "And I don't really go to buy materials, either–just something I can use from the kitchen, or some craft supplies, or bubble wrap. When you magnify that kind of material, it's actually pretty interesting."
I don't doubt this for a minute; everything is interesting when it's seen through such imaginative eyes. But what's less clear is how Takahashi's work fits into I-Spy, an evening of multimedia performance that the Blim arts centre and the Powell Street Festival Society will present at the Vancouver Japanese Language School next Thursday (June 21). Along with computer-graphics specialist Jung Hee Lee and photographer and koto virtuoso Kozue Matsumoto, she's been asked to muse on the role of voyeurism as entertainment or play in contemporary Japanese culture.
"This voyeurism thing is not coming from me," she says. "But it seems to fit with the things I do."
By that, she means that peering into her tiny, theatricalized world is an intrinsically voyeuristic undertaking. And it's also probable, I suggest, that onlookers will project their own fantasies onto hers, no matter how she structures her narrative.
"My performance is pretty abstract, but I think that opens up a lot of possibilities for the people who actually look at it," she replies. "Some people will maybe think 'Oh, there's some kind of sexual connotation in this,' and other people will just go 'Oh, that's so sweet.'
"Really, you are kind of forced to look. It's almost like looking into your hidden part, like your childhood or something. And everybody can connect with that. You can look at this and see your own image, and then you're not too lost."
Lost or not, innocent or otherwise, adventurous viewers are likely to find Takahashi's work wonderfully strange–and strangely compelling.