Tetsuro Shigematsu wasn’t just a competitive child preacher, he was a two-time silver medallist in what he dubbed the “Christian Olympics”.
“We attended this crazy religious school which was in sort of the hinterlands of Surrey,” Shigematsu tells the Straight, sitting in the Founders’ Lounge at the Cultch on a midweek morning. There were a lot of different categories, but preaching appealed to Shigematsu. “It inoculated me against the fear of public speaking. I learned to love it.”
He’s also very good at it. Anybody who has seen Shigematsu in either of his acclaimed, award-winning solo shows, Empire of the Son and 1 Hour Photo, knows that he’s a powerful writer and performer who has mined his personal life as well as Japanese culture, customs, and history to share unique lived experiences and deliver deep universal truths. His charm and appeal bounce off the page and stage, a little bit of that silver-medallist-child-preacher power still captivating audiences decades later.
But his newest theatrical endeavour, Kuroko, is Shigematsu’s biggest challenge to date. He’s not taking the stage, and this is not a solo show. With Kuroko, he is just the playwright, and he’s crafted one of his most darkly comedic and personal stories yet. Hiroshi has just a year left to live, and he’s desperate to get through to his daughter, Maya. She’s a 25-year-old hikikomori—extreme recluse—who hasn’t left her bedroom for six years because of her obsession with exploring virtual reality. When she meets another online player, a challenge is issued and she must decide if she’ll brave Suicide Forest to help save her father’s life.
Writing a play for multiple characters instead of a solo show was “incredibly hard”, Shigematsu says. But he’s worked through creative challenges before. He remembers his first artistic life—“I’m a failed painter,” Shigematsu explains—and how he’d bring in different pieces to present to his teachers; it was always the explanations that intrigued his instructors more than the art itself. They would tell him, “Do more of that in there,” meaning put more of this spark into his art, but at first he didn’t get it.
“Because I was so clueless they gave me VHS cassettes of Laurie Anderson, Eric Bogosian, Spalding Gray—these performance artists out of New York from the ’90s—and that was a real eye opener,” Shigematsu says. “So in lieu of bringing in artwork anymore—it almost seemed too easy—I would tell a story on Monday morning about what had happened over the weekend with my father. Empire of the Son touches upon the acrimonious dimension of my relationship with my father, but right then I was in the thick of it. I would tell my classmates about this horrible fight I had with my father, just as a form of therapy to get it off my chest.” To Shigematsu’s confusion, his classmates couldn’t stop laughing. “They weren’t being cruel, of course, but I didn’t quite know how to process that.” Eventually, he finally channelled it into his writing.
With Kuroko, Shigematsu estimates he wrote about 70 drafts over two years. But it was a story he felt compelled to tell for reasons that he’s still grappling with as he answers the Straight’s questions.
“Well, this is kind of dark and this certainly never made it into any of the shows because it’s so egregious,” Shigematsu says. “There were moments in the hospital with my father, and at home, where I thought as I was holding the pillow, it wouldn’t take very much to kill my father. Now, that impulse came from a lot of places. On one hand, it was my adult self considering a promise I made to myself as a teenager, ‘I will kill you.’ You know that adolescent rage all young men feel towards their fathers? Young daughters as well. But also because my father was ambivalent about being alive. Not only are we of samurai descent, but my father is from Kagoshima, which is samurai country. He grew up in the shadow of a volcano. It’s this fabled place where the final samurai battle ever took place. One of the precepts of Bushido, the way of the warrior, is that you shouldn’t be a burden. But it was my father’s Christian beliefs that made him hesitate to, because he wanted to kill himself, but he didn’t have the strength. He didn’t have the will.”
There are also different cultural and moral attitudes towards sacrifice in Japan and Canada, Shigematsu says, citing actions like kamikaze and carrying older relatives into the forest to die in times of famine. It wasn’t murder, Shigematsu says, but rather an expression of piety.
“Even today, if a company in Japan causes a scandal where consumers die, the CEO will kill themselves,” Shigetmatsu says. “The stockholders say, ‘Thank you, you have taken responsibility.’ There’s a logic there. As someone who is intercultural,
I see both perspectives. I’m realizing out loud for the very first time, my interest in this topic is a natural outgrowth of standing by my father’s bedside and looking down at him and asking silently, ‘Dad, do you want me to put you on my back? Do you want me to carry you into the forest?’ That’s where it comes from.”
Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre presents Kuroko at the Cultch from Wednesday (November 6) to November 17.