By Tetsuro Shigematsu. Directed by Amiel Gladstone. A Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre production. At the Cultch Historic Theatre on Thursday, November 7. Continues until November 17
Priming his daughter for the pandemonium of a Tokyo Metro rush hour, Hiroshi Tanaka warns her that crowds can be so self-absorbed that “people pass out, but they don’t fall down.” For the Tanaka family, the beleaguered household at the centre of Kuroko, this epigram is fittingly emblematic—virtuality, both literal and figurative, courses through their collective daze to create a new normal. Examining the ways that people respond to life’s difficulties, playwright Tetsuro Shigematsu illuminates the potential for the illusory to heal or hurt relationships.
Maya (Kanon Hewitt) is a 23-year-old hikikomori, or shut-in. She has lived in her room for the past six years, aided by her parents, Hiroshi (John Ng) and Naomi (Manami Hara). When Hiroshi loses his job, he is confronted by the dilemma of Maya’s dependence and a dwindling bank balance. Preparing to cash in on an insurance policy through suicide, he visits a rent-a-family clinic to seek out a friend for Maya, in an attempt to ease his family’s transition into a life without him. Meanwhile, in virtual reality, Maya strikes up an unlikely friendship with Kenzo (Lou Ticzon), a gamer whose philosophical musings on the virtual and the real begin to lift her reclusiveness.
Exploring mechanisms of coping and escape, Shigematsu observes the role virtuality plays in society, as manifested physically and psychologically. On one hand, technology enables youths like Maya and Kenzo to escape their predicaments via virtual worlds, bonding over gaming platforms and sightseeing panoramas. On the other hand, memory forms the basis of virtuality for an older generation, where willful ignorance of parental rebuke smoothes out Naomi’s marriage, and Hiroshi’s remembrance of a loved one feeds forlorn prospects of his return. This escapism exists within a wider withdrawal, reflected in the phenomena of hikikomori culture and the popularity of Jukai, the “Sea of Trees”, as a site for suicide.
Director Amiel Gladstone guides a quintet of seasoned performers through a sharp script, which they navigate with ease and conviction. Hewitt is animated as the furtive Maya, while Ng exudes a rooted paternal melancholy. Hara is tactful as Hiroshi’s concerned spouse, and Ticzon plays a game avatar with verve. Donna Soares is suitably reticent as Asa, the rent-a-family operator. Within a wire-framed cube, set designer Sophie Tang creates a scenic fluidity with an array of linked blocks that can handily partition space into various settings. Gerald King’s lighting design demarcates the virtual and real, with tungsten warmth dominating domestic exchanges, and a rotating colour palette accompanying game-play frenzy.
Kuroko translates as “child of darkness”, and refers to the kabuki-theatre stagehands, dressed in black, who manipulate a play’s set pieces. In naming his play after them, Shigematsu suggests that invisible forces compel all our lives, and that it is only human to construct virtual realities to manage these phantoms.