Powell Street Festival 2020: Japanese game show–inspired comedic hosts belie deeper social-justice efforts

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      Traditional advice recommends always taking the high road. Local playwright, comedic masochist, and accomplished fool Tetsuro Shigematsu (Empire of the Son), however, is going for the low road—or the lowbrow, that is.

      “In my so-called career of humiliating myself on radio, or on-stage, or on local-access TV shows, the half-life of humiliation is such that…things that are terrible in the moment, that radioactivity somehow alchemizes over time,” he theorizes, tongue somewhat implanted in cheek, during a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. Good times, indeed.

      The self-deprecating Shigematsu is waxing unpoetic about his upcoming cohosting gig for the 44th annual Powell Street Festival (PSF). Instead of being held at the Downtown Eastside’s Oppenheimer Park, it will be a live online telethon from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday (August 1) at the PSF website.

      His inspiration? That bastion of sophistication and understatement: Japanese game shows, renowned the world over for in-your-face outlandishness.

      Shigematsu will share the blame with his new partner-in-crime, voice actor and TV reporter Yurie Hoyoyon, whom he says he told, “If you feel an impulse to put me in my place, then you can try to do that.” He adds he wished her good luck in that endeavour.

      Appropriately, Hoyoyon consulted her friends in Japan to devise “creative ways to torture” Shigematsu. That will include applying clothespins all over this face before yanking them off or feeding him a mouthful of wasabi. In “Uni or Not?”, a blindfolded Shigematsu will have to eat something that may be uni (sea urchin) or something with the same texture (“maybe a slug, maybe some worms”).

      Yurie Hoyoyon will cohost this year's Powell Street Festival.

      “It’s for the cause,” he says she told him.

      But there’s a method to this madness.

      “You can see the dichotomy between the tasteful cultural output of some of the Nikkei (Japanese diaspora) artists, who are all superstars, versus what Yurie and I are going to get up to,” he says.

      Shigematsu says he and Hoyoyon will serve as a counterpoint to the non-stop program of artistic works and entertainment offering “profound meditations on all manner of things”, from a video of the performance piece Winds in the Pines, about the Second World War experiences, to calligrapher Kisyuu and choreographer Shion harmonizing their brush and body movements in a performance piece.

      Short films by Greg Masuda and from the Nikkei National Museum, a reading by author and illustrator Jeff Chiba Stearns of his children’s book Nori and His Delicious Dreams, and tunes from art-pop band The Deep Cove, Kaya Kurz, the McGregor-Verdejo Duo, and pop and R&B group Banana Bread are also in the mix.

      And then there are selections that bridge both the high and low. Clala Dance Project’s comical dance-theatre piece Emergency!! will draw upon a familiar experience: rushing to the washroom and finding it occupied.

      Of course, it wouldn’t be a Japanese festival without a group dance. For the Paueru MashUp Dance, Company 605 choreographed a dance—drawing upon Rajio Taiso (Japanese morning radio calisthenics) and tanko bushi folk dance—to music by Onibana Taiko. A video will feature clips of workshop participants performing the dance that those at home can follow. (Even Gojira—that’s Godzilla to some of you—makes an appearance.)

      PSF Society executive director Emiko Morita says by phone that she’s “very, very thrilled” to have Shigematsu and Hoyoyon “to help us navigate this really complex territory for everyone”, which includes antiracism, housing issues, the opiate crisis, and other socioeconomic issues amplified by COVID-19.

      “Hopefully, some lightness and, I suppose, the great thing that comes from art and culture can carry us through that,” she says. “For me, it becomes really interesting when you strive to practise art and culture in a way that has a social-justice impact.”

      Social justice is at the organization’s core, illustrated by how it responded to urgent needs in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) during the pandemic.

      Powell Street Festival Society executive director Emiko Morita

      Morita explains that a DTES community-kitchen network that had dissolved was resurrected, and the Powell Street Festival will become a part of it with the launch of the PowellStFest Community Kitchen, for which the telethon is fundraising. The program will employ four neighbourhood peers to cook meals for the unhoused and precariously housed in the area. (For more details about the program, see this article).

      She says they’re working to create economic equity, skill-building, and cultural sharing, as the festival is intertwined with the well-being of the neighbourhood. Japanese Canadians who endured the Second World War internment in B.C. understand what it means to be unwanted and displaced—and how to survive such harsh circumstances.

      Shigematsu, putting his jokester persona on pause, finds the kitchen project a truly inspiring effort.

      “If we can find solidarity amongst our communities…to make things better, then for me, that’s just a really hopeful example of what we can do when we recognize that we all have to work together, all of us who have been displaced, both in the present day and historically, and take care of each other.”

      After all, just like how British Columbians are cooperating in order to rise out of the pandemic, collective effort for the greater good is a traditional Japanese value.

      “More than ever, I feel, like probably so many, I’ve never been more proud to be Canadian…versus the sort of rampant individualism that we see elsewhere,” Shigematsu says.

      That said, his expectations aren’t quite as high for his own hosting abilities.

      “I fully expect the wheels to come off,” he jokes, adding that he is expecting people to think, “What is wrong with these two?”

      “We’ll be disowned for a good while and Yurie will be sent back to Japan…and I’ll be once again a social pariah.”

      With this much fun in the works, one can only hope that’s not the case.