To turn a corner in Nishinari-ku is to be dropped into a maze of carefully orchestrated tableaus of desire. The notorious Osaka neighborhood is home to Tobita Shinchi, Japan’s only legalized red light district. Here, the curated scenes teeter between sexuality and chastity, as outsiders pass open street-side rooms of young women in various poses amid props, furniture, costumes, and elaborate lighting. To the left, a glamorous aristocrat holds a silk gloved hand to her face as she pauses to sniff an elaborate flower bouquet. To the right, a cheerleader prances across a deep red carpet for an audience of wide-eyed Hello Kitty dolls. Each frame offers a portal into another wordless reverie, with a woman that executes the performance of the mythical shy virgin, coyly waving from her porch proscenium. As quickly as it began, however, the fantasy must burst, as the madams approach onlookers with price tags for their seductive dioramas.

Tobiti Shinchi, Japan’s only legalized redlight district.

With her unwelcome entrance, the ornamental wooden awnings, golden embellishments, and glowing lanterns that surround Tobita’s red light stages fade into view. These stages aren’t just fantasies. These are shrines to our own subconscious desires.

Around another corner, in a different city, another tableau awaits. A deep red curtain opens to reveal the interior of a rickety hot spring in the mountains of rural northwest Japan. Upon receiving a mysterious invitation in the mail from the hotel manager, father and son puppeteers, Momohuku, a dwarf, and Ichiro Kurata, arrive at the cluttered lobby of the onsen (hot spring) only to find that the hotel manager does not exist. Instead, there’s Otaki, an elderly and anxious guest, who explains that the onsen is maintained by a group of dedicated patrons attracted to its healing properties. Mesmerized by Momohuku’s unusual stature, Otaki falls into a hypnotic trance of bewilderment and urges them to stay the night. As the Kurata duo heads to their room, the entire hotel lobby lurches forward against the magnificent groan of the set, rotating the scene to reveal the highly-detailed two-story interior of the hotel's tatami bedrooms as a narrator introduces the show. The voice croaks in a devilish whisper: Niwa Gekidan Penino Presents Avidya: No Lights Inn.”

Photo by Shinsuke Sugino.

Avidya: No Lights Inn is one of the newest productions by director Kuro Tanino's theatre company, Niwa Gekidan Penino. It premiered in 2015, and earned Tanino one of the most prestigious annual awards for emerging Japanese playwrights, the Kishida Prize for Drama. I saw it at the Kyoto Experiment: Kyoto International Performing Arts Festival where it was remounted in November 2016.

The theatrical auteur has a background in painting and graduated from medical school, working as a psychiatrist as a backup to the precarious career of experimental theatre director. As a way to sharpen his skills as a theatremaker, Kuro Tanino transformed his Tokyo apartment into a twenty-five seat theatre, where audiences crammed inside to witness his frenzied and surreal staged hallucinations.

With obsessive anthropomorphic mammals, fractured sets, and sexually repressed college students populating hyper-detailed fantasy worlds, Kuro's work reflects both his background as a visual artist and experiences as a psychiatrist.

You can also see this in Tanino's approach to playwriting, where he abandons traditional scripts for graphic storyboards and miniature models.

"It begins with the completion of a first picture, and that leads to the idea for the next picture. That process continues one storyboard after another like a row of dominoes knocking down one after the other," Tanino told The Japan Foundation in a 2011 interview.

However, Avidya: No Lights Inn marks a departure. The play was completed before the first rehearsal, and is filled with highly expressive descriptions that feel more like illustrations of a Goya painting than stage directions. 

His ribs can be used as a grater, his legs look like driftwood that have dried for many years. There is no hair on his pale body, but his glossy skin dazzles.

Avidya: No Lights Inn suggests a new approach for Kuro Tanino, one that combines both a textual and visual foundation.

“Avidya” is a Buddhist concept that translates to “ignorance,” or as Tibetologist Alex Wayman translates it “unwisdom.” Avidya: No Lights Inn follows five patrons of the inn as Momohuku and Ichiro coerce them out of their states of “unwisdom” and into a strained confrontation with existence. Matsuo is a fidgety blind man who baths in the hot spring to bring back his sight, but is also optimistic that his blindness will open his third eye and draw him closer to Buddhahood. Momohuku's presence both deeply troubles and entices him. Left alone, Matsuo nervously gropes Momohuku's child-sized jacket with the fascination of a boy sneaking his first glimpse at a Playboy. While they bathe in the hot spring, Matsuo nervously floats around the mystifying little person. Momohuku cackles: “Do you want to touch?” However, this is not just another example of Tanino's reoccurring themes of sexual repression. At the end of their conversation in the bath, Momohuku callously foretells Matsuo, “The soul which you are looking for does not exist anywhere.” Through Momohuku, Matsuo is confronted with the futility of his third eye pursuit and the permanence of his blindness.

Momohuku Kurata is played by the actor Mame Yamada, who wears his hair in a long flowing sweep, and smokes cigarettes with an icy authenticity that fills Kuro Tanino's silence with unbridled tension.

“I feel drawn to people with faces that look like they have been persecuted or discriminated against all their lives,” Kuro told The Japan Foundation. In Mame Yamada, Kuro certainly found a muse.

Takahiko Tsuji plays opposite of Yamada as Momohuku's enigmatic son, Ichiro. In a leather jacket and constant scowl, Ichiro is silently unnerving, intimidating the hotels guests, but tenderly attentive to his father. With every step, you're unsure if he seeks to strangle or feed you.

Restrained and evocative, both Tsuji and Yamada give performances that illuminate their connection to an other-world, especially played against the neurotic uncertainty of Matsuo, acted by Hayato More, who, at twenty-nine, disappears entirely into the role.

Photo by Shinsuke Sugino.

Avidya: No Lights Inn avoids the more surrealist elements that parade through Kuro Tanino's previous landscapes. We're in a real city, in Japan’s Hokuriku region, in the year 2013. The stage is meticulously detailed to create a hyper-realistic environment. In the bath house, steam rises from the hot spring as the nude actors bathe in flowing water. Yet, it's this adherence to reality combined with Kuro's illustrious visual language, revolving stage, and use of restrained performance, that creates one of his most strange, uncanny, and stirring productions. It reminds me of one of Duchamp's most disturbing works, Étant Donnés, where viewers peer through a wooden door to view a nude woman lying in a field of grass, a miniature waterfall in the background flows like an electric painting in a Chinese restaurant. It's one of Duchamp's more figurative works, but with its miniature environment and realistic waxed figure framed within the wooden door, it's also his most surreal. Like Kuro's loft turned theatre, Duchamp created the masterwork in his apartment's bathroom, using miniature models and photographs to guide its eventual installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Today, it's one of the museum's most popular works, as thousands of people visit a year, to stand on their tip toes, and gaze into a new and mysterious world. As the audience watches Kuro Tanino's Avidya, it feels like we're all on our tiptoes, peering into the mysterious hot spring that feels all at once familiar and unreal.

In Kuro Tanino and designer Michiko Inada's beast of a set, you are constantly peering through windows and door frames, trying to catch a glimpse into other worlds. As a scene plays in the laundry room, you can see Mame through a doorway climbing into the foggy hot spring. Masayuki Abe's lighting design never overstates Kuro's surreal qualities. It's subtle realistic golden hues capture a dusty haziness that reinforces the production's uncanniness, and recalls the unsettling photographs of Roe Ethridge. While Kuro Tanino may be softening a bit to realism, his hyper-controlled direction and aesthetic inside Inada's teetering dollhouse mirrors a marionette performance. This becomes even more transparent as the guests each find themselves in the Kuratas’ bedroom for the climactic puppet show. Instead of a joyful farce of hand puppet delight, what the audience witnesses is a disturbing dance between Momohuku and a skeleton with swinging genitals. The performance references traditional dokumbo-maswahi, a Japanese puppet ritual performed as a purification rite.

From Jane Marie Law's Puppets of Nostalgia, an insightful look into ritual puppetry, Dokumbo-mawashi led puppeteers into “... overlapping worlds of sacred forces and human beings, order and chaos, life and death, and fertility and infertility.”

As Momohuku dances on a table with the crude primitive paper mache skeleton while giggling and thrusting his tiny legs, the hotel guests look on horrified. The audience does the same.

Avidya: No Lights Inn is our own dokumbo-mawashi ritual, orchestrated by puppeteer Kuro Tanino. For two hours, the lights are turned off, and we are forced to confront the darkness, and, hopefully, come out better for it on the other side. Kuro Tanino has gone from Freudian psychoanalyst to Shinto Priest.

Avidya: No Lights Inn should give theatremakers pause about our approach to the playmaking process. By combining both a textual and highly visual foundation for the development process, Avidya: No Lights Inn's forceful pursuit of a unified visual universe creates a compelling narrative with fully realized characters. But most significantly, it makes theatre mythical, transforming the play into a ritualistic and darkly spiritual experience. Like Osaka's Tobita Shinchi, the show connects our subconscious existential anxieties, repressed desires, and humanity to the nonmaterial world of gods.