Just because Toshiki Okada is Japanese doesn’t make him a zen master but some of the ideas explored in his newest play, The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise, more closely resemble Buddhist axioms than the musings of his typically directionless twenty-something characters. Towards the end of this hour-long meditation on another pair of just such frustrated lives, which makes its English-language premiere with Play Company, a discussion arises about daily existence such as many of us experience it, fraught with professional cares and schedules, relationships and routine. After considering the assertion that “we are not living the way humankind ought to live,” the play’s principal narrator (among five anonymous, overlapping voices), has this to say:
“I do know that it’s true that our banal day-to-day existence is connected to something much bigger. It is really so difficult for me that it’s almost beyond my imagination, so I tend to pretty pragmatically come around to thinking that maybe I don’t have to make an effort to hold onto this belief, in fact, I’ve probably already let the idea go. […] This may be something that I do in order to just protect myself but, when I start thinking about myself as a failure, I immediately think that it’s got to be unhealthy for me to think of myself as a a failure and that I should try to change the way I think, so in other words, this is what I think: the reason we lack the strength to hold onto that idea must mean that actually there is no need for us to hold onto it, so we don’t have to try to hold on, so there’s no reason to get depressed that we can’t. For example, we can’t fly through the sky like birds, but that’s because there’s no need for us to fly, it’s totally fine that we can’t fly – this is the same idea.”
This sort of roundabout reasoning is typical of how Okada gets from A to B but in this final, philosophical monologue, in a play that could be loosely described as a debate on the benefits of traveling versus staying home, Okada is doing more. He is articulating – whether consciously or unconsciously and in the stumbling cadences of modern Japanese youth – the Buddhist principle of non-attachment to existence.
Is our current state of existence so great, after all? In earlier works like Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and the Farewell Speech, a trilogy of short pieces in which entry-level office workers exhibit an array of perplexing physical ticks, the “day-to-day” is clearly unsatisfying on any emotional level. Okada explored his own journey through these questions in Zero Cost House, when the Fukushima nuclear disaster led him to abandon his apartment in Tokyo and explore off-the-grid. in-the-moment alternatives to city life with fellow artist and self-styled minimalist-living guru, Kyohei Sakaguchi.
It seems only natural, therefore, that in The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise, the nameless youth seen in those earlier pieces who commute long distances by subway to stare slack-jawed at computer screens now come to question the “banal day-to-day.” It starts with the narrator’s confession that he would like to see his girlfriend dead – no, to be fair, he just thinks “that things might be better if [his] girlfriend were someone who was no longer alive” – so he can feel a genuine emotion. That, he concludes, “would be living a better life than me who’s living in this day-to-day now,” i.e. in the grip of a diffuse yet unrelenting anomie.
PlayCo’s gently elegiac production lends both a supple humor and a thoughtful dignity to the study of that isolation. Director Dan Rothenberg, who was also at the helm of productions of Okada’s Enjoy (2010) and Zero Cost House (2012, with Pig Iron Theater), has his finger on the pulse of this anemic youth, whose apparent listlessness is echoed by the beige interior they inhabit and which only the occasional hint of sunlight disturbs (Mimi Lien’s monochromatic, industrially carpeted set). The cast of five (Rachel Christopher, Susannah Flood, Dan Kublick, Jason Quarles and Moses Villarama, each bringing a distinct gracefulness to the shared narration) is the earnest chorus to these wannabe-anything lives.
Whose musings continue with more dreams. A particularly ironic one finds the narrator hurtling into the bowels of the Tokyo subway system, involuntarily playing hooky from work, only to find that he is to be fêted for the “good deed” of kicking a stray soccer ball back to its owner. Waking, the best solution he can find to wanting to feel something is to “watch the news and stuff more often” in the hope of at least connecting with someone else’s problems. Okada’s characters live in chrome and glass worlds far from the tree of enlightenment but they articulate amply Buddhism’s first truth: that existence is suffering, or as Actor 2 lackadaisically puts it: “Day to day, huh. In the end, our greatest problem lies therein.”
It might be far-fetched to tease a spiritual interpretation from what could just be the chronic habits of urban life so that we’d rather stay home in the comfort of the computer’s glow than venture out into a world of possibilities (an argument between the narrator and his girlfriend that threads through the play). But it does seem that Okada, too, is searching for more here.
Okdada has said that the play’s title refers to the insularity of Japanese society and the disconnect of its youth from structures and values not of their own making. While the playwright and director has previously explored that problematic through an abstract language of disarticulated gestures with his company, chelfitsch (or “selfish”), that choreography is absent from The Sonic Life, replaced by a frank discussion of the emptiness of the human pursuit of happiness. What if, as the narrator argues, we weren’t meant to be happy in the ways we have come to expect and there was “something bigger” that would make sense of it all?
At the risk of drawing the Buddhist analogy a last time, The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise could be the theater version of a zen kōan, a paradox that gradually reveals its wisdom as a meditation for the novice believer. Even if it isn’t, this little play packs a wallop, if only of the metaphysical kind.