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Multicultural Maestras Vol. 1: Japan

Featuring Ai Yamashita, Mami Matsuura, Momo Akashi, and Yurina Kutsukake

By Deniz Demirkurt & Miyako Tsubota

One of the reasons why musical theatre is so magical is because it has the power to transport us anywhere in the world and make us feel connected to characters and stories from places we’ve never been. However, for an art form that is so inspirational and educational, oftentimes the representation in the stories we consume can be lacking, inaccurate, or even harmful. Theatre should widen our horizons, not enable us to stay in our bubble.

As the co-founders of Multicultural Theatermakers, we work to create a community dedicated to sharing stories from all around the world, fostering collaboration between artists and celebrating the diversity of theatre with our organization. 

That’s why we’re partnering with Maestra, an organization that shares our core values and believes in the unifying power of theatre, in this collaborative series titled “Multicultural Maestras”. To expand the scope of theatre beyond Broadway, these articles will share interviews from amazing Maestras around the world on the theatre scenes in their native countries – one country at a time. Our first destination: Japan.

Japan has always had a rich history of theatre, with one of the oldest theatre forms, sarugaku, dating back to at least the 11th century. Traditional Japanese theatre forms such as kabuki, nôgaku, and bunraku have been recognized for their cultural significance and were added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in 2008.

Although Kabuki theatre is believed to have been invented by Izumo no Okuni, a Japanese shrine maiden, women were later banned from performing in it. Today, none of these theatrical forms can legally exclude women from participating. However, due to this historical exclusion, they still remain mostly male-dominated art forms. There are some female performers on the scene today, such as the all-female bunraku troupe in Naoshima, but they are a minority.

With that in mind, we were curious to see how the modern musical theatre scene compares to traditional theatre in the country. In order to learn more about what it’s like to be a female musical theatre artist in Japan, we interviewed four brilliant Japanese Maestras – Ai Yamashita, Mami Matsuura, Momo Akashi, and Yurina Kutsukake – and discussed Japan’s musical theatre industry, Japanese representation in Western musical theatre, and their personal experiences as artists.

All responses are condensed for clarity.

Club Mouse Show in Tokyo Disneyland. https://www.tokyodisneyresort.jp/en/tdl/show/detail/965/

1.  How did you first discover musical theatre and what made you want to pursue it as a career?

AI: My first discovery of musical theatre was at Tokyo Disneyland when I was a child. My mother took me and my younger sister there very often, and my mom and I prefer shows rather than rollercoasters, so sometimes we’d spend the whole day just seeing all the shows there. At the time, I didn’t realize those shows would be considered musical theatre, but I was very drawn to them and listened to their CDs even after coming back home. 

Years later, I also watched the TV drama Glee and did the exact same thing where I watched the episodes and then listened to the albums all the time, and that’s when I finally realized I did love musical theatre. I went to Berklee College of Music to study piano/keyboard performance, composition and writing, and I took theatre classes as an accompanist/keyboardist. And now I’m a part of the musical theatre community!

MAMI: My interest in music began with my first piano lessons when I was around five. Then, I first discovered musical theatre when I watched Les Misérables in Tokyo as a kid. My mother took me to the theater often and that led me to become a musical theatre fan. 

Then, my family took a trip to New York and we watched some Broadway shows like The Phantom of the Opera, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King, which impressed me very much. I got even more into musicals in high school. It was then that I fell in love with the energy that happens between the audience and the stage, and that’s when I began longing to play in the orchestra pit.

MOMO: When I was an elementary school student, one of my classmates was cast as an ensemble member for the musical Annie. I went to see her and I fell in love with the songs and dances. That was my first time discovering musical theatre. Then, when I was a university student, I went to New York for the first time and saw some Broadway musicals. Even though I didn’t understand what was being said in those musicals, I felt their passion and power. 

I also interviewed a Japanese Broadway producer in New York, and she looked very professional and smart. She was totally different from the image of women I had at the time, like women who support their husbands, stay at home most of the time, and depend on their husbands’ income. I decided to be a businesswoman like her. Now I’m a musical theatre writer, but this experience made me become interested in the American theatre industry.

YURINA: I was born in Japan, but moved to New York City when I was only ten months old and lived there until I was eight years old. So when I moved back to Japan, my Japanese was not very good. In an attempt to work on my pronunciation, I started taking acting classes at Big Dream Play (Ookinayume), and that was where I fell in love with musical theatre.

I decided to pursue a career in musical theatre when I was eight years old. I had just watched my first Broadway show, 42nd Street. I can never forget that moment when Peggy Sawyer sings the title song in her blue sequin dress while walking down the flashy lights of Broadway. One of the famous monologues from the show, which is spoken by the “director of the show”, really spoke to me. I wanted to be the next Peggy Sawyer. I wanted to be on Broadway and be an inspiration for the next generation.

Production photo of My Fair Lady in Japan, 1963.
https://thetokyofilesmedia.wordpress.com/2016/09/24/chiemi-eri-as-eliza-doolittle-my-fair-lady-in-japan-1963/

2. What does musical theatre in your country look like?

AI: There are some musical theatre scenes in Japan, but they are not as big as Broadway, and they’re different. In Japan, people tend to love “idols” rather than “artists”. They go to the theater because they are a fan of the idols in the production, so they spend a lot of money on tickets and merchandise because they admire them – some a bit obsessively – and that money ends up supporting the production. I’m not saying that all theatre productions tend to be this way, but I think they’re different from Broadway in that sense.

MAMI: Musical theatre is pretty popular in Japan and it has a solid fan base. Since the first performance of My Fair Lady in 1963, many overseas hit musicals have been imported and performed. And not only Broadway musicals, but even German musicals such as Elisabeth and Mozart!, whose lyrics are translated from German into Japanese, have been very well-received in Japan. Elisabeth is one of the popular shows performed by the Japanese all-female musical theatre troupe Takarazuka Revue, in which women play all roles gorgeously. The Takarazuka Revue has a history of over 100 years! 

There are also a few companies such as TS Musical Foundation, which was a company that produced original musicals led by Tamae Sha: one of the few female musical theatre directors in Japan. I remember one of their shows I watched, which was Song of Tam Biet, a musical about two sisters who were separated during the Vietnam War. I went to watch it when I was a kid, and even though I was young, it really touched me.

These days, musicals are getting more and more popular among young people. One of the reasons for that is that in the last 10 years, musical theatre actors have started to expand into TV. There is also an active movement nowadays where creators from overseas are invited to make musicals based on Japanese comics and movies, such as Death Note, Fist of the North Star, Spirited Away, and Ikiru.

The 2022 production of Spirited Away in Japan. CREDIT: ©TOHO CO., LTD.

MOMO: I think there are a few unique points regarding musical theatre in Japan. One is the size. There are only two types of theaters in Japan: either big luxurious theaters or small theaters. Big theaters usually have imported musicals from Broadway, and their main audience is wealthy people over their 40s. Small theaters usually produce original plays, not musicals, and most of the plays are experimental pieces. So the audience usually consists of the actors’ friends and families, or the fans of the company.

Another is that most of the audience come to see the actors, not the stories or songs itself. Usually a lead character is performed by a popular TV show actor or actress, even if they have never trained for musical theatre. There is always an argument between theatergoers: which goal should musical theatre focus on – ticketing sales or artistic integrity?

And lastly, there’s currently a new genre of musical that is very popular. These musicals are based on Japanese anime, manga, or video games, and are titled “2.5 dimensional musicals” for combining the 2D realm of the source material and 3D realm of live theatre. The shows have a lot of ad-libs, because many audiences, whose age usually ranges from 10-30s, come to see the same show several times a month in order to see their favorite fictional characters in the real world. I think that in casting, how much the actors resemble the character they portray is more important than their singing ability to Japanese audiences at large.

YURINA: I was raised in New York, famous for being the home of Broadway. What I love the most about Broadway is that there is a show for everyone, as nowadays shows come in various musical genres such as rock, contemporary, classical, and pop. There are dramatic and flashy shows like Wicked and there are shows with minimal dancing like Dear Evan Hansen, and both are equally beautiful.

I love how diverse Broadway is becoming, both in that sense and in terms of representation. Most shows in the U.S. have an ensemble, and usually at least one ensemble member is Asian, which makes me feel represented. Furthermore, Broadway is trying to cast Asians not just in ensemble roles but in leading roles as well. Whereas in Japan, racial diversity doesn’t come into question because everyone is Japanese.

Sailor Moon musical. https://j25stageplayworld.com/sailormoon/

3. What is it like being a new artist trying to break into the musical theatre industry in Japan? Are new voices and new works supported?

AI: Japanese people tend to be conservative and careful, so they prefer working with a person that was recommended to them by someone they know. In other words, it is a very closed industry and if you don’t have a network, you won’t get anything, including audition information. It is tricky for new people to get into this industry, so they often go to college or school or take lessons, not only to study, but also to build a network and get those recommendations.

MAMI: I don’t think Japan has an environment in which young musical composers, actors, and creative members can grow. There are many people who want to work in this industry, but few opportunities for newcomers to break into, and so mostly the same people end up working in theatre. As a result, aspiring composers and writers are left to present their work and produce their musicals independently. These aspiring artists do everything themselves, including promotion and ticket sales, because there’s no tendency to support young and up-and-coming musical theatre talent. 

There are no competitions for musical theatre composers, lyricists, and bookwriters in Japan. If those kinds of competitions existed and happened regularly, I think young creators could grow. I also hope that auditions for actors will be more open as well.

MOMO: In Japan, how to break into the musical industry is a kind of mystery. This is because, compared to the U.S., the industry is made up of a small community, and productions are usually managed by the same people. Therefore, people mostly enter the industry through someone’s introduction or referral. 

Since there are only luxurious theaters or small theaters, producers usually produce imported musicals because they’re not allowed to be unsuccessful in luxurious theaters. On the other hand, small theaters are too small to monetize, especially for musicals. So it’s hard to develop new works in Japan. However, they’re having difficulties producing musicals from foreign countries due to COVID, so producers are now starting to make space for original musicals in Japan. I’m so excited to see what the Japanese theatre industry will make in the future.

YURINA: It is very hard to break into the musical theatre industry in Japan. There are many open calls in NYC, so new artists at least have chances to be seen. Whereas in Japan, many auditions are just based on “shorui” or documents like a questionnaire. Most of the time auditions take place very secretively, and it is often hard to get audition info unless you have an agent who is well connected, know someone in the industry, or have previously worked for the company.

(From left) Lea Salonga, George Takei and Telly Leung in the musical Allegiance at the Longacre Theater. Credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/09/theater/review-allegiance-a-musical-history-lesson-about-interned-japanese-americans.html

4. Do you think your country or culture is represented well (or represented at all) in musical theatre outside of Japan? If so, what do you think are good examples?

AI: Yes and no.

I think our cultural musical theatre like Kabuki or Nogaku, which all have traditional Japanese music, dancing, acting, and clothes are well-known over the world, so my answer is “yes” for that.

If we talk about Western style musical theatre, my answer is “no, not yet”. As I mentioned before, there is a Western style musical theatre industry in Japan, but it’s not as big, though it is growing due to collaborations happening with cartoons and video games. Since we have a huge anime and video game fan base all over the world, Japanese musical theatre that is inspired by such source material might start spreading crazily.

MAMI: It depends on the show. Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures has some similarities to Kabuki, and Japanese culture was beautifully portrayed in the show. Allegiance is a story of Japanese Americans, but I feel that Japanese culture was still strongly present. 

On the other hand, when I watched Avenue Q, I was surprised that the character Christmas Eve was [written specifically to be] Japanese. Perhaps she could be Japanese and dissimilar to Japanese people, but the first impression I got was that the character was made from the rough image of how an “Asian” in the United States is perceived, rather than someone from a specific country or culture.

MOMO: There are several musicals which center Japan, such as Pacific Overtures, Allegiance, and Madama Butterfly. Even though Madama Butterfly is an opera, I really love the piece, especially The Met productions. It’s interesting, though, that [I’ve noticed many] people usually mix up Japanese and Chinese culture in the US. 

For example, to me, gong sounds represent China, but they are used as Japanese sounds in many musicals and films that are set in Japan. However, I really appreciate that The Met productions created beautiful “kimonos”, Japanese traditional clothes, and “Shoji screens”, traditional decorations. I appreciate that people from different backgrounds work together to create a Japanese stage, bringing forth a world that is more beautiful than it actually is.

YURINA: Ever since Covid, there has been a huge shift in the entertainment industry. Broadway has been making an effort to diversify their shows. Be More Chill is a great example. The lead character Christine was Asian, but not because her character required it, she was just a normal high school girl who happened to be Asian. I want to see more shows like that. 

Stephanie Hsu and cast of Be More Chill (Maria Baranova)
https://playbill.com/article/exclusive-first-listen-to-stephanie-hsu-singing-i-love-play-rehearsal-from-be-more-chill

5. Are there any changes you wish to see in the musical theatre industry (in Japan or in the world)?

AI: I just really want to have more open opportunities in Japan. Productions should spread information more widely to hunt for and discover new talents.

MAMI: I hope that people will be able to go to watch musicals more casually. In Japan, it’s often the case that most seats cost the same regardless of which section they’re in. If there were more pricing options like on Broadway (some seats on Broadway are very expensive, but there are cheaper options available), the cheaper prices would make productions more accessible to a younger audience. And it would be wonderful if there were more Japanese original musicals performed around the world. Perhaps even a musical in Japanese written by a Japanese bookwriter could be performed on Broadway.

MOMO: I hope more original musicals will be created in the future, both in Japan and in the world. I like seeing revival musicals, imported musicals, and musicals adapted to film, but I’m inspired mostly by new musicals because they always have unique story structures and music. I think people are moved not only by a musical itself, but also by the creative process. 

YURINA: Until recently, many leads [on Broadway] were played by white actors unless the role specifically asked for a certain background. Such examples are Aladdin in Aladdin, Kim in Miss Saigon, and Tuptim in The King and I. However, the only show that has been on Broadway in the past 10 years and represents “Japanese” people is Allegiance, and it is a story about post WW2 and Japanese-American internment camps. 

In the future, I would like to see an all-Asian musical that is not sad, doesn’t include at least one death in the show, and doesn’t play to a stereotype. Asians are often subjected to play roles such as prostitutes, dragon ladies, or nerds. I want Asian actors to play a lead just because of their talent. 

However, in Japan, some well-known production companies have made it very clear that they are trying to “build a star” rather than focusing on storytelling. Often, they bring in celebrities like Japanese idols or Johnny and Associates actors for the lead parts, which sometimes causes the story to suffer as they are not chosen because they fit the role but are brought in for ticket sales. 

I also believe that Japanese “theater halls” are too big. They try to put up musicals in venues more suited for concerts. Musicals are meant to be seen and heard up close. Yet, when the theater is too big you cannot see the “live theatre” you came to see. The actors are too small, and you can’t see their facial expressions, which are so important for the story.

To make matters worse, tickets are not affordable in Japan. They range from 8,000¥ to 14,000¥ *(Comment from author: This currently amounts to around $60-102, with minimum wage in Japan being around $7 per hour. Before the pandemic, this number was closer to $80-$140.) Whereas for Broadway, there are many ways to get discounts and cheap tickets that range from $20-80 per ticket. I believe this is why not a lot of regular people go see live theatre in Japan. There’s too much risk and no reward.


Although being a musical theatre creator has its own set of challenges in Japan, these four change-making Maestras are working hard to make their mark in the industry and pave the way for future generations of musical theatre creatives. 

If you would like to familiarize yourself with more musical theatre from Japan, you can listen to our playlist which features songs from 2.5D musicals such as Sailor Moon and The Boy and the Beast, Japanese movie musicals such as Tokyo Tribe and Memories of Matsuko, and a few works of the interviewees themselves!

We also have an upcoming Virtual Technical Workshop on September 22 led by Maestra Ayumi Okada, the co-founder of Musical Writers Japan along with Yu Okuda. The workshop will focus on Japanese musical theatre forms and possibilities for artistic collaboration across continents.

Lastly, if you would like to be involved in future articles of the Multicultural Maestras series on other countries, either as an interviewee or a co-author, you can express your interest here!


BIOS

Multicultural Theatermakers

IG: @multicultural_theatermakers

Facebook: Multicultural Theatermakers

Multicultural Theatermakers was founded in 2019 by Miyako Tsubota and Deniz Demirkurt, who first met when they were both students at Berklee College of Music. Having grown up in Japan and Turkey respectively, Miyako and Deniz have always longed for musical theatre to be a welcoming space where artists of all cultures and backgrounds feel empowered to share their voice.

Ai Yamashita (she/her)

IG: @ailove821

Twitter: @aiyamashita_pf

YouTube: Ai Yamashita 

Linkedin: Ai Yamashita 

Ai Yamashita from Tokyo, Japan, is a versatile pianist, keyboardist, songwriter, arranger and producer across a variety of genres, such as pop, jazz, Latin, gospel, theatre, and EDM. She graduated from Musashino Academia Musicae in Tokyo, Japan, where she majored in Classical Piano Performance with a minor in Vocal Accompaniment. She also has a B.M. from Berklee College of Music in Performance and Contemporary Writing and Production. In 2017, she played the keyboard part in the world premiere of the original musical The Kiss, with book and lyrics by Cheryl Coons and music by Peter Eldridge. She composed for a maiden musical Otonano Ehon no Tsukurikata by Issa Production in Japan in 2021.

Mami Matsuura (she/her)

Website: https://www.mamimatsuura.com

IG: @mamimatsuura82

YouTube: Mami Matsuura 

Facebook: Mami Matsuura

Mami Matsuura is a pianist, composer, and arranger from Yokohama, Japan. She began formal piano studies at age five. While she still has a special place in her heart for classical music, she has shifted her focus to jazz and contemporary music. Since 2021, she has been the Keyboard 1 player for the North American Tour of Cats the Musical. Mami does accompaniment tracks and transcriptions for singers. She is a graduate of Berklee College of Music and she is currently working on releasing her first song.

Momo Akashi (she/her)

Website: momoakashi.com

IG: @akomomo0330

Momo Akashi is a New York-based book writer, lyricist. She completed her Master’s degree in Musical Theatre Writing at NYU Tisch. Momo recently wrote a full-length musical, MINORU: Scrape the Sky about the architect of the World Trade Center; which will be having its first free staged reading at the Tank on September 11. 

Her original play about climate change, The Show Must Go On, was chosen for the Sixth Festival and premiered at Theatre 80 in New York. For her work, Momo has won the Shubert Foundation Scholarship and the Tisch Graduate Student Organization Grant Award. She has also penned opera librettos as part of the American Opera Project. Previously, Momo created and oversaw entertainment as Chief Events Producer at Tokyo Disney Resorts. There, she also handled the character creation and branding of the iconic mascots of Tokyo Disney Sea.

Yurina Kutsukake (she/her)

Website: yurinak.com

IG: @yuriqt 

Yurina Kutsukake was last seen performing in the National and International Tour of the Wizard of Oz – which took her all over America, China, Bahrain, and even Saudi Arabia. She has a B.F.A. in Musical Theater from Pace University and a minor in business and dance. She has been a part of numerous cabaret shows since she has been back. (Broadway Babies, Princess Musical Celebration, etc). 

She is currently teaching dance at Big Dream Play where she found her love for musical theatre, and also teaching private dance lessons and performing as a singer around Tokyo. She was also recently seen in “La La Land-Live in Concert: A Celebration of Hollywood” at Tokyo International Forum. Favorite credits include USA: Mamma Mia, (Ali US/Ensemble) at the Engeman Theater, A Chorus Line (Connie) at the Fulton Theatre, and Lysistrata Jones (Lampito) at Pace University.


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