Date: 2023 July 10 19:59
Posted by Joe
Makoto Shinaki's anime The Garden of Words is the story of an out-of-step woman and an offbeat teenager meeting by chance in a Japanese garden. As the kindred spirits bond, the relationship they build could save them or equally ruin them. Melancholy and original the story has just been adapted into a stage play set to run at London's Park Theatre from Thursday 10th August until Saturday 9th September 2023. It's also set to to be staged in Tokyo too.
The play has been adapted by the Whole Hog Theatre who have previously also brought Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke to stage.
We caught up with Alexandra Rutter, who directed and co-adapted The Garden of Words from the material from the anime and novel. Having been aware of this project since before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were keen to find out more about the production and hear what Alexandra has to say.
How did this production come about?
I first saw the Anime in 2014 in London and was deeply moved; the depiction of lost souls in Tokyo was so beautiful and the complicated and challenging relationship at the heart of the story so compelling, I instantly thought: "this is my next Anime to stage project". And so a determined little seed was planted then. The next step is always: "how do I get this idea heard?". To get me closer, in 2016 I moved to Tokyo (where I have lived ever since) on a Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation Scholarship to learn Japanese and immerse myself in the culture. For myself and Whole Hog Theatre, there is always then a process of making a detailed creative proposal and concept trailer that demonstrates how a theatre world would be imagined. It was no different for The Garden of Words and I am forever grateful to those who believed in the work and generously supported its early development. A year or so later, I was lucky enough to be introduced to the studio. I presented the idea, they were excited about it, and here we are, one global pandemic and seven years later in the film's 10th anniversary year, finally bringing it to the stage!
Were there particular challenges when adapting Garden of Words to a stage play?
Yes, indeed. One challenge is making a highly visual storytelling language for the stage that honours the beauty of the original work, but doesn't try too hard to imitate the Anime. We want to pay homage to the stunning animation by creating a very different type of beauty in our visual style, without trying to compete with the original. This is something we will be finding through movement and puppetry in the rehearsal room, as well as in design. The other challenge is that our production hopes to attract an eclectic mix of audiences who are both Anime fans (who may be aware of the original), as well as those who are totally new to it. So its a constant balancing act of honouring the original and evoking the feeling one has when watching it, and trying to create a world of the play that stands alone.
Were there any tricky bits to adapt?
Yes. The short scenes and fast-paced montages of the Anime and the episodic nature of the novel don't lend themselves easily to a typical stage structure; we had to think very hard about how to structure it so it flows well on stage. There are physical challenges, for example the final scene of the Anime on the staircase is a challenge in a small space where we can't just wheel on a giant staircase; but this just means we must be more creative! There are also moments that will hit a lot harder with real actors than they do in the anime. For example, the difference in age, social position and experience between the characters when expressed with actors live will be more confronting. It will, by its nature, more directly ask the audience to consider these uncomfortable in-between spaces. The Garden Of Words work exists in the imperfect, real world that explores the grey spaces, and as adaptors, we have the responsibility not only to tell the story that Shinkai intended as a Japanese audience might see it, but also to address the one perceived from a Western perspective.
Image credit ©Geoff Wilson
The Garden of Words seems like a very good anime to directly adapt to the stage. We imagine it could have worked in a very traditional / minimalist / low-key adaptation. How was it decided to include more elaborate elements such as puppetry, movement and projection art?
A great question! Of course, we too could imagine it working really well as a two-hander straight play. However, with this approach, the beautiful visual storytelling in the anime (fast-paced montages, the weather and season changes framing the action) could be somewhat lost. For a film that is so well-known for its visual beauty, it made perfect sense to make this a keystone of the adaptation. The decision also came about considering how much the novel and, to a degree the anime, uses poetry and metaphor to tell its story. It felt such a shame to leave these in the world of the book, rather than taking on the challenge of expanding and exploring these metaphors onstage. It would feel like cheating to leave the stunning visuals to the Anime and just have a traditional play! Having said this, I think the adaptation is minimalist in the sense that we don't want it to feel busy. The scenes will largely be meditative, with stillness and space to breathe. The movement will then guide us from one space to another. The scenic design too is inspired by modern Japanese design aesthetics and is very clean and "simple" but also fluidly adapts between The Garden world and bustling Tokyo outside. When combined with projection-mapping, I hope this should make for something special.
The production was postponed due to the Global COVID-19 Pandemic. Since then have any changes been made to the production?
Yes many. For one, we've had many changes in cast and crew, and whilst we're sad not to work with those people from the original imagining and are grateful to them, we have an equally brilliant team this time too. For another, it feels making theatre is more discerning than it was before the pandemic and so this has engendered changes to our approach. More than ever, we have to be able to justify what stories we put on stage, with whom and how we tell them. The Garden of Words speaks to this because it defies some Western stereotypes of Anime by being a realistic portrayal of contemporary Tokyo and it explores complex themes, asks difficult questions and presents flawed characters we can get lost in and confused by. We feel blessed we are one of the shows that has been lucky enough to survive the pandemic.
Whole Hog Theatre specialises in Anglo-Japanese productions including the amazing stage adaption of Princess Mononoke, which you also directed. How has directing Garden of Words been different from directing Princess Mononoke?
We are yet to start rehearsals but with regards to directorial concept and the adaptation there has been a different approach. Our wonderful co-writer Susan Momoko Hingley and I have had more of an adaptation process in the sense that we are adapting from two sources: novel and Anime and weaving them together for the stage. We have worked hard to capture the original Anime, but also bring lots of new elements of the story, whereas with Princess Mononoke it was a more weighted towards the former. However, my directorial style is much the same so audiences who enjoyed our Princess Mononoke adaptation will hopefully recognise and enjoy the visual style, puppetry, and respect we pay to the original work as well as delight in the new elements to the story. I am also lucky enough to now have 8 years of experience in Japan to bring to the directing, including being able to speak some Japanese and understand the original lines.
What do you think anime fans will like about the stage play?
I hope they will enjoy the attention to detail, some Japanese props they may recognise and attention to detail with the weather, but mostly I think they will like not only seeing the world of the anime alive on stage but also discovering the world of the novel visually for the first time. For myself as a big fan, I found it fascinating to read the novel and discover the back-story and inner thoughts of not only Takao and Yukari but also Takao's family, as well as Mr Ito and Shoko from his school. These characters in the Anime appear only fleetingly, but to discover their reasons for saying and doing as they do, and crucially the backstory to Yukari's situation was thrilling. So, I hope other fans will enjoy the same in the stage adaptation, as we also take the audience on this journey of discovery, as well as including all the scenes they know and love from the original anime.
Do you imagine there will be any differences in terms of audiences in London compared to Tokyo?
Yes. There are different theatrical traditions in Japan so audience expectations are likewise different. For one thing, the show in Japan will be in Japanese whereas in London it is almost entirely in English. For another, the Japanese audience will all know the original Anime intimately, whereas in London we will be telling the story for the first time for many. There will be a process of further adaptation between London and Japan taking any lines that were adapted for an English-language audience but that exist in the Anime or the novel back to their original Japanese iteration. This is so as not to produce a "familiar strange" affect that can happen with back-translation.