Tetsuro Shigematsu's Kuroko focuses on the game of life

The Cultch hosting world premiere of new production from the acclaimed creator behind Empire of the Son and 1 Hour Photo

Kuroko, The Cultch, Historic Theatre, 1895 Venables St., Vancouver.  A world premiere from Tetsuro Shigematsu, directed by Amiel Gladstone. Until Nov. 17, 7:30 p.m. Matinees Nov. 10, 16 and 17 at 2 p.m. Post-show Artist Talkback: Nov. 10 and 12 (thecultch.com).

It’s common practice for young people going through the challenges and rejections of growing up to seek shelter and reprieve in the safe harbour of their bedrooms. But what if they decided never to come out again?

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In Japan, the term hikikomori refers to the vast swaths of people who have rejected society and retreated indoors. It’s estimated there are millions of people across the country who have become extreme recluses, withdrawing from society due to a variety of social and economic factors of which experts are still trying to decipher.

In playwright Tetsuro Shigematsu’s new show Kuroko, the character Maya hasn’t left her bedroom in more than half a decade. Her father, Hiroshi, only has a year left to live, but no matter what he can’t seem to get Maya to abandon her reclusive endeavour. The 25-year-old woman spends her days locked up in her room exploring virtual reality instead.

“We spend more time looking at our screens and less time looking at each other. I think about the kind of alienation that engenders,” Shigematsu tells the North Shore News.

In Shigematsu’s previous two solo shows (which he also acted in), the award-winning playwright delved into his own background and personal history for material. In Empire of the Son he explored his relationship with his own father, and in 1 Hour Photo he investigated the story of 90-year-old family friend Mas Yamamoto, using it as a launching pad to explore much of the history of the 20th century.

In Kuroko, he’s looking more at the inner world than the outer, and yet the piece is applicable for all people struggling to make sense of an ever-complex world, according to Shigematsu. Hikikomori – the phenomenon of withdrawing from society – is by no means an experience unique to Japanese culture.

“It’s ostensibly set in Japan, but it’s really about life here in Canada,” Shigematsu says about his new play.

Shigematsu was inspired to write Kuroko after he was recovering from laser eye surgery a few years ago. Realizing that post-operation he would have to be sequestered in a dark room for days, replete with blackout curtains and possibly pain killers, he pre-emptively loaded his smartphone with many, many hours’ worth of audiobooks, he says.

As he lay there, his body atrophying and his mind fully focused on the long, immersive Russian novels he’d uploaded, Shigematsu says he became fascinated with the powerful imaginative experience of being able to venture into a different world while he was sprawled out and immobile.

It offered a brief glimpse of what “our collective future might look like,” he says. “I began thinking about what would it be like to live in a virtual world. What are the costs socially with our family, with the Western world? And why do we place a kind of hierarchy between IRL [In Real Life] and VR?”

The play, directed by Amiel Gladstone, is a co-production between the Cultch theatre and Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre. It’s the first one in a while where Shigematsu is not the lone performer, in fact, to his relief, he’s not in this one at all. Instead, five actors – Kanon Hewitt, Lou Ticzon, Manami Hara, Donna Soares and John Ng – bring Shigematsu’s darkly comic tale to life.

“This feels like an extraordinarily different experience,” says Shigematsu. “I’m looking forward to the show.”

Through twists and turns Kuroko picks up the pace when Maya one day encounters a mysterious player online who challenges her to a quest: she must save her father’s life by visiting Japan’s infamous Suicide Forest. While the way the play arrives at such an outlandish scenario is complex, the reasons for Maya being thrust into action are simpler.

“For Maya to summon the courage to not only leave her house but visit the scariest place on Earth, in a sense, that is for her the ultimate self-actualization – the ultimate leveling up within the game of her own life,” says Shigematsu.

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