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Penino Envy: Kuro Tanino on the Architecture of the Inner Life

By Abigail Sebaly

On my way to meet up with director Kuro Tanino and members of his Tokyo-based theater company, Niwa Gekidan Penino, my journey had all the surreal flavor of one of Tanino’s own plays. Imagine the scene: I’m churned through a massive train station during Tokyo’s rush hour, the crowds and the pace so intense that my focus shifts from seeing actual people to scanning only for the negative spaces between them. There are shrill vocalizations coming from vendors selling rice balls and Belgian waffles, layered on top of Uniqlo’s thumping stereo system. And then I’m poured into a packed train, my focus brought back to a point by a girl’s false eyelash coming unglued, clinging to her cheek, like an escaped spider.

The essence of this moment, a mixture of the surreal, the quotidian, humor, and absurdity, also exemplifies what we may expect to see in The Room Nobody Knows, an evening-length performance work presented by Niwa Gekidan Penino, as part of the Walker’s Out There series.

Growing up in Toyama, on the West coast of Japan, Tanino was the middle child in a family of three boys. On the premises of his family’s traditional Japanese-style home there was an actual Noh stage, offering him early first-hand exposure to the physical architecture and practice of this classical art form. At a young age, he also excelled at drawing and painting and became interested in artists such as Salvador Daliand Marcel Duchamp.

Tanino identifies himself with Japan’s lost generation, coming of age in the 1990s when the country’s economic downturn created a bleak outlook for its youth. Despite the uncertainty of the times, an influential teacher encouraged him to pursue his interests in art, as long as he would also consider obtaining a professional “license” as a fallback. Tanino followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, father, and older brother and went to medical school for psychiatry, while concurrently making and participating in theater productions at the school’s drama society. He worked as a psychiatrist for eight years before leaving the practice to fully devote himself to his theater work.

In the production of The Room Nobody Knows, there are clear hues of Tanino’s psychiatric training and interest in exploring the subconscious mind, as underscored by the omnipresent Freudian penises that comprise the set’s architecture (more on those in a moment). But from a purely formal standpoint, Tanino’s process for developing his plays, and their correspondingly intricate sets, comes from an equally rigorous and defiantly playful artistic practice. In our Tokyo interview, Tanino tells me that his plays initially crystallize with a visual design, before any language or narrative enters the picture. Instead of starting with a script, he begins with sketches and storyboards. Apropos of his work’s thematic focus, he pulls out a Japanese-made Life brand sketchbook as we are talking, showing me where he jots down ideas, literally in the book of Life. After the sets are constructed, he notes, they are sometimes previewed as independent art works before the plays themselves are devised. Once the sets are fabricated he begins choreographing the actors into them, generating the dialogue by observing how they interact within the particular physical environment.

I mention that the Walker has recently made an unprecedented acquisition of all of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s sets and costumes, forging new ground in terms of the types of materials that a museum can collect. Niwa Gekidan Penino’s sets, blurring the lines between sculpture and stage décor, also strike me as potential candidates for this kind of institutional acquisition. Tanino enthusiastically concurs: “I hope someone in Japan could do the same [type of acquisition], and I have been thinking about it for a long time. We have had exhibitions of miniature stage set models, but I’ve never seen a museum display of an actual stage decor. Stage sets are functional and vibrant objects that contain diverse wisdom. There is a lot to learn just by looking at them.”

Tanino’s set designs are made to be absorbed at close range, and audiences for The Room Nobody Knows are kept intentionally huddled in toward the action so that they can soak up the details of the designs and also become more immersed in the acting. The overall effect, at least temporarily, renders the audience a family that is also watching the story of a family. Because there are myriad ways to appreciate this play, it would be limiting to solely focus on how it may be rooted in elements of Tanino’s own biography. But he speaks very plainly and candidly about how his own personal history informed the action that we see unfold on stage: “My parents were too busy to spend time with children; therefore, my two brothers and I grew up in complex relationships. We sometimes depended on each other in a father and son capacity, or mother and son, etc. As time continued to pass, my family grew apart and lost contact with each other. When I think of my brothers, I can’t help myself but have mixed emotions. I created The Room Nobody Knows based on this relationship that I had with my brothers.

“In the play, there are two brothers,” he continues. “The younger brother is a failing student in school, whereas the older brother is very smart and successful. The younger brother is planning the big brother’s birthday. Subconsciously, he wants to be like the older brother, and he wants to join/connect with him.”

One obvious component of the set is the ubiquity of phallic symbols. They dominate the architecture, including penis chairs, tables, and other accents. If the Parisian product designer Pylones teamed up with Ikea to make penis furnishings, they might resemble these objects—and I mean that as a compliment. There is something disarming and humorous about them, coupled with an element that is more deeply unsettling. When I queried Tanino about them, he said that of course they are symbolic of masculinity and strength, but they also represent the confusing Freudian power dynamic that exists between the brothers. The name of the theater company itself has phallic overtones—Penino was Tanino’s childhood nickname, given to him by friends after he stripped and commandeered a naked game of tag during a rain storm on the way to school.

In closing, I ask Tanino if he has a particular message or state of mind that he hopes audiences take away from the work. Moreover, because the play will be presented at the Walker in Japanese with English subtitles, it seems particularly important that he provide the final words:

“I created this piece based on very private experience, therefore some people in the Japanese audiences thought it was extremely weird,” he says. “However, emotions towards parents will always seem complex, strange, and weird for those who are outside the individual family.”

For his company’s performance at Out There, he offers this advice: “Please build a house and have a room in your mind somewhere. Put your secret emotions, curiosities you can’t tell anyone, and your dangerous illusions there. The room will instantly be filled, almost to the point of exploding. Lock your room then, and open the door with the key after you see the show.”

“If the Parisian product designer Pylones teamed up with Ikea to make penis furnishings, they might resemble these objects—and I mean that as a compliment.”

Niwa Gekidan Penino, The Room Nobody Knows

Photo ©Shinsuke Suginou

Tokyo Stages calls Tanino’s company a “one-man psychological trip into the underbelly of our desires.”

Photo ©Shinsuke Suginou

Kuro Tanino’s Life sketchook

Photo: Abigail Sebaly

Scene from The Room Nobody Knows

Photo ©Shinsuke Suginou

Phallic symbols in the set represent the Freudian power play between brothers

Photo ©Shinsuke Suginou