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Culture Vulture (Sept. 04 2013)

Update: September, 04/2013 - 10:33
 (VNS) On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Viet Nam – Japan, the Seinendan Theatre Company offered Vietnamese audiences a 30 minute play named Sayonara (Goodbye) performed by artists and Osaka University's humanoid robot Geminoid F.

The play was premiered in 2010 at the Aichi Triennale in Japan and since then, it has been on stage in various countries worldwide including the US, Germany and Italy.

This was the first time the human-robot play had been performed in Viet Nam. Playwright and director Oriza Hirata talked with Culture Vulture about the project and the development of a new form of arts in Japan.

When did the project start and where did you get the idea of robots acting with human?

The project was implemented five years ago at the Osaka University. During this time, I developed five separate plays in which actors and actresses shared the stage with robots. Sayonara is the third one.

People often learn about robots by watching movies or visiting museums. Viewers admire the development of science and technology, and have a dream of using robots in daily life. We bring robots into the arts to rouse viewers' feelings about them.

Sayonara features a scene in which a humanoid robot recites Japanese, French and German poems for her dying master and its new task after his death. Does the play feature the loneliness of the Japanese? What message do you want to send to viewers?

Loneliness is one characteristic of Japan and a climax in Japanese culture. The play can be looked at as a harmony between traditional Japanese conceptions and the development of technology.

Viewers normally think of robots doing housework like cleaning rooms and washing dishes. The humanoid robot is fixed in its seated position and only can move its neck and other parts of its head. I got the idea of the robot doing nothing except reading poems for the master. I wrote this content three years ago, and added 15 minutes to the play after the earthquake in Japan in 2011.

Lots of people never found the bodies of their relatives, but they are not allowed to enter the area within a radius of 20km because of the radioactivity levels at the Fukushima plant. It gave me an idea that after the master's death, the robot would be sent to the contaminated area to console the souls of the dead people.

The theme of the play is about life and death, emphasising the immortality of robots.

Can you tell us about the difficulties you faced while you were putting the play together and how you overcame them?

I didn't have any difficulties writing the script or directing the actors. I think the most difficult thing was for them to interact with the robots in a natural way. They had to practise a lot and their timing had to be perfect.

Is robot-human theatre popular in Japan? How do audiences react to the performances?

Until now, I am the only playwright and director of this new form of art. Robot-human performances have appeared before, but nothing on the scale of Sayonara.

There are two trends being picked up by universities and artists. Universities make full use of robots, but the artistic quality of the plays is not high. In return, artists are very good at the artistic side, but don't know how to work with the robots.

I'm not sure if Japanese people have an affinity with robots or not, but they are often seen on TV, so they accept the play enthusiastically.

The combination between humans and robots has been warmly welcome not only by Japanese audiences but also by people all over the world. We received a lot of applause from the US viewers during our performances from January to March this year. When the play finished, old people said that the actress who played the part of a robot performed very well. — VNS

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