Yonezawa explores the mental mess of hikikomori

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Natsuko Yonezawa. Photo: Martin Ollmann.

“MESS” seems like an improbable title for a piece of theatre, until you know how the young ANU art student and director of the work is thinking.

For, like many young people, to Natsuko Yonezawa life is just a chaotic mess, and she’s seized on a singular psychological phenomenon to investigate how we fit in – or in this case don’t fit in – with society.

The condition or practice of “hikikomori” now sees an estimated half a million Japanese youths and another half a million middle-aged adults in Japan become modern-day hermits. In Japanese culture, with old-fashioned rules, this is particularly problematic.

Paired with another well-recognised syndrome, “amae”, interdependency of child and parent, usually mother and son, hikikomori often live by night and sleep by day, depending on close family to feed them.

Natsuko Yonezawa. Photo: Martin Ollmann.

Sounds familiar? To Yonezawa, whose cousin has been a hikikomori for a decade, it’s a perfect parallel to what’s happening during the enforced self-isolation of COVID-19, and it raises universal questions about what’s happening in our minds.

Only just 21, she’s in the third year of the new BA in Design at the ANU School of Art and Design, and is doing a sculpture course on “the politics of the body”.

That seems to hit the spot for the talented Japanese-born Yonezawa, who came here aged four when her mum enrolled in a PhD at ANU, went to various ballet schools, discovered Ruth Osborne’s QL2 Dance and liked it so much that she got into contemporary dance.

“Wait till you see this woman’s work,” says Chenoeh Miller, assistant director and live programs officer at Belconnen Arts Centre.

The production, which features Christopher Samuel Carroll, and Miriam Slater, and possibly Yonezawa, who says, “I might open with a solo”, is still in progress but Miller is sure that when it opens at the beginning of October we’ll see “something completely fresh”.

COVID-19 has a lot to do with this new 45-minute production. Miller and fellow live programs officer, Sammy Moynihan, had been floating the idea of some 10-minute works to test out the new theatre at Belco Arts Centre, but then Covid hit and everything closed down.

Re-opening with a house capacity of only 76 and rules forbidding intimacy in the theatre, suddenly the 10-minute shows became the real thing.

Natsuko Yonezawa explores hikikomori as a parallel to the self-isolation of COVID-19. Photo: Martin Ollmann.

Noted installation artist from Canberra Byrd was briefed to create a set reflecting a “messy mind, and our mental state” as well as composer-sound artist Marlēné Claudine Radice, who often uses natural sounds like those created by the human body in her electrical acoustic compositions.

“Hikikomori was a mystery to me, but I trusted her [Yonezawa], she’s bringing such depth of knowledge to this,” Miller says.

It was a challenging concept to work on from scratch, but Belco had already engaged interdisciplinary artist Miriam Slater and later Christopher Samuel Carroll, the classically-trained actor from Dublin and physical theatre graduate from LeCoq Institute in Paris, who won the inaugural Helen Tsongas award for acting last year at the ACT Arts Awards.

Steeped in Japanese culture and Adlerian psychology, Yonezawa will be setting “homework” for the actors during an intensive two weeks. She expects the subject, “the mental mess of hikikomori”, to stir up personal, intimate and possibly confronting issues for Carroll and Slater.

They’ll be facing questions as to how hikikomori get food and have sex, their hygiene, and their reversal of day and night, for instance.

“I found the physical mess hard to visualise… I had a vision of pinpoints of bodies moving through light but then Belco Arts came up with a budget, so it was possible to think of something sculptural,” Yonezawa says.

“Mess”, Belconnen Arts Centre, October 1-2. Suitable for ages 16+. Book at belcoarts.sales.ticketsearch.com

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