Belgian director Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui talks with MyM’s Roxy Simons about his new play Pluto, inspired by Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy…
“I had a lot of fun doing this because it’s so impossible that you start to become very creative in finding small things that make it work on stage,” says Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the Olivier Award-winning director and choreographer, about his upcoming production Pluto. The play, which makes its UK debut at London’s Barbican in February 2018, has been described as a visual sensation thanks to its use of puppetry, stunning effects and performance art. Pluto is based on the manga series of the same name, itself a reinterpretation of a story in Astro Boy by ‘God of Manga’ Osamu Tezuka.
Having developed a love for manga at a young age, Cherkaoui is quick to name Tezuka works such as Buddha and Black Jack amongst his favourite series of all time. It was his love for such titles that inspired him to create his first homage to the man, with a performance called TeZukA.
“He’s an amazing artist who created hundreds of characters with very interesting identities that can be relatable for young and old audiences alike,” says Cherkaoui. “As an artist he was so in tune with his environment and the nature of humanity, there was no judgement in the way he portrayed other people, there was only observation.
“The good and bad guys in his storylines were all treated with equal respect and there was a sense that he was trying to understand the motivations and intentions of people. I think that’s what makes me so attracted to Tezuka’s work,” he adds. “After making TeZukA, I felt that I wanted to go deeper. So I read Naoki Urasawa and Takashi Nagasaki’s take on a story he had written, which was a meeting between Atom – the famous little robot from Astro Boy – and his nemesis Pluto, and I was blown away by this story.
“It was so profound. They really discovered a way to connect elements of our society and what we were dealing with and managed to relate it to different characters. Usually, plays are based on books or on play texts, but Pluto would be based on a comic book. So I was interested in the genre it came from and the fact that it’s a visual art, while also trying to find ways to include all the topics that were addressed by the work in the play.”
Focused on Astro Boy protagonist Atom, his younger sister Uran, detective Gesicht and his wife Helena, Pluto is a murder mystery that sees its globe-trotting characters examine what it means to be human. “It’s set in a kind of not-too-distant future, where artificial intelligence has really developed and Atom is one of these robots. Some people admire robots and others look down on them, but there is a real deep distinction being made between the two,” says Cherkaoui, adding that Professor Ochanomizu (Atom’s adoptive dad), his creator Professor Tenma and Professor Abullah also feature in the story.
“Pluto is an exploration of what it is to be human and that maybe being human can go beyond being made of flesh and blood, but it’s also a very interesting detective story! We’re looking for a murderer who is destroying very important robots all around the world. I’m hoping that those who see the play will want to read the comic book afterwards. That would be my ultimate dream, because at times there’s something a bit alien about manga for some people.
“It’s funny because when I’m working in Japan, most people already know these characters; they know Atom, they know Uran. It’s harder in Europe where some people may not be familiar with Atom or know that he is a little robot boy who can fly, that he has been sold to the circus and that he’s a bit like a Pinocchio figure,” Cherkaoui adds.
“There’s something about him – he’s not a human, but he’s based on a human. He feels a little inferior because he isn’t human, but at the same time this isn’t his fault so there’s this wonderful power in this little hero. It was also interesting to have Mirai Moriyama, who is an incredible actor, play young Atom, because Mirai is an adult.”
Pluto’s leading man is an actor whom Cherkaoui has worked with before, and clearly has a huge amount of respect for. “I love him because he is an actor but he is also physically extremely intelligent, so I can ask him to do anything,” he says of Moriyama. “He is very flexible in his approach and is creative too; very willing to try things out or to collaborate on finding solutions for things.”
Appearing in Pluto alongside Moriyama are Rurouni Kenshin star Tao Tsuchiya, who plays both Uran and Helena, and big screen regular Akira Emoto, who plays Professor Tenma, along with Shunsuke Daito, Kazutoyo Yoshimi and Mitsuru Fukikoshi.
“Tao was a revelation for me,” Cherkaoui says of the young actress. “She took the role this year and I was amazed by her intelligence in how she approached the project. It’s so hard for a 22-year-old actress to play both a little girl and a mature woman; she’s right in the middle of these two as a person. So it’s fascinating to see her find those characters and constantly, almost schizophrenically, switch between the two depending on the scene that we are doing. She’s doing an incredible job, I’m really proud of her and I’m in awe of what she’s managed to do in the last couple of weeks.”
Film industry veteran Emoto is just as inspiring, says Cherkaoui: “He is just so profound. The way he understands every single word that comes out of him, I almost wish more people could understand Japanese just so they could feel the weight of the words that fall when he speaks them.”
While Cherkaoui’s focus is on the story, Pluto is also a visual feast. Scenes are practically lifted off the page, as the manga both informed and inspired the set design, becoming an essential part of it. “In the manga, you have frames that help you see how one thing is happening after another, and so I wanted to find a similar idea in the play. Sometimes the characters are literally framed as if they were in a manga and are speaking from one frame to another. This helped me create a feeling of them being inside a huge comic.”
“The interactions are like in the comic book, which is mainly conversations and dialogue, but there are also many physical moments given the fact that our characters are robots or get into adventurous situations. These happen very unexpectedly, and the actors have to be very aware of their bodies and angles – it’s definitely a precise work, a bit like clockwork. Everything depends on that.”
However, the most challenging part of the production was incorporating and perfecting the use of some very important props: the puppets. “I found the robots the hardest element in the play, because there are real robots in the story,” Cherkaoui explains. “I was toying with puppetry in other works of mine – in Antwerp I’d been working with puppet masters, and when I was in Japan I found that there’s this old tradition of puppetry known as bunraku. I wanted to use that and reinvent it into a futuristic kind of puppetry, so suddenly the dancers became manipulators of the actors as puppets, but also use real puppets as characters.”
Ultimately, though, it’s the themes behind Osamu Tezuka’s manga that make Pluto so important for Cherkaoui. “It’s about fathers and sons, or fathers and daughters. There’s something about this story that really appealed to me and made me want to focus on these characters in Pluto. Of course, it’s adventurous, it’s a comic book, it’s about robots and there’s science fiction, but what lends it to being a play is that it speaks about human nature and people’s relationships. It’s about how they relate to others and help each other, or not; how they learn from each other, or not. That’s what makes it so beautiful.”
Pluto runs from 8-11 February 2018 at London’s Barbican Theatre. Visit Barbican.org.uk for tickets.
© Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui photo by Mats Bäcker; Pluto photos by Yoshie Kobayashi