BY SONOKO MIYAZAKI STAFF WRITER
Members of senior theatrical company Nobeoka Show-Ginza rehearse a scene in Nobeoka, Miyazaki Prefecture. The group's productions are consistently sold out. (Sonoko Miyazaki)
As he approached the age of 70, Shinkichi Namiki felt he had no purpose in life. But he found a story in a local newspaper that gave him a new direction.
Now, at 71, Namiki has become somewhat of a local celebrity, even if he was once recognized as that "old senile man."
The newspaper article he read in 2006 solicited members for a theatrical group, Nobeoka Show-Ginza, in Nobeoka, Miyazaki Prefecture.
Namiki is the oldest member of the group.
"I wanted to try new things to stay young and active," he recalled. "The door to a new world would open with a step forward."
Show-Ginza is one of many acting groups for senior citizens that are booming across the nation.
Comprising amateur actors and actresses, around 60 senior theater groups passionately continue their activities. Members have been bitten by the acting bug at an advanced age, but their performances have grown in popularity.
Show-Ginza has 20 amateur players, the youngest being 50 years old.
The name of the group derives from "sho," as in laughter. "Gin" is from "ibushi-gin," which literally means oxidized silver and stands for reserved coolness. "Za" means theater.
It has been four years since the group was formed. Members meet for rehearsal twice a week at a civic hall in Nobeoka.
The group has gained a loyal fan base, and advance tickets for their regularly scheduled productions are sold out half a month before the curtain goes up.
Their next production is "Sorayuku Kaze no Koinobori" (Koinobori carp streamers of the wind that travel in the sky).
Namiki comically portrays an executive of a general store who makes every effort for the election campaign of his patron's daughter.
In real life, Namiki works as a driver of vehicles for wedding ceremonies, funerals and other events. He also attended night classes at a senior high school at age 56.
He once played an old man suffering from dementia. When he was walking down a street one day, a child called out, saying: "That's the senile old man I saw on stage!"
But Namiki was flattered. "I was glad that someone remembered me," he said, laughing.
He also admits he needs to work on his delivery as he sometimes speaks his lines too fast when he is caught up in the moment.
Elder Cats, a popular senior acting group based in Kagawa Prefecture, is known for presenting plays that mirror modern society and take up social issues, such as the "ore-ore" (it's me, it's me) telephone scam and dementia.
Kintaro Konishi, a 75-year-old former president of a signboard manufacturer, is one of the founding members of the company.
Konishi had no stage experience until he played an old man for his acquaintance's theater group. He was 60 years old then.
He delivered his lines clumsily, but he thought his style might create an aura and presence that young actors couldn't offer.
That idea prompted his fascination with theater. He took the lead in establishing Elder Cats in 2003, and long-time postal workers and teachers joined the group.
Elderly people drawn to acting came together in late October in Minoo, Osaka Prefecture, for the first installment of the international theater festival for seniors. Six theater companies took part in the festival, including Challenger from Shizuoka Prefecture.
The group was established under the slogan of producing "high quality and inspiring stage performance." Their up-tempo show gave Challenger a solid reputation at the venue.
"With theatrical groups of different backgrounds and styles getting together, it was a stimulating experience," Kazuo Harada, the 63-year-old leader of Challenger, said. "We learned a lot from the other groups, such as their sense of regionality and audacious approach for mise-en-scene that involved the audience."
Professional stage director Sho Ryuzanji, who has also established a senior theatrical troupe in Tokyo, cheers on the seniors.
"A raw body infused with history looks very realistic. Senior theater is much more fun when we watch their performances and imagine how they live their everyday lives than judge whether their performances are good or not," Ryuzanji said.
Writer Keiko Asahi, who started "Senior Engeki Web" (http://s-geki.net/) dedicated to senior theater companies in 2008, said the history of the shows' popularity dates back more than 30 years.
The forerunner was Hachiro Gekidan (Hachiro theater company), which was established in 1973 in Yao, Osaka Prefecture, to provide a place for social interaction among elderly people. In the same year, "Kokotsu no Hito" (People in ecstasy), a film about dementia based on Sawako Ariyoshi's novel of the same title, was released.
The next wave came in or around 2000, when the public nursing-care insurance system was introduced. Theatrical companies for seniors flourished. A private acting group set up a workshop program, and it has continued its activities.
Public officials got involved to help minimize health-care needs. The public sector also sought ways to make effective use of cultural facilities built during the asset-inflated bubble economy of the 1980s and early 1990s.
The third wave came between 2005 and 2010, when baby boomers born soon after the end of World War II started retiring en masse.
Fukuoka-based senior theater group Silver Panther completed its 10th anniversary performances in late September.
Yayoi Yasumaru, a 75-year-old member, had trouble finding ways to balance her acting gigs and the nursing care she long provided for her husband.
But she continued her theater activities thanks to words of encouragement from her husband: "You can tell me what goes on in the outside world. Keep on and have fun."
After he died a year ago, the theater group helped Yasumaru stay positive.
"To stage a performance with everyone, each member's health comes first," Yasumaru said. "Heading to the same goal while throwing ideas and opinions at each other and staying true to our personalities makes me eager to live my everyday life."