While I am not normally a patron of theatre, my interest was piqued when I heard about Enjoy, a play centered around a manga cafe and the colorful individuals who work at it. Translated by Aya Ogawa and directed by Dan Rothenberg, Enjoy was originally written by Toshiki Okada, a man apparently known for using very “realistic” language in his scripts. After having seen Enjoy, I understand what that really means.

The first big impression I got from the play happened before it even began. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I assumed that the people coming to a play about a manga cafe in Shinjuku would probably be manga fans and otaku eager to see this part of their lives dramatized, so it was a little surprising when I realized that the majority of the audience consisted of roughly middle-aged theatre-goers. It makes sense in hindsight, but I still didn’t expect it. Meanwhile, the stage itself was very close to the front row and probably less than twelve inches away. It was also very bare-bones, being essentially an empty room. That simplicity and proximity would be the first hint at how the play would unfold.

Enjoy is split into four acts, focusing on the various workers at the manga cafe and the ways in which their lives appear to be in stasis. Some of the characters are over 30 and still working part-time. Others are younger employees who seem to define their self-worth relative to those 30+ year olds. The story is told through actors who, while each technically playing different characters, go between talking about themselves in the first person, talking about themselves in the third person, and talking as if they were another character involved in the story, resulting in constant perspective shifts all in the form of expository dialogue. Very much to its credit, however, this is never truly confusing, as it’s less important who on stage is saying what as it is what is being said at all.

The “realism” of the language stems from the fact that every character in the play is incredibly awkward in their own way, and through a combination of acting talent and an effective script are able to really convey that awkwardness in a convincing manner without having it be unintelligible. It strikes a delicate balance that could easily be undone. All of the characters, whether they’re being played by their original actors or being assumed by different actors, are very flawed people whose individual hangups come largely from the active pursuit of uneventful lives. Insecurities abound in areas of work, romance and friendship.

As for the story itself, there isn’t exactly one, at least not in the traditional sense. Enjoy is primarily an exploration of characters, and though you get a clear image of who they are as the play goes on, none of them have any real motivations to move themselves forward. It’s the kind of thing that works ideally as a play and would probably not be so personal as a film in a theater. By having the actors so close to the audience, and having them seem as if they are speaking directly to the audience (without actually acknowledging it), it gives a direct emotional connection that’s hard to replicate without real bodies in a live performance.

Although adapted for English-speaking audiences, Enjoy still sets itself in Japan and uses Japanese names for all of its characters (Kato, Shimizu, etc), even if none of the actors are Asian, as if to say that this story could not be told elsewhere and that the adaptation is mainly in the transformation of the text itself. This makes sense, I think, because the manga cafe for the most part does not exist in the US. However, the play is not so Japanese that it is impenetrable for those unfamiliar with the country or its comics. In fact, Enjoy makes only one reference to any specific manga title, and it comes and goes so quickly that it’s more for flavor than anything else. Moreover, the characters’ idiosyncrasies and doubts about their worth and the way their success in employment (or lack thereof) might define them seems to be especially relevant and universal today.

Truthfully, some of the themes of Enjoy hit a little too close to home, but that’s also the very same reason I consider it a success.

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