Review: Kuroko is a Game Changer

Tetsuro Shigematsu’s Kuroko explores the realities of extreme reclusion: the main character, Maya, has locked herself in her bedroom for five years, and her only link to the outside world is through VR video games. Her parents leave her breakfast, lunch and dinner at her doorway, the struggle with Maya’s withdrawal having a tremendous impact on their relationships with her and each other.

Maya is hikkikomori (an extreme recluse) — a phenomenon better recognized in Japan but more common than you’d think throughout the world. Though our experiences with reclusion may vary, it’s hard not to find connections between Maya’s world and ours. Hey, I don’t know you. Maybe you’re reading this article sitting in Stanley Park while having a homegrown picnic lunch with friends. But considering it’s November in Vancouver, you’re more likely wrapped in a blanket scrolling through your socials while ignoring the Netflix show you have on in the background and checking the status of your Uber Eats order. We aren’t all recluses, but our relationship with the virtual is complex, and Kuroko challenges audiences to question it.

Much like a video game, the show’s premise is immediately clear from the start: Maya’s father has lost his job and is planning to take his own life at the end of this year, leaving his family to collect his life insurance. In a final, desperate attempt to get Maya out of her bedroom, he visits a rental family agency, where he inquires about hiring someone to befriend Maya online. The show alternates between scenes that take place in reality and scenes that take place in the virtual world, but one is not constructed as more valid than the other. Whether the setting is a kitchen, war zone, grocery store or wormhole, the authenticity is palpable throughout the show. There’s devastation around the dinner table and on the roof of Japan’s tallest tower. Heartfelt moments take place in the subway and on the Dance Dance Revolution stage.

The show’s all-Asian cast (Kanon Hewitt, Lou Ticzon, Manami Hara, Donna Soares, and John Ng) portray characters as contradictory as virtual reality itself. The withdrawn daughter (Hewitt) clings to connection, the no-nonsense matriarch (Hara) takes a bizarre risk, the conscienctious father (Ng) plans to leave his family in order to support them. Sophie Tang’s set is a brilliantly versatile series of cubes, out of which the characters themselves build their own worlds. The word Kuroko comes from kabuki; it refers to the stagehands that allow the spotlighted characters to do the impossible. In the play, support comes from unlikely places, and the impossible is made possible through the collaborative work of specific, diverse, and genuine characters.

Despite the themes of reclusion, depression, and financial hopelessness, the show is not without its lighter moments (a Shigematsu special—his previous works 1 Hour Photo and Empire of the Son are both introspective, emotional works punctuated with humour). The previously mentioned DDR game is a treat for the eyes and the soul, and the subway scenes were almost frustratingly crowd-pleasing (go see it if you don’t believe me).

Kuroko says just as much about the real world as it does about the virtual—in each, there is both distance and connection. It’s a story that warms your heart and breaks it all at once; a perhaps fictional creation that is undeniably authentic. It’s a game changer of a play that I’ll recommend until my earthly body is dead and my soul is uploaded into a drama-happy droid.


Now through November 17
Historic Theatre at The Cultch