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JapanMonday, January 23

Dreamers in Space

Isao Tomita spent years exploring the theme of space until he passed away last year. He had been working on a production to realize the dream of Hideo Itokawa, a pioneer in Japan's aerospace industry -- and it has finally come to fruition.

Tomita didn't manage to finish the project but after his death, his collaborators kept working and the production debuted in Tokyo last November.

Called "Dr. Coppelius," the production involves a young scientist who dreams of flying into space and a mysterious girl from another world who comes to help him achieve his ambition. It's a space-ballet symphony in which the 2 characters transcend space and time.

Isao Tomita died in May 2016 but even at the age of 84, he was still discovering new sounds and delivering surprises. In the 1970s, he intrigued listeners with a revolutionary album that used what was then new technology: a synthesizer.

"Am I a performer, a composer, or a sound engineer? I don’t draw a distinction. I just think it’s wonderful when anyone else gets my music," Tomita said.

Throughout his life, Tomita was drawn to the theme of space, and its infinite vastness.

"I felt that each of the stars in the sky contains its own world, and that the entire universe is unimaginably large," he said.

Japan’s actual space exploration began soon after World War Two, under the leadership of an engineer named Hideo Itokawa. He oversaw the launch of a rocket in 1955, and continued to develop new ones.

"Even when I was building rockets, I was more passionate about unraveling the mysteries of the universe," Itokawa said.

Tomita thought of Itokawa as a “hero.” The 2 met in an unexpected place -- Itokawa had started studying ballet in his 60s, and danced onstage to the music of “Planets,” which was taken from one of Tomita’s albums.

After the performance, Itokawa told Tomita, “Someday I want to dance with a hologram.” Itokawa died in 1999 but 11 years later, his memory was evoked when the space probe Hayabusa returned to Earth. It brought back a fragment of an asteroid, which was named “Itokawa” in his honor. Afterward, Tomita said he would make Itokawa’s holographic dream a reality.

Even in ill health, Tomita continued to work on the project. He was planning the performance right up to his death.

"Making this happen feels like a dream within a dream. It's a story I’ve always wanted to tell. / I'll be pleased if the audience is deeply moved," Tomita said.

He completed most of the plot and the music, but some things remained to be done. The pieces of music Tomita had created still needed to be arranged as one complete work. That responsibility fell primarily to Hikaru Kotobuki.

"This is a necessary task, if we’re to avoid turning out another ‘Best of’ album. Rather than making each selection perfect in itself, we’re aiming to make all the elements sound like one single work," Kotobuki said.

Ballet dancer Mugen Kazama was chosen to perform with the virtual character Hatsune Miku.

"What I really want to do is to see Miku, to really dance together in my mind. If I can do that, maybe Miku will truly enter this world," Kazama said.

Kazama's character, Coppelius, is modeled on Itokawa. He and Hatsune Miku reach out to one another, dancing happily in space. At the end of the story, Coppelius goes traveling in search of unknown worlds. On the way, he finds the space probe Hayabusa floating alone in space. Once again, he encounters Miku. By reaching for the stars, Coppelius finds hope.

The ballet will be staged in Tokyo again in April, and the organizers eventually hope to perform it overseas.