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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Bard on the hanamichi

Special to The Japan Times

With his characters given samurai names and clad in kimono, whatever would the Bard make of this "Twelfth Night" by Japan's foremost Shakespeare dramatist, 69-year-old Yukio Ninagawa? This veteran theatrical explorer long vowed never to tackle kabuki, but is doing just that with "Twelfth Night" to packed houses at the Kabuki-za in Tokyo's Ginza. Here, in an interview with The Japan Times, Ninagawa casts light on his reasons for changing his mind, and how he feels about the result.

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Theater director Yukio Ninagawa speaks about his foray into the world of kabuki during an interview with the Japan Times last week.

When the curtain rose, the audience saw themselves in the curved wall of mirrors you positioned across the whole width of the stage. It was a brilliant and unforgettable opening that seemed to send a direct message to the audience that the stage is a mirror of life. Was that your intention?

Yes, that was one of my goals, because when the usual kabuki curtain rises and the audience unexpectedly confront their own faces, then they realize this is not an ordinary kabuki with which they are familiar. Then, when the mirrors gradually start to become transparent, you see a big beautiful cherry tree in the background and you hear music being played on both Japanese and Western instruments and a boy soprano singing. All this creates a unique fusion. When the actors appear on the hanamichi [elevated runway] in the auditorium, to the audience members in certain areas it looks as if they are coming out from the back of the main stage due to the mirror reflection. So, the audiences start to confuse reality and drama.

I wanted to express such a double structure, just as in the play we have men acting the parts of women and one man who is acting the part of a woman pretending to be a man. Additionally, the kabuki stage is usually so two-dimensional, so I wanted to add the depth and perspective that is part of the Western drama method, and have it there on the wide kabuki stage. I wanted the mirrors to have a kaleidoscopic effect and give multiple angles to view the stage. Throughout, my intention was like that -- to incorporate my methods into the framework of the traditional kabuki style.

Some contemporary dramatists, such as Hideki Noda and Kazuyoshi Kushida, have recently staged kabuki productions. Did that inspire you to do it, especially as you said before that you never thought of staging kabuki?

These people's works didn't directly affect my decision. Having seen kabuki since I was young, I have probably seen more plays than Noda or Kushida, and I always believed that laymen with shallow knowledge should not try to enter the world of kabuki. To begin with, there is traditionally no director role in kabuki, so there is no defined territory for me and I imagined there would be conflict there. Also, there are so many rules in kabuki, like particular sounds and music for the sea scenes, for instance, and I had not digested all those rules, so I thought it would be better to enjoy it as a part of the audience rather than as a director.

News photo
Onoe Kikunosuke as Shishimaru (left), Oshino's messenger of love, meets with Princess Oribue (Nakamura Tokizo).

But then I worked with Kikunosuke Onoe [who plays the twins, Biwa-hime and Shuzennosuke] in my nine-hour-long mythology production "Greeks," in 2000, and last year he asked me to direct this kabuki "Twelfth Night." Kikunosuke is a really earnest guy and I was moved by his zest for this project. That was the only reason that I overcame my long-term hesitation.

How do you feel now that you have overcome that hesitation?

Doing this made me realize again that I've only really studied Western drama methods. Of course I knew some kabuki techniques from reading books and have my basic general knowledge as a dramatist. But actually when I came here I realized there was no place for me, for the director. Normally, we start the rehearsal when I say "start," but here the head of the troupe had already started their rehearsal independently.

All the jargon is also different from our contemporary drama jargon. It was all quite a surprise for me -- in fact it was even more of a shock than when I did my first rehearsal with British actors in England. That was a big surprise because, for example, they have rules, such as having a short break every two hours and an hour for lunch. It is completely different from the Japanese working style. Anyway, I felt that here, too, I had jumped into a completely different world, and now I feel a bit closer to this side and I am pleased to have experienced this traditional theater world.

During rehearsals, how did you go about your role as director?

First of all, it was quite exceptional to have only an eight-day rehearsal period. So I thought about the most effective way to use my ability, and I decided to join this existing kabuki world more or less on my own and to basically follow the traditional kabuki rules and just emboss it with my own taste. So I brought only a lighting designer [Tamotsu Harada], because I was using a lot of mirrors, which are not normally used in kabuki. However, all the other staffers were from the kabuki side, as I thought it would be the best way not to avoid too much friction within the team. I knew that would take its toll on the production.

Also, I asked Toyoshige Imai, who is a kabuki playwright, to dramatize it in kabuki style with appropriate arrangements, which he did brilliantly and flexibly and very speedily, and even carried on fitting it to the actors during rehearsal. He is a key part in the success of this production.

Finally, the actors received the script 20 days before the first rehearsal day, when they were on tour in Kyushu, and I only asked them to remember the plots before our first meeting, so that we could start a walk-through rehearsal from the second day.

You are giving credit to others, but I think this kabuki most definitely bears the stamp of your influence.

If I likened this "Twelfth Night' to a plate of sashimi, the raw fish would be the young actors in the main roles, such as Kikunosuke, and, for example, Kikugoro [Kikunosuke's father] would be the wasabi, the added, extra-special taste. In the end, I think I am just the yellow, plastic flower decoration. It's quite embarrassing to call it "Ninagawa's Twelfth Night," because the production is purely the work of these actors. I don't mind my name being attached for business reasons, to sell tickets, but I think I only played a small role as a team member in this production.

Although you came from different backgrounds, did you and the kabuki people manage to develop a close relationship?

Yes, I think the actors understood what I intended to do when they saw the actual stage with the theatrical effects and the mirror sets, and I got the feeling they trusted me a bit more. The process of putting on a new play with many new people is similar to a romantic relationship. We had to go on several dates before we could appreciate each other.

You said that Kikunosuke asked you to do "Twelfth Night" from the beginning, but if you could choose any Shakespeare play, which would you select?

I think I would do a tragedy. For example, "King Lear" or "Macbeth" might be easier to do, but "Twelfth Night" was the perfect choice to make the most of Kikunosuke, since he could play a young manly prince and also, at the same time, he could play a beautiful princess.

What do you think about the Kabuki-za as a venue?

Before, I didn't realize how close the stage is to the the auditorium, so it makes for good theater to see each actor's face and expression. But I was perturbed to see that the stage is very wide. So I introduced the mirrors so that from any seat you can see what's happening on the stage from the reflections. Even people in the balcony seats could enjoy a good view, and moreover they can enjoy a different view from the people in the stalls.

How did you feel after you made the decision to direct "Twelfth Night."

After I said yes to Kikunosuke, I kept thinking "I do not want to do this, I do not want to do it." Honestly, it was a real bother for me. Because I was doing some other productions at the same time, I initially just started collecting information about kabuki and piling it on a desk. At that time there were four desks with different projects.

What were you thinking as you sat in the audience on opening night?

I understood that kabuki is a special event for people. People come to the Kabuki-za to escape from their daily lives and they dress up for this special occasion and participate in this event in a role that is called the "audience." They spend almost a day here and socialize with their friends. The people in the dress circle area are especially dressed up, as they know the other people in the audience can see them, and the audience members walk around the red-carpeted lobby area as if they are actors and actresses. From that, I understood that the kabuki stage must be aesthetically beautiful. Visual beauty is the first requirement of the kabuki stage.

Secondly, I was very pleased to see the actors' progress. Basically, Shakespeare is completely different from kabuki, as his plays are very rational and logical, whereas kabuki is more visual and physical drama. For the actors, I think it was initially quite hard to get a handle on such a different approach to drama, but now it's getting better and better. In particular, after a few performances, the production became more profound and the actors' emphasis and timing became better matched to the story. . . . [Quickly adapting] is a genuine talent of kabuki actors.

While kabuki obviously wanted a breath of fresh air from the contemporary theater world, there is also a desire in the contemporary theater world to learn from kabuki and collaborate more. Do you think this production will benefit Japanese contemporary theater?

The current tendency is toward very inward-looking, private and self-centered dramas. Not so many address general themes. Small-world plays with lots of laughs used to be restricted to the subculture underground, but now they have become mainstream. Classic plays, however, have a certain universality, and I believe audiences want that kind of universal scale of drama rather than just seeing trivial matters on stage. Kabuki has that universality, I think. So I did this collaboration to achieve a large-scale drama. I can't be satisfied with a small topical or narrow theme.

You will be 70 years old soon, but you are still taking up new challenges, and you still dare to take risks. Where do you get this energy?

I don't know, but I simply think this director's job suits my nature, so I fully enjoy what I do. I don't want to be a crotchety old man, who used to do great work, but who is doing nothing now and just resting on his laurels. There are many old guys like that in Japan. I've naturally come to be treated as a big name and overprotected by the people around me, so this time I wanted to take on a more difficult challenge and something I've never done before.

Do you have any advice for the younger generation of dramatists?

I do not have anything to say. That is because one day I said to [49-year-old] Hideki Noda that we are of the same generation, and he immediately objected and said we are not. So actually, I do not recognize myself as being older or in a more important position than people of his generation. I think I am an active director, not a higher authority in the current theater world. I do not envy their age at all, but of course I envy the talent of great artists sometimes.

For example?

Kim Ki Duk, a South Korean film director. I love his film "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring." I was so impressed with that film. Yesterday, I saw the film "Million Dollar Baby" by Clint Eastwood. Eastwood is also over 70, isn't he? It was also a great film. Such older Western people never stop pushing themselves to question things deeply. Eastwood has never gone silent or run away from contentious issues, and it was breathtaking, especially the last half. I was stunned by his thoroughly logical consistency. Normally, Japanese artists like to escape with a vague emotional ending, but he faced up to the theme to the end. I felt I also have to work hard to do my best.

What is it that has led you to spend your life in the theater?

Usually, I am quite a shy person and I am not a sociable person at all. Doing my job, directing a production, is kind of mental therapy for me and I can express myself without any hesitation when I am making stages. While I cannot enter a noodle restaurant alone, I can jump into the unknown kabuki world by myself or fly to England to do theater, even though I cannot speak English. And besides, I am always wanting to be a better director every day.

"Twelfth Night" runs till July 31 at the Kabuki-za, directly outside Higashi Ginza station on the Hibiya subway line. For more details, call the Kabuki-za at (03) 5565-6000, or visit www.kabuki-za.co.jp

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