The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
What is the Kabuki version Twelfth Night? Yukio Ninagawa's new challenge
What is the Kabuki version Twelfth Night? Yukio Ninagawa's new challenge
Modern Noh Play
Modern Noh Play
Modern Noh Play
—Sotoba-Komachi / Yoroboshi

(2005 / Saitama Arts Theater)
Photo: Naoya Ikegami
(2002 / Howard Gilman Opera House, NewYork)
Photo: Seiji Egawa
(2003 / National Theatre, London)
Photo: Seiji Egawa
I think that the repertoire of this Kabuki company founded by the famous late-Meiji to Early Showa period actor Kikugoro Onoe VI has quite a bit of new elements. But, I think that almost everyone who saw your production this time thought it was “very Kabuki.” It was constructive rather than being destructive. In this sense I think it was surely a very successful attempt on your part.
In that sense, yes. In the opening scene, the traditional set curtain is drawn and what the audience sees is themselves reflected in the full wall of mirrors across the back of the stage. In addition to forcing the audience to confront themselves, it is an effect that shows them immediately that this is a very contemporary stage and is brings in a strong sense of surprise. As the mirrors become transparent you see cherry trees in full bloom in the set. This is not reality, but a fabricated world. You might say that this is my way of showing the audience from the beginning that “This is Ninagawa at work.” I think that to some degree that went rather well.

When an audience comes to a Ninagawa production, I believe they come with big expectations about what kind of visual aspects you will give them. Those cherries in full bloom in the opening scene and that red Japanese-style arched bridge in the lily garden in the climactic scene seem to me to have been full expressions of Ninagawa color.
One of the reasons that it went fairly well was the tremendous cooperation I got from the Kabuki people. I have to be grateful to Kikugoro, Kikunosuke and the other Kabuki people and staff. All the problems I am aware of were taken care of offstage, so I wouldn’t have to become involved. Compared to the difficulties I have had in the past during overseas productions, I feel that I got much more cooperation this time.
When I took a production of Chikamatsu Suicide Stories overseas we got into a conflict with the local staff on the preview production and it went on to the point that we were going to have to cancel the performance the next day. Having had that kind of trouble, I know how bad on-site problems can be.
Once in Canada we were just a minute or two from the end of the rehearsal of one act when the local staff said they had to quit exactly at 15 minutes to 10:00, because they needed 15 minutes to change before they left. In Japan, people would have naturally stayed with us for another two minutes, so I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Having had these kinds of overseas experiences has been good for me. Now, when I go to a new place like the Kabuki-za, I am not going to get upset at all (laughs).
Also, my experience overseas has taught me how to abide by the rules and what to do when you have to go beyond the allotted time or stretch the regulations a little. There are some times when you just have to get very mad, and show it. Recently, when I took a production of Pericles to Britain I got into a fight in the aisle in the middle of the theater and threatened to stop the production. I developed into quite an argument. I had gotten mad watching some people in the local staff who refused to anything that weren’t part of their prescribed job. “Why don’t you help when you see people struggling with a task right in front of you? Are rules more important than common human concern to you British?” I said. “We Japanese will work late into the night or do jobs outside our own responsibility if we see that it is necessary to get the production ready for the next day’s performance. Why do you British just drop everything and leave? Do the terms of your contract mean more than your human concern and love of creativity?” There are times when it comes to that kind of confrontation.
In that sense, the things I have experienced overseas made the problems working in the Kabuki world much smaller than I had expected. In fact, I quite enjoyed it.

On the other hand, can it be said that it is hard to get a conflict of opinions when working in Japan? And not just in Kabuki, of course. It seems that Japan has a more ambiguous system that avoids confrontations of ideology.
Kabuki has its own unique system that has some good points. So, I think it is a good idea to be flexible enough to allow a fusion of the systems where we both borrow each others best practices.
But, now there are a lot of staff from the younger generation presently supporting the contemporary theater scene who have experience studying abroad and have learned to talk things out rationally even when conflicts of opinion have arisen and they have become emotional. So, now we don’t see the kind of bloody confrontations that used to occur when people got overly emotional. In this sense we are now seeing an environment in Japan that is similar to working overseas. But I still find it easier to work in Japan because people here are more willing to go beyond the bounds of the contract when necessary and work with their heart. Overseas, they don’t seem to mind if the opening performance has to be delayed. I believe that may come from the nature of their system, which has a built-in mechanism to allow for the shortening of the preview period in order to get to opening day on schedule when there is a problem production that can’t be put together on time by working the 8-hour a day. So, I think there is a reason behind their seemingly cold practicality.

With this current production you have said that this will be the first and last time you work in Kabuki. Now that the premiere performance is over, it seems that there might be expectations and calls from people around you to do something like using contemporary theater actors to do a production like Yoysuya Kaidan (at Theatre Cocoon, Tokyo, 2001). For example, would you think about doing something like using Kabuki actors to do a production of a play from the traditional Kabuki repertoire such as Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (by Namboku Tsuruya IV)?
Not at all. I enjoyed doing this production quite enough and I am really grateful to Kikugoro for the opportunity. First of all, I think that it must have been quite an effort for Kikugoro to do the two roles of Malvolio and Feste. He came to the first day of rehearsals having completely memorized his lines. With regards to Kabuki, I feel very fortunate as a director to have had this encounter. But, with this I think I have shown the audience my full hand (laughs). I don’t have the kind of hand it will take to re-create the art of Kabuki.

Do you think there is a possibility that you might take this production of Twelfth Night overseas basically as it is?
Actually, I would like to take a production like this overseas. But I haven’t talked seriously yet with Shochiku, the commercial company that has production rights for Kabuki, about the possibilities of an overseas production. This production of Twelfth Night is actually carried out very closely to Shakespeare’s original, with the exception of the changes made to enable Kikugoro to play the two roles of Malvolio and Feste. Kabuki is an all-male theater with men known as onnagata playing the female roles. In this case, Kikunosuke plays the three roles of Sebastian, Viola and Cesario. Since this is a production that brings out the unique qualities of Kabuki and since it is close to the Elizabethan era British theater where boy actors played the female roles, I would definitely like British and other foreign audiences to see this production. When a video is ready, I plan to send it to some of my producer friends overseas.

What you are saying is that this is a production that has positive qualities that have emerged from what might be considered a fusion of Kabuki and Shakespeare? This is different from your Pericles, where you applied Kabuki techniques to a Shakespeare format play, isn’t it? Is the difference due to the physical aspects of the two types of actors?
Yes, well, if you think about the physical aspect of the actors and the contents of that physical aspect, you can go back and forth between the real and the stylized perhaps. Sometimes I think it would be better to bring in a little more realism, but the going back and forth between realism and stylization is bright and refreshing.

On the other hand, do you think that the actors of contemporary theater are unfortunately lacking in some sort of stylization?
Well, yes, I think it would be good if contemporary theater actors can develop the kind of stylization is gained from pursuing a concept to its natural conclusion, but in fact it is difficult to get to that point. For example, I believe that British actors don’t have stylization in their acting method. There is absolutely no stylization of the physical presence. So, when there is that stylization it enriches the Shakespeare so much. I believe that the presence of that kind of physical stylization is one of the important heritages of the Japanese traditional arts. British actors are people who cannot act unless they first of all have a motivation, and that is why the trend toward realism is so strong in British Shakespeare today. When you try to bring realism to the acting of these fanciful comedy and romance stories it loses all its interest. I believe deep inside that, in that sense, while we are in fact using traditional Japanese art, this is actually pointing to an inherent issue in Shakespeare.
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