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
Yukio Ninagawa
As Dean of the Toho Gakuen College of Drama and Music, you are involved in the school education and the actor education as well. When I spoke to the director Makoto Sato recently, he said something very interesting. He said that he believes the curriculum for training contemporary theater actors used at the New National Theatre should be exactly the same as the curriculum used to train Kabuki actors in their first two years at the National Theatre. Then everyone who had finished that two-year course could decide whether they wanted to be Kabuki actors or contemporary theater actors. It seemed like a strange idea at first, but the more I thought about it the more I saw the reason in it.
That is a possible course. However, the rhetoric used in Kabuki and the rhetoric of Western theater is so fundamentally different. I think that everything from the use of the voice to the way images are created is almost completely opposite. So, I would say that I would like to see them study both at the same time. If you only did one you lose the ability to express everything. I would rather have an actor who has the capability for both.

You yourself received an acting education that was based in the Western style and completely divorced from Japanese traditional acting, didn’t you?
Yes, that is exactly right. The Kabuki stage is long in the lateral direction. And, if you give it reason, a long lateral section can become an engawa (Japanese style porch) or a hallway. The shoji panels of a house all slide laterally to the sides, there is nothing that open vertically, except perhaps the gate to a path leading up a mountain. Our front doors and all our doors open by sliding to the side. I believe that the Japanese aesthetic is based on lateral extension. Kabuki is the stage manifestation of the world of the scroll painting, and in that sense I think you can say that it is consistent with the Japanese aesthetic.
In contrast with this, what we were learning in acting school was a type of theater based entirely on the perspective method of Western art. Also, other things like the historical perspective and concepts can all be fit in some way into this overall perspective. Whether you are reading Shakespeare of the Greek tragedies of contemporary drama, the rhetoric comes almost completely from the Bible or the Greek myths. In this all can be found certain conceptual perspective. What we learned as actors was based completely on the Western perspective method, in all meanings of the term.
In this sense, the opportunity to direct Kabuki was an opportunity to explore the fascination of superimposing these two different perspectives. So, how do you introduce the Western perspective method into the world of Kabuki? Well, I thought, why not use mirrors to show the actors and the stage mechanisms at the same time? Of course, since Twelfth Night is a story about twins, I believe that the mirror is a natural element. And, purely as a staging effect, if you add transparency you can get depth, or create a kaleidoscope effect that gives completely different views from different seats in the audience. In fact, when you went to the far left or right box seats the mirrors reflected back deep into the wings. So, people sitting in different parts of the theater were seeing completely different things.

In the case of the Japanese-style arched bridge, also, when you added a second bridge in the final climactic moments of the play, it seemed like a device to make a scene tremble in uncertainty, like perhaps a trompe l’oeil.
It is interesting, isn’t it. Even if I say so myself (laughs). That is the kind of thing that is possible because it’s Kabuki. I believe that traditional Kabuki is basically a flat world. Although I did use flat visual surfaces, the act of making those surfaces float and sway added a new perspective. That’s why I say I think I have shown my full hand and there is nothing left for me to show a Kabuki audience (laughs). I found out that Kabuki is a tough world to try to outdo. In a positive sense.

Well, these are people who start their training at age three or five and spend their whole lives in the theater absorbed in its art.
In Kabuki there are great actors and normal actors and some that don’t even reach that level. But the very best are like the very best anywhere in the world. They are amazing.
The Kabuki world is supported by a kind of hereditary system and the fact that bloodline plays a part in the art made us in the contemporary theater world look at them with envy when we were young and think, “They live in an easy, certain world.” And there were also inevitable cases where the people who became the central actors rebelled against that hereditary system. But when I actually went to the Kabuki-za as a director, I saw that these people are there in the theater from 9:30 in the morning until about 9:00 at night. They only have one month or maybe two of time off from the theater in a year. It’s an insane world. And those who become immersed in that world are certain to become amazing performers. I believe they are mad. Mad in the right way. In the sense that nothing is really born from an artist until he goes mad once, I believe that the Kabuki world is an awe-inspiring place.
When you look out from the dressing room past the todori room (staff manager’s room) and down a long, dark hallway, you can see the lights of Showa Avenue. There are trucks and taxis passing by in the contemporary world of 2005. But once you take one step inside, there is the Shinto shrine for the theater’s patron god and the todori and a Kyogen playwright, and this long, dark corridor with ducts and electrical wiring. It was like being in a science-fiction world. That was what was fascinating about it. If you ask what was the freshest new experience I got out of it all, I would say it was walking through the naraku (Hades) under the stage and feeling something like the darkness of the pre-modern Japanese theater world, something that has been passed down for a long time; I saw a kind of death. This may be stating it too romantically, but I saw something that only one who has come to study in a foreign world can see. But, this is only a momentary skill, and once you get used to it, you surely won’t see it anymore. That was a very fresh experience.
I ended up thinking, “It is OK to go mad, it is OK to go properly mad about theater.” That was the biggest lesson I learned from Kabuki. Kikugoro and Kikunosuke are amazing, but so is the cumulative theater time of all the people there.
That was truly fascinating for me.
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