The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
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Artist Interview
Leaders of Japan's avant-garde theater, The World of Yukichi Matsumoto and Ishinha


Natsu no Tobira was appeared in the major newspaper in Mexico.
Would you tell us something about the performances in Mexico and Brazil? Rather than your usual outdoor stages, both of these performances were done in theaters, and we hear that you had some trouble getting the right equipment?
There was especially a lack of the lighting equipment we needed. The theater didn’t have enough lights to do the complete white-out of the stage that the first scene calls for, and we weren’t able to borrow enough additional lights either. There may be different ideas of what “brightness” is in different countries. For example, in Germany we had breakfast by candlelight (laughs)! Also the technical skills available to the theater staff at the theaters this time was not up to the level of those in Japan or Europe. There is also what may be a regional concept of “This will be good enough.”

The city of Guanajuato where you performed in Mexico is at a high elevation of 2,000 meters, and we heard that several of your actors collapsed during rehearsals and had to be hospitalized.
We knew that it was going to be high altitude and originally we planned not to do any serious rehearsals there. Also, because of all the trouble we were having getting the stage equipment together, there wasn’t time to rehearse anyway. But when we finally did have to try out the movements in rehearsal, we had people collapsing. So, for the Mexican performance we shortened the rigorous movement parts and we had our music person, Mr. Uchihashi, rewrite the music parts on the spot to create longer music sections to cover for the shortened movement parts. By the way, Uchihashi’s “Daxophone” in the music parts was a big hit. There are only four of these instruments in the whole world, and when he played it the audiences loved it.

How does Uchihashi create the music?
The music is the last part that gets decided on. During the rehearsal, we work out the movements just using a rhythm machine. In the end, we talk with Mr. Uchihashi about our images and then he works out the music. Conversely, we can’t work out the movement until the stage art is in place, so the first thing we do is to make a model of the proposed stage set and move it around while we think about what we want. Actually, it is the movement that we start to work on first in our rehearsals, and in this case we got the art plan together for the stage around May. I think we changed the art plan about three times. Mr. Kuroda is an artist who collects scrap metal, lets it rust and then uses it to create works that look like they are from outer space. He sees a lot of theater and understands it, so he is very good at creating stage art, I feel. In fact, the lighting is very important and I would always light to get the lighting plan together as early as possible, but eventually, like the music, it becomes one of the last things to be finalized. During the planning stage it is often the case that the opinions of the art person and the lighting person don’t jive well. So. I try to get lighting equipment in place at the rehearsal studio from an early stage so that we can experiment with it.

Your performances were well received in both Mexico and Brazil, and we heard that you got standing ovations each night.
When we did one of our works in an indoor theater at Tokyo’s New National Theater (Nocturne, 2003), I didn’t really feel that we had done a completely successful job. But this time, despite the equipment problems we had and the less than perfect conditions, I think we had a clear aim in our “light and shadow” concept and we knew what points we wanted to achieve to make it work. I believe that is why it communicated well to the audiences. We made “shadow” the protagonist, and when we brought shadow to a climax with an eclipse of the Moon, the audience really appreciated the effect. Even though the prices of the tickets were quite high for young people in Mexico and Brazil, both were well received.

We hear that you did a workshop in Brazil as well.
Yes, but just for one day. The participants had watched some videos of Ishinha performances before we arrived. And it seems that the Brazilian theater scene is quite avant-garde, so we wanted to make it a workshop that they could enjoy doing. We tried to do a Jan-Jan Opera as a sort of Japanese-Portuguese jam session. We would say ohayo (good morning) in Japanese and have them answer “good morning” in Portuguese. It seems that there is not much formality in normal spoken Portuguese, so it was fun. We had them do some of the Ishinha steps and we were planning to finish the workshop up after about two hours, but they asked us to keep going for another hour after that. I felt that through the workshop, the Brazilians were trying to find out how Ishinha goes about creating a stage work Anyway, they were very interested and it was evident that really wanted to actually do the movements and everything we had to show them.

For us in Japan, Ishinha has an established image and reputation for your “outdoor theater” but when you go abroad does it have to become indoor theater?
If we had the extravagance of the amount of time it takes to do an outdoor work, I would certainly like to do it. But, in the end it is difficult enough just doing a production indoors in an existing theater. It may be that doing an outdoor work would heighten the tension for overseas audiences as well and make it worthwhile. Doing a performance in a theater gives the false impression that it can be done just as well in a theater, so if the conditions where made possible, I would definitely like to do outdoor productions overseas. But, those necessary “conditions” would be really tough to come up with. In fact, in 2008 there will be a “Celebration of the 100th Anniversary of Japanese Immigration to Brazil” in Santos and we have been asked if we would like to do an outdoor work at the Santo harbor. They want us to create a play about immigrants. Santos is the first place that Japanese immigrants landed in Brazil.

We hope you will definitely take that opportunity.
That would probably be the death of me (laughs). I didn’t have much time to walk around Santos, but what I could see from the bus was enough to bring tears to my eyes. There are ruins of the sections of town where the Japanese immigrants lived, probably a 19th century town. It was an emotional experience for me. That area is a slum now and a lot of the people there are probably illegal squatters, but you could feel some of its history, as if time had stopped. It was a powerful and moving thing for me. Some of the local staff who worked with Ishinha this time were of Japanese descent and have Japanese faces, but their hearts are purely Brazilian. The Japanese immigrants still have Japanese faces by inside they are purely Brazilian. There may be some kind of theory of the body and mind that could be explored here, but it is also a sad thing. The immigrant to Brazil have tried to save some of their Japanese culture by teaching their children Japanese, but by the third generation there is no way they can have any longing for the homeland left in them. And, while they are good at speaking Japanese, it is not the standard Japanese and it is hard to say what kind of Japanese it is. It is not their language either. I believe that language is culture, so their “unidentifiable Japanese” has a big reality gap to it.

But Santos is a town that can serve as a background and it is a town with a Japanese language and people of Japanese descent that will not be found anywhere else. It should offer the opportunity for a completely new development of Jan-Jan Opera. With all this going for it, don’t you think that Santos has got to be the site for your new outdoor theater work?
 
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