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Performing Arts Network Japan
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Artist Interview
Kazuki Nakashima's spectacles of manga and Kabuki and romance legends

Susanoh
1989
Playwright: Kazuki Nakashima
Director: Hidenori Inoue
© Village, Inc.

Blood Gets in Your Eyes (Ashurajo no Hitomi)
2000, 2003
Playwright: Kazuki Nakashima
s Director: Hidenori Inoue
Cast: Somegoro Ichikawa, etc.
Associated with Gekidan Shinkansen and Village, Inc.
© Shochiku Co., Ltd.

Aterui
2002
Playwright: Kazuki Nakashima
Director: Hidenori Inoue
Cast: Somegoro Ichikawa, etc.
Associated with Gekidan Shinkansen and Village, Inc.
© Shochiku Co., Ltd.
What was the first play you ever wrote?
It was a parody on Tennessee Williams titled The Case of the Crushed Manicure. The next was a parody on Ionesco’s The Lesson in which the tutor kill the daughter only to have another daughter appear, one after another.
At first I thought drama of the absurd was “proper theater” and that is why I wrote things like that. Although I had my doubts as to why, at the time high school plays tended to be rated higher if they difficult to understand rather than ones with clear, easy to understand stories. After that I was strongly moved by the works of Kohei Tsuka, such as Atami Satsujin Jiken (the Atami Murder Case) and Shokyu Kakumei Koza – Hiryuden (A Beginner’s Course in Revolution – Hiryuden), and influenced by this I wrote a few plays using that kind of sophisticated rhetoric.
However, after I began doing plays with Inoue, I realized that this wasn’t me and that I should write things I could really believe in. When I asked myself what I believed in, the answer was “manga-like action theater” or “movie-like action theater.” These were the things I had always been interested in, so I decided to try to bring manga-like or movie-like action to the stage. And that is what I have been doing ever since.

It is the kind of theater that the audience can see and understand, see and enjoy, isn’t it? What was your first play of this manga-like or movie-like style?
Inoue came to me and said that he wanted to do a play to the title of Hoshi no Ninja (1986). It was a kind of samurai action drama with ninja and in the end a girl who fell from the stars flies back to her home in the stars on wings of light. I told him I liked the story and asked him to let me write the play. Since I liked the saga novels of Futaro Yamada, I added some of that flavor and once I tried that I amazed myself at how easily the script poured out of me. I thought, “This is the kind of work I should be writing.” Then, the next work I wrote after that was Ashura-jo no Hitomi.

Ashura-jo no Hitomi has certainly had a long life as a popular work.
Yes. It still hasn’t changed the essence of itself since then. It was Inoue’s idea to have a story of a woman whose love for someone turns her into a demon. Well, how can I explain to it. The work is something that came to me like a revelation from the gods. It is like a gift from the gods to me. In contrast, I think that Dokuro-jo no Shichinin (Seven Souls in the Skull Castle) is my diamond in the rough. It is a work that I have been cutting and polishing for 14 years since its premiere. I am grateful, though, that I have two such different works at the core of my repertoire, my oeuvre.

In terms of its feeling, Dokuro-jo no Shichinin seems to be not as close to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai as it is to the John Sturgess western film The Magnificent Seven based on the Kurosawa classic. It is a quick-paced action drama set in the Period of Warring States (16th century) in eastern Japan with a man who appears like a transformation of Oda Nobunaga (the leader of the Dokuro alliance, Temmaoh) fighting against outlaws typified by the main character, Sutenosuke. This play was done in two versions (both on 2004), Akadokuro starring Arata Furuta and Aodokoro starring the Kabuki actor Ichikawa Somegoro, and like Ashura-jo no Hitomi and Aterui, it is a play that seems so naturally suited for kabuki actors. Have you long had an interest in kabuki?
No, I didn’t. But, reading books about Kabuki and researching it, I came to the conclusion that it was very close to what we were doing in Shinkansen. Like with Kabuki, we write for a specific actor, there will be jokes made during grand entrances and there will be audience-pleasing over-gesturing. So, if we are going to do period pieces, why not call it “Inoue Kabuki” (laughs). And now, the Inoue Kabuki we used to do in small theaters is being done in the big theaters with real Kabuki actors in the main roles. It just shows that it pays to continue doing what you do.

What I find so interesting about your plays is the hypotheses they put forth. The work Susanoo—Kami no Tsurugi no Monogatari (1989), which made your reputation early on, takes its main theme from an ancient Japanese myth and tells a story of newcomers to the Japanese isles and the indigenous peoples building a nation, with some fictitious parts worked in. It is interesting the way you have actual historic figures meet fictitious characters at some specific place in a certain period of history and then the story develops from there, like a chemical reaction or catabolic effect. In Ashura-jo no Hitomi, for instance, you bring together the Heian Period (10th century) figure Abeno Seimei and the Edo Period (18th century) popular novelist Tsuruya Namboku.
Since I was a child, I liked the romantic sagas of writers like Shiro Kunieda and Kyoji Shirai, although first it was Ryo Hanmura. In the 1990s I discovered Keiichiro Ryu, and his work was a real revelation for me. I got permission to do a play from his novel Yoshiwara Gomenjo (2005), because I was really moved by the way he depicted with such pride those people of the Yoshiwara red-light district who were normally discriminated against. I also like Futaro Yamada, but the underlying pessimism in his work goes against my nature somehow. Since I’m basically an optimist, I like to see people living with an optimistic approach to life. I feel that Yamaha and Ryu are like the front and back sides of a coin, the negative and the positive, and I personally am more attracted to the positive world of Ryu.

One of the constant themes in your works is ethnic minorities as opposed to Ryu’s discriminated groups. Could it be that your ethnic groups are like the people that used to be called demons? Aterui is a story about the rulers of the day and those who will not submit—in other words it is a story of a battle with demons (oni). However, what makes your stories different is that they do not end with the pessimism of the resistance, the defiant minority.
For me, the image of the demon (oni) is that of the indigenous peoples, but I don’t take them, the people who resist being conquered, as being in the right and therefore pitiable. I take a perspective in which it is a level playing ground with both sides—those in power and those resisting—being equal, and then I think about what kind of story I can develop from there. Of course, it is not enough for me that the story simply be interesting. That is where the battle between thematic integrity and entertainment value takes place.

Whether they are people in power or those who resist that power, there is no interest unless they are characters with real blood flowing in their veins. In other words, I guess it must be a question of the (strong) presence of the characters depicted, whether they are fictitious or real.
Yes, I think so. In the case of our Shinkansen company, we are involved in entertainment, so we have to provide works that the audience will feel satisfied after seeing. If a play ends with only a taste of pessimism remaining, what can you say? “Reality is hard.” That is a given. But we want people to come away from the theater saying, “That was really interesting, I enjoyed it.”

Would it be all right to call you “an entertainment artisan?” Both you and Mr. Inoue seem to have this same stance, and I believe that is why Shinkansen has become such a popular theater company that draws large audiences.
When we were young we did the kinds of riotous things that you can do when you are young, but if we forced ourselves to do that kind of thing now it would be empty and meaningless. In other words, both Inoue and I have continued to do what we feel to be true to ourselves, without clinging to the past. As a company playwright I will rewrite a work when there are new actors in the lead roles, and the sum total of all those efforts until now is our present state.
 
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