Born in 1942, Kazuyoshi Kushida is an actor and director. After studying in the Haiyu-za actor’s school, he joined the Bungaku-za theater company in 1965. The following year he joined with Makoto Sato, Ren Saito and Hideko Yoshida to form the company Jiyu Gekijo that would use the Underground Theater Jiyu Gekijo as its performance base. In 1975 the name was changed to On-Theater Jiyu Gekijo and Kushida continued to present a series of popular productions, such as Maboroshi no Suizokukan
(1976) and Motto Naite-yo Flapper
(1977) (written and directed by Kushida) and directing Ren Saito’s Shanghai Rhapsody
) (1979) and Cusco
(1982). From 1985 he began working in preparation for the opening of the Bunkamura Theater Cocoon from the architectural planning stage in the capacity of artistic director. With the opening of the theater in 1989, he signed a franchise agreement with On-Theater Jiyu Gekijo, which he also led, and introduced a repertoire system. Since then he has worked actively on behalf of Theater Cocoon, bringing such programs as an annual production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream
directed by different directors each year and initiating the “Cocoon Kabuki” series in collaboration with Kanzaburo Nakamura XVIII. The “Cocoon Kabuki” remains a popular ongoing series today. At the conclusion of his term as artistic director of Theater Cocoon in 1996, Kushida also dissolved the company On-Theater Jiyu Gekijo. Since 2000, he has served as a professor of the Arts Dept, of Nihon University, and since April 2003 he has served as artistic and administrative director of the Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre. In 2006, he won the Outstanding Director Award of the 14th Yomiuri Drama Grand Prix for Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan–Kita version
, the seventh production of the Cocoon Kabuki series.
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This is a series of Kabuki productions mounted at a pace of about one a year at the Bunkamura Theater Cocoon in the Shibuya district of Tokyo. The series began with the cooperation of Kazuyoshi Kushida and other in 1994 out of the desire of Kanzaburo Nakamura XVIII to bring Kabuki performances to a younger audience in the young culture center of Shibuya. The series is known for its innovative productions of Kabuki full of new ideas and bringing together the Kabuki actors and musicians led by Kanzaburo, the contemporary theater actor Takashi Sasano and the electronic music performer Naoyuki Asahina. The Kabuki plays performed in this series until now include Tokaido Yotsuya Kwaidan
, Natsumatsuri Naniwakagami
, Kamikakete Sangotaisetsu
, Sannin Kichisa
. The series increases the number of Kabuki fans with every production.
This is a project initiated in 2000 by Kanzaburo Nakamura XVIII that uses temporary outdoor theaters in an attempt to recreate in the present Heisei Period the kind of atmosphere of the small, intimate Kabuki theaters of old like the Nakamura-za of the Edo Period. Until now this series has presented traditional Kabuki play including Yoshitsune Senbonzakura
, Kagamiyama Gonichi no Iwafuji
, Benten Musume Meo no Shiranami
, Honcho Nijushiko
, Ninjobanashi Bunshichi Mottoi
, all in contemporary versions directed by the contemporary theater director Kazuyoshi Kushida. The first overseas performance of this series was held in a temporary outdoor theater set up in the square in front of the Lincoln Center in New York in 2004, recreating the same facility that had been used for the in a Tokyo performance on the banks of the Sumida River. More Heisei Nakamura-za performances are scheduled for New York in 2007 and Europe in 2008.
Bunkamura is a comprehensive private-sector culture facility run by the Tokyu Group that opened in 1989. Located in the popular Shibuya center of Tokyo, the facility has a 2150-seat Orchard Hall, the 747-seat Theater Cocoon, an art gallery and movie theater, and it continues to be a center for the production and performance of new works in the performing arts. Kazuyoshi Kushida was the first artistic director (1989-96). The present artistic director is Yukio Ninagawa, making Theater Cocoon the venue for the premieres of Ninagawa’s new works, as well as being the venue for works by various other leading playwrights and directors from Japan’s theater scene. In this capacity, it is often the site of noted productions cast with leading actors from the movie and television world.
Shochiku is a private sector entertainment company established in 1895 and involved today in the distribution of movies and production and marketing of Kabuki as well as “New Theater” and “Shochiku New Comedy” plays. The head offices are in Chuo-ku, Tokyo. It operates theaters including the Kabuki-za and the Shinbashi Enbujo in Tokyo and the Osaka Shochiku-za.
This is a theater company started by Juro Kara in 1963. From 1967 the company mounted outdoor tent productions around the country under the name “Aka Tent” (Red Tent), beginning with the 1967 performance at the Shinjuku Hanazono Shrine. In these activities, the company led the first generation of underground small-theater drama. The company disbanded in 1988 and succeeded by the present company “Kara-gumi.”
|Kazuyoshi Kushida has won acclaim recently for his work with Kanzaburo Nakamura XVIII directing the “Heisei Nakamura-za” and productions of the Bunkamura Theater Cocoon Kabuki series. Kushida has been a leader among the first generation of Japan’s “small theater movement” for 30 years. In this interview we talk with this pioneer among theater artistic directors who has continued to be a commanding presence through the decades with his highly-developed theatrical sensibility and his exceptional ability to develop a rapport with the audience.
(Interviewer: Akihiko Senda)
You have been the leader of the Jiyu Gekijo (Theatre Libre) (changed its name later to On-Theater Jiyu Gekijo.; 1966-1996) that led Japan’s small-theater movement and produced many talented theater people since its founding in the 1960s, and you have been active as a writer, director and actor. You were also involved from the planning stage in the Bunkamura culture facility that opened in the Shibuya district of Tokyo in 1989 and served as its first artistic director of the Theater Cocoon. And in 2003, you were chosen to serve as the artistic and facility director of the “Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre” in Nagano Prefecture from 2003. In these ways, you have always been at the forefront of your profession.
Especially important in your work since the 1990s is the fact that you became the first contemporary theater director to direct Kabuki actors with the “Heisei Nakamura-ya” productions of the Bunkamura Cocoon Kabuki series. This was a revolutionary development that freed Kabuki from the traditional conventions of its staging and re-thought the staging from a contemporary perspective. I would like to take this as a starting point and ask you how it happened that you came to do the “Cocoon Kabuki” at Theater Cocoon, which is not a specialized Kabuki theater by any means.
When I was artistic director of Theater Cocoon, Nobuyuki Onuma of Shochiku [the company that owns kabuki production rights] came to me and asked if it would be possible to do a Kabuki production at our theater. At that time I thought he had in mind the kind of Kabuki productions that had formerly been mounted at the then x Toyoko Theater (1943-71) in the same Shibuya district of Tokyo, in which case I thought it would not really be suitable for our theater.
In fact, since I was young I had been interested in the idea that the small Kabuki theaters (Kabuki koya) we see in old paintings and books represented a completely different kind of theater space from that which became established in the West in the modern period. Theater Cocoon is a modern ferro-concrete theater building but when we were designing it, I had in mind elements that were similar to the old Kabuki theaters and I talked at length with the architects about the possibilities of introducing such elements.
The modern theater is designed so that the audience can sit back and quietly watch the finished production that is presented on the stage, and the ideal is that the stage be equally visible from all the seats in the theater. However, the small Kabuki koya theaters were spaces that put the audience together and also gave them a good view each other. That kind of atmosphere created interaction between the members of the audience that might result in fights sometimes or comments about some good-looking woman across the way. And it was a good atmosphere for the audience to enjoy the breaks between acts. So, at the design meetings with the architects I brought up the idea that we consider the merits of that kind of theater environment once again.
Shochiku’s Mr. Onuma may have gotten word of these aspects of Theater Cocoon. So, I thought that if that was the kind of effect they were after, I would be glad to work with them. Then I immediately thought of Kankuro (now Kanzaburo XVIII) Nakamura, who at the time was doing performances in the old Edo Period Kanamaru-za theater in Shikoku, and I went to talk with him abut it. When we met he happily showed me around the backstage area of Kanamaru-za theater. He had come to see my production of Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera at Theater Cocoon and looked around the theater at that time. So, I thought that this was a person I could work with, a person with a similar orientation. That is how we came to work together.
It may seem that Brecht is completely different from Kabuki, but there are similarities in the aim of becoming one with the audience and going beyond the purely intellectual aspects to create theater that goes back and forth between the stage and the audience area and the kind of koya (small theater space) that makes that interplay easier to achieve.
Kanzaburo writes in his book that he was deeply impressed and moved when he saw the tent performances of the Juro Kara’s Jokyo Gekijo company when he was in high school in the 1970s. The almost bawdy, energetically charged theatrical space he saw there made him think that early Kabuki must have been like that and that someday he would like to do that kind of Kabuki. He says that is the idea that led to the new Theater Cocoon Kabuki. In that sense, you can say that Kanzaburo had the desire to come closer to contemporary theater, while I think that you had the desire to approach Kabuki from the standpoint of contemporary theater. I feel that those two desires came together in a very fortunate union.
Yes. The fact that a person like Kanzaburo has emerged from the Kabuki world and the fact that in the past Kabuki actors have acted in contemporary theater indicate that there are some parts of the traditional techniques of Kabuki that must be used in the staging of Kabuki and some that may not be necessary. For that reason it may be possible for the boundaries between Kabuki and contemporary theater can be skillfully broken down. It will not be easy, however.
Traditionally there is no such thing as a director in Kabuki, and the necessary decisions are made by the leading actor, known as the zagashira. And, while there are times that a director will be involved in productions of New Kabuki, they don’t really change the traditional Kabuki style. In that sense, it was really a revolutionary thing when you first directed Kabuki. Did you encounter any resistance from any of the actors?
In that point, Kanzaburo acted as a buffer for me and told the other actors, “Let’s do as the director says.” Of course, I believe that there still must be some reluctance and conflict. If you think about it, it can’t be easy for people to change things that they have been seeing since they were children. For instance, if you are suddenly told to write with your left hand instead of your right, it may be an interesting thought, but your left hand just doesn’t know how to move that way (laughs). That is how deeply the style is set in their bodies.
So, it is easier to do things from the Kabuki repertoire that aren’t performed that frequently, like Sakura Hime or Kamikakete Sango Taisetsu, but ones that are performed often like Sannin Kichisa the lines and actions come out almost automatically and the bodies naturally take the same positions. I’m sure it is really hard for Kabuki actors trying to change things that deeply engrained in their bodies.
When you direct Kabuki, what is your approach?
First, I read the original and try to imagine the atmosphere that is behind the story, so that I can begin to get an interpretation of my own. Then I make proposals about the psychological orientation of the characters in the story. For example, in Sannin Kichisa (The Three Kichisa) I proposed that the Obo Kichisa (young ronin Kichisa) is the son of a respectable samurai, and although he tries his best to act like a bad guy, he has never killed a person yet and, in fact, inside he is actually scared. Based on that idea, in the scene where Denkichi tries to get back big sum of stolen money from Obo Kichisa and threatens him with the blustering words, “I used to be a hoodlum,” as he draws near, I had Obo Kichisa jump back in fear and bump into a wall. After that, when Obo Kichisa finally kills Denkichi with his sword, I had him gasping for breath. It is an unseemly, un-heroic image he presents. In Kabuki, it seems to be a rule that they never let the nimaime (handsome young romantic lead actor) show such an un-cool self. In every play the nimaime has to always appear cool and nonchalant. How can you have him gasping for breath! (Laughs) But to me the gasping man is more appealing, and it is easier to identify with such a character who may have just killed for the first time, don’t you think?
Another thing I do is to try to do is present devices that would surely have delighted anyone back in the Edo Period—be it the playwrights Mokuami or Nanboku or the audience—if a [director] like me had been living then. For example, in the scene where the testimony paper is burned, a drawing picture of flame on the end of a stick is brought near the paper and at the moment the flame touches the paper it is flipped to the back side, which is painted with a picture of a burning paper. When I ask Kanzaburo if an idea like that doesn’t sound Kabuki-ish, he says it is and likes the idea. But it is the kind of idea that seems like it had been used since the Edo Period, so the audience doesn’t realize that it is actually a new device (laughs).
For Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan–Kita version I used about twenty actors dressed in sea blue to portray the water of a moat and had them swat their bodies to get the effect of waves on the water. This isn’t something that they do at the Kabuki-za, but don’t you think it is the kind of device that the people in the Edo Period might have thought of? It is the kind of thing that they do in mass-game events, so it isn’t really strange that people would be used to portray the effect of water in a moat.
In the end, what I think I am trying to do in directing Kabuki is not to read all the literature and become a Kabuki otaku but to propose things based on my own theater experience that I think will be enjoyable.
One thing that surprised me was that the innovative things you did early on in your Kabuki productions, like giving the characters more reality as human beings, were not well received by many people who knew Kabuki, especially the theater critics. I am not really familiar with Kabuki, so it seemed to me that people should appreciate the positive aspects of the new things you were doing but instead they stressed the negative and it made me feel that their outlook was rather narrow-minded.
I think that being unfamiliar, being less than an expert, is very important if you are going to try to do something new. I tend to go into things without specialized knowledge, and I make it a point not to acquire more knowledge than I need to execute my idea. I try to keep myself ignorant of specialized knowledge. If you don’t, you end up making it a play that tries to show off all your knowledge. We are creators, and there is a range of knowledge that it is better for creators not to know. And there are cases where, even if you do have certain knowledge, it is better to hide the fact that you do. What’s more, people who are used to watching Kabuki often talk about the kata (forms of the Kabuki acting), but in the Edo Period those forms were probably not as standardized and stylized as they are today. Especially in the late Edo Period when actors like Ichikawa Kodanji IV were working with Mokuami, there was probably a lot of realism to the plays and the acting. If you think about it, they were doing new works, newly written plays all the time, and in a new play there are no kata, so the actors would have to rely on their own feelings and thoughts to develop a character’s actions. In a scene of anger and frustration they would bite on a towel or a sleeve hard and pull on it as a gesture of frustration, but by the time of the original actor’s great grandson, it would not be a question of what to bite on but you would already have it formalized into specific kata like, “Your great grandfather used to bite on this portion of the sleeve.” So, when I propose new psychological elements in the characters, it is not necessarily just with the aim of doing something new but, rather, it is an attempt to read back into the play some of the things that have been forgotten during this period when things were being transformed into predetermined kata.