The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
A glimpse of the
Written by Yasunari Takahashi, directed by Mansaku Nomura, premiere: 1991

Based on Shakespeare’s The Merry wives of Windsor and adapted for performance by the Kyogen company Mansaku no Kai as the first play of its creative Kyogen Shakespeare theater project. Performed to acclaim in Japan as well as in London, Hong Kong, Adelaide and other foreign cities.

Machigai no Kyogen (Kyogen of Errors)
Written by Yasunari Takahashi, directed by Mansai Nomura, premiere: 2001

Based on Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors and adapted for Kyogen performance. Shakespeare’s script was translated into the unique language of Kyogen and set to Kyogen forms of physical expression and performed exclusively by men (Kyogen company Mansaku no Kai). Kyogen masks were used in this comical presentation of the adventures of a pair of twins involved in a mix-up of identities. It was performed in the Globe Theatre of London in 2001 and revived later in numerous overseas performances to high acclaim.
Machigai no Kyogen
Machigai no Kyogen
Photo: Jun Ishikawa

Atsushi – Sangetsuki, Meijinden
By Atsushi Nakajima, directed by Mansai Nomura, premiere: 2005

Composed from parts of the two novels Sangetsuki and Meijinden by Atsushi Nakajima (1909-42), this was the first play to be directed by Mansai Nomura after taking the post of artistic director of the Setagaya Public Theatre. This work brought to the stage the richly poetic world created by the use of Chinese-style literature in the novels of Atsushi Nakajima while interspersing elements from the author’s short 33-year life. The staging uses a rich combination of Noh and Kyogen style chant and musical accompaniment. Attention also focused on the performances for some of the brightest young stars of the traditional Japanese music world, Hirotada Kamei on the otsuzumi drum and Dosan Fujiwara on the shakuhachi flute.
Photo: Katsu Miyauchi
One of the key roles in that production was Kayoko Shiraishi, who acts the parts of all of the four women who are involved with Akusaburo (Richard III) in the play. Where did this idea come from?
The late Yasunari Takahashi, who wrote Machigai no Kyogen for us once said that in the future, if we do Richard III, something will have to be done with the women’s roles. So, I talked with Mr. Kawai about what we should do with the women’s roles. I have always thought that the female characters in Shakespeare’s play are weaker in terms of character development than the males and that they leave less of an impression at first reading. For example, the character Anne, who eventually marries Richard, the man who killed her husband, is a character embodying innocence. However, seen from another perspective, doesn’t she do this because that is the only way for her to live, which is in fact makes her a symbol of the weak social status of women and their hopelessness? That may be why they become the sad victims of Akusaburo tossed on the waves of fortune.
So, as Shakespeare himself may be suggesting, we decided to reverse things and make all four women a single character in effect by having one actress do all four parts. In this way, we had them stand opposite Akusaburo as a form of conglomerate “woman figure.” And, that decided, I felt that only Kayoko Shiraishi, who is a veteran, powerful actress, could play that role. However, as the one playing Akusaburo, I can tell you that it was very exhausting. I couldn’t let down my guard for a moment, and it took a lot of strength to try to win her over (laughs).

The scene where Akusaburo (Richard III) and Anne meet for the first time was very interesting.
I didn’t really expect the audience to laugh that much. I thought that was a place where we didn’t want to show pity for Anne, who had suffered the loss of her husband (Edward) and her father-in-law (Henry VI), both killed by Richard. In the original Shakespeare, this is a scene where the grieving Anne comes out walking behind her father-in-law’s coffin and rebukes Richard. I believe that is meant to express her distress and grief at having lost her social status, but that is something that is difficult to understand in the modern context. So we changed to a scene where it is her husband’s coffin that is brought out and have Anne grieving her lost husband.
Anne was still in her teens when she was married and still knows little of the world, and although she is still young with her life to lead, she is already a widow. So I wanted to make it a situation where she is being asked to choose between her now dead and mute husband and the persuasive Akusaburo. That is why the scene is staged as it was and I believe that communicated well to the audience.

The set was similar to a Noh theater stage. Was that something that you insisted on?
No. That was the idea of the stage designer. Because this is a play where a lot of different set requirements are necessary for each scene, so I asked that the set be a simple one of an abstract nature.
Since Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed in the Globe Theatre with its round empty stage resembling a town square, I thought it would be best to stage this play with a simple, abstract sort of stage space. I believe that one of the reasons Shakespeare and Noh-Kyogen go so well together is that the stage space of the Globe and the Noh stage are quite similar. When we performed Machigai no Kyogen at the Globe Theatre in London, I remember feeling that we, who were used to performing on the Noh stage and know how to use it so well, knew the structure of the naked stage space more thoroughly than the British theater staff, and I felt that our methods were better suited to performing on that type of naked stage.

Watching Kuninusubito, I felt that there were many parts where you used traditional methods. And when I say the traditional I mean not only the Kyogen art that is your field but also, for example the scene where the war banners are brought out, which reminded me of classical Chinese Opera, and I also felt something of the style of the traditional Italian mask comedy theater, Commedia dell’Arte, in the style of entrances and exits.
I am very glad that you saw it that way. We also used Kabuki musical accompaniment (hayashi) and elements of ancient Japanese gagaku music, and for the shadow figure I used a Kabuki kuroko wearing a Commedia dell’Arte mask. Although there wasn’t much of it this time, I often use the silhouette play technique in my staging, and it may have the appearance of Wayang Kulit.

In other words, when you speak of a “Fusion of the Traditional and the Contemporary” your “traditional” doesn’t mean only Kyogen?
When I did Horazamurai (based on The Merry Wives of Windsor) in 1991 and Machigai no Kyogen in 2001, they were trial-and-error attempts to see how close Shakespeare and Kyogen could come to each other as a “Fusion of Kyogen and Shakespeare.”
However, Kuninusubito is approached in a completely different way. I am including not only Kyogen and other Japanese traditional theater arts but also the essences of a variety of different performing arts. When it comes to a difficult play like Richard III, I have to think of a wider range of effective methods than those provided only by Kyogen. Down to the smallest folding fan, I think about and use anything that I find effective, and even among the Japanese traditional tools, I may have a [horizontal] bamboo flute used like a [vertical] shakuhachi flute and have it played in a gagaku style. I believe that we have to use everything within our means in the broadest, most expressive ways possible. And isn’t that really the essence of modern Japan?

Concerning the music, I wondered why you didn’t use the 4-instrument Noh style from the beginning.
As the late Yasunari Takahashi said, I believe that if you take the large tree of Shakespeare as a premise and then take the small receptacle of Kyogen and fill it artfully like a Japanese bonsai potted tree, it will be successful for achieving a Kyogen-like aesthetic. In the case of Machigai no Kyogen, I feel that we were successful in fitting the bonsai nicely into the potting tray of Kyogen.
However, with Richard III you have a difficult work that is hard to grasp completely, even in the original, and even people who know the historical premise of the War of the Roses will have a hard time fitting it all into the container. So, if you cut the script back and abstract the essence and force it into the 4-beat style of Noh, it would certainly take much of the interest out of the complex and, in a sense, aggressively meaningful Shakespeare original.
In short, if you were to try to make a modern Noh play (new work) out of Richard III, you would have the ghost of Richard coming out on stage and reciting a history of who he had killed and who those people had killed and then be consumed by the fires of Hell. That wouldn’t be doing justice to the full material of Richard III. That is why I wanted to take it out of the framework of Noh-Kyogen and make full use of the techniques of larger theater traditions that many more people are familiar with, including Kabuki, Commedia dell’Arte and classical Chinese Opera, in order to create a play with a different flavor from anything done before. That is because Shakespeare is so large and vociferous and full of meaning.

It sounds like you used all of your theatrical experience until now and virtually put all your cards on the table at once (laughs).
That’s right. I have been told it was like having the entire toy box dumped out on the floor (laughs).
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