The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
A glimpse of the
Kyogen theatre part II Kagami-kaja
Photo: Yuu Kamimaki
Kyogen theatre part III Kusabira
© Setagaya Public Theatre
Kyogen theatre part III Tsukimi-zato
© Setagaya Public Theatre
Kyogen theatre part III Akutaro
© Setagaya Public Theatre
In the traditional performing arts there is much importance placed what we call ichigo-ichie in Japanese, the importance of each performance as a unique encounter that will never happen again, in other words, the precious value of each moment. But in the modern theater world, the same actor is performing the same role every day at the same time, which is far from the traditional ichigo-ichie ideal. How do you personally resolve this difference?
In the traditional performing arts you have highly refined forms, or conventions, and by focusing your technique and your concentration on that form, you create the character. In the case of a new work, however, the refining process only starts from the first performance, and I believe that it will take some time for the roles to become refined. With a new work the forms have not yet been established, so there is bound to be some doubt and some discomfort as the actors try style A, style B and style C for acting out a character’s role and decide where to place emphasis. Right now we are still in that stage of seeking out our style and developing our characters.

And at the same time, the new work itself is also refined (matures).
That’s true. So, I have to build the framework that will shape this into the kind of play I am aiming at. If you create the framework from the beginning based on preconceptions you may have and try to fit the actors into that framework, it becomes difficult and confining for the actors. That is the kind of situation that creates a play with no “expansiveness” in terms of what the audience experience and fails to develop the kind of intellectual stimulation a play should have. On the other hand, when the framework is too loose, you can’t find the framework within which the other actors are working and thus you can’t see the desired points of contact. That makes it difficult for the actors to enjoy the play. We are still at the stage where we have to keep things open, but gradually we have to strengthen the framework by finding out where the loose points are.

It is said that you want to create a new form of Japanese performing art through a fusion of the traditional performing arts and contemporary theater. At this point in your efforts, what kind of new Japanese performing art do you envision?
Up until now I have proposed a concept of Japanese theater in a total, inclusive sense. With Kuninusubito this time, although this is just a beginning, I believe that I have put forward one such new form of theater. From now on I intend to work with an approach that is not restricted to the knowledge or methods of the Japanese traditional performing arts. For example, with regards to masks, I won’t say that Noh and Kyogen masks are the only type of mask I use, rather I will try to create new masks, perhaps by borrowing ideas from Commedia dell’Arte masks. You might say that it is like mixing soy sauce and mayonnaise to get a new flavor.

When speaking of a new form of “total theater” that draws from traditional Japanese performing arts, there are foreign precedents in France’s Theatre D’Soleil and in and Peter Brooke.
A friend of mine said that they are criticized as “fake Japon” locally (laughs). But I don’t think it is something to be criticized. I myself have been influenced quite a bit by Le Theatre du Soleil and in and Peter Brooke. And now, I would like people like Simon McBurney and Robert Lepage to see Kunimusubito and I want to continue to do works that I could show to these people. No matter if people call it fake or whatever, the people who pursue viable ideas with a passion are the winners in the end. Looking at this from another perspective, their actions are proof of the fact that Japan has a very rich tradition in the performing arts that has inspired artists of this level. It is good to see these foreign artists making use of these traditional arts, but at the same time it poses the question, “Why aren’t Japanese artists taking them and bringing them to the world stage?”
We are seeing approaches like that of Kanzaburo Nakamura taking his Kabuki overseas and performing in temporary theater facilities, and I am doing traditional works overseas performances too. But what I would like to do is to test the strength of Noh-Kyogen using the universal platform of Shakespeare.

Does that mean that you always have the international scene in mind when you do a new work?
Yes. The work Atsushi makes interesting use of a lot of Chinese characters, so I would like to try presenting it in the countries of Asia that use Chinese characters. I would also like people in the West see this work because it contains Chinese character-based culture that could never have developed in an alphabet-based culture.

Is the “total theater” that Brooke and Le Theatre du Soleil are striving for the same as the one you seek as an artist trained in the Kyogen tradition? Or are they different?
From an intellectual/spiritual perspective, I think that we Japanese are better at expressing a world of small containers, smaller situations, rather than larger ones. A small container can still be deep. So, rather than a big container like Shakespeare, we are better at handling smaller containers with tightly knit relationships such as those in my previous work Atsushi or the first contemporary theater work I ever directed, Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Yabu no Naka (In a Grove). But these works are heavy in the intellectual/spiritual aspect, so it is hard to make good entertainment of them. That is why I want to seek a kind of “total theater” that expresses the worlds of both large containers and small containers.
And if I were to add something to that, it would be the problem of my identity as one born into a family of Kyogen performers in the present day. I started out from the dilemma of why should I have to be performing Kyogen in the contemporary world and that has led to an ongoing questioning of my raison d'etre. In Machigai no Kyogen there are a pair of twins, and my starting point is the question, “What if there were two of me?” This new work Kuninusubito may be the first work in which I have been able to distance myself from that questions to some extent.
It may seem like a complete reverse of what I was saying earlier, using the methodology of Kyogen, even though it is a tradition far removed from the “modern self” of contemporary theater, turns out to be an opportunity for me to examine the “self.” For example, I think about what the reason is for us to make the effort to go to a theater to see a play. I believe that the theater is a place where we get a shared experience of things that are in the realm of the “public,” but in the end we bring that experience back to our self. So, in this sense the theater is a part of a process of circulation of thought in which we enter things at the public level and then bring them back to the private level and pursue it further to the level of identity. For that reason, I believe that theater should first of all offer an entrance point that everyone can share in, and not be a only a personal experience from the start.
I am not a member of the generation of ideology, so you will probably creating works with an intellectual theme intended to make a social statement. But I hope that back looking into myself and the question of how we perceive ourselves, I can create works that touch the hearts of individuals in a direct and moving way.
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