The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
Meet set creator Yuichiro Kanai, 4th-generation president of a Kabuki set production company and set designer for contemporary theater and new Kabuki
Then you returned to Kanai Scene Shop Co., Ltd. (Kanai Odogu) and began various activities there. Could you tell us something about the company itself?
    Kanai Scene Shop was founded in 1924 as the set making company for the Ichimura-za Kabuki theater when it recovered from the losses of the Great Kanto Earthquake (1923). Then it went on to establish itself as a maker of sets for traditional theater, including the Kabuki productions at the Meiji-za and Shinbashi Enbujo theater, the Shinpa (new style theater) production, the Shinkokugeki (modern commercial theater) production and the Shochiku New Comedy theater production.
    Then, when television stations began to be established in Japan about 50 years ago, the company began to become involved in producing event and television stages and sets, around the time when my father began to work at the company. Since the odogu (set making) profession existed until then only in theaters, the new television stations began to invite set makers from the theaters like Haiyu-za and Toho Stage Craft Co., Ltd. to come build sets for their TV programs. In fact, our company still gets many commissions for sets from TBS Television.
    In terms of organization, the company has three departments, a Theater Dept. that makes sets for theaters including the National Theater, Tokyo, the Shinbashi Enbujo and Mitsukoshi Theater, an Event Dept. handling fashion shows, exhibitions, theme park and contemporary theater and a Television related dept. that handles Television set. Now we have designers for each of these departments. The Event Dept. brings in about 50% of our revenue, and theater sets like Ninagawa director’s new kabuki NINAGAWA Twelfth Night stage are done by this department. Since the construction and methods of expression for Kabuki and other traditional sets are unique, contemporary theater sets are done separately from our Theater Dept. by our Event Dept. While my father was alive, he was the Theater Dept. designer and I was the Event Dept. designer. If I had specialized only in Kabuki like my father, the other pillar of our company would have been ignored and we might not have survived as a company. So, as far as Kabuki was concerned, I only worked on the overseas productions, which have totaled 15 until now.

Even for a respected odogu company like yours, then, you would not have survived had you concentrated only in traditional theater stage art and not expanded into the new areas of television and contemporary theater.
    Today, Kabuki is attracting large audiences again, but there was a hard time when it had less people. Trends are quick-changing these days and you have to expect cyclical changes. If you keep doing just the same thing, you will go down when the trends shift.

During your years at the company, what have you worked on specifically?
    The first project I worked on after coming back from the U.S. was the third play of Ennosuke Ichikawa’s “Super Kabuki” (a contemporary Kabuki series created by and starring Ennosuke Ichikawa III that actively introduced elements from Western opera, Peking opera the Japanese small theater scene, etc. Beginning with the first production, Yamaha Takeru in 1986, the series has extended to nine productions), which was Oguri (1991). One of Ennosuke’s aims was to nurture the next generation of young talent, and since I was just in my early 30s he encouraged me to design the set.
    The artistic concept of Ennosuke’s “Super Kabuki” was, above all, to surprise the audience. And since the audiences eyes are the most important, he believed that surprising them visually was the best way. That’s why with Oguri he said he wanted to try using mirrors, which had never been done before in Kabuki. Taking that idea, we discussed the possibilities. With regard to the stage devices, Ennosuke made numerous requests based on the standards of the plays he had done until then.
    In his “Super Kabuki” the script was completed a year before the scheduled opening performance. Normally, this amount of leeway is unthinkable, and it gave me plenty of time to work on the details. With the opening scheduled for the following March, I had the plans for the set and props finished by August, and that is when we entered rehearsals. Since the rehearsals are done using a set the actual size and dimensions, the actors also have a chance to fully work up their roles. And the budget we had was unthinkably large by today’s standards.

Even though that was in Japan’s economic “bubble” years when funds were plentiful, it still seems like the ideal way to do theater, doesn’t it?
    Yes. So I used what I had learned in America and was able to take plenty of time to design and make a large-scale set. With “Super Kabuki” I was able to experience ideal teamwork and working methods. The budget was huge compared to an average Kabuki production, so I was able to use a tremendous amount of real water on the set, employ wire work to fly the actors through the air and other special effects. And in that way we were truly able to surprise the audience with a set such as they had never seen in Kabuki before. And the costumes were extravagant, too.

What is different about the methods of expression used in “Super Kabuki” and those of regular Kabuki?
    With the exception of the traditional Kabuki acting methods and music used, Super Kabuki can be said to be closer to contemporary theater than to Kabuki in the traditional sense. As a Kabuki actor, Ennosuke always asked himself what kinds of things he would be doing if he were living and acting in the Edo Period. In fact, the people in the Edo Period were always seeking to do something new, so if you translated that spirit into the present with our technological advances, there would be nothing unusual about using mirrors or moving lights. Since the intent and the ideas are the same as in Edo Period Kabuki, so you can say with certainty that this is Kabuki. At the time when Ennosuke began his Super Kabuki there were apparently people inside and outside the Kabuki world who were criticizing him, saying that it was not Kabuki, but Ennosuke was steadfast in his commitment. The encounter with a Kabuki actor and director of such high ideals as Ennosuke was a thing of great importance for me. He is the one who brought me up as a designer.
    If I may branch off for a minute, I believe that the reason Broadway theater developed so dynamically is because most of the theaters have stages with no wings to speak of. Since there is no usable wing space, they had to improvise with their stage art and sets. Bigger and wider is not always in theaters. It is often the restrictions of the theater space that lead to creative ideas and progress. It was the same with Super Kabuki. The Shinbashi Enbujo is not such a big theater and that led everyone to take a trial and error approach in improvising new approaches and methods. Ennosuke’s achievement in breathing new life into the Kabuki world with his new approach is truly a great one. I believe that the aggressive new experiments being undertaken by Kabuki actors like Kanzaburo Nakamura XVIII and Kikunosuke Onoe V owe a lot to the pioneering efforts of Ennosuke’s Super Kabuki.

At the time the large number of people coming to see the performances were a major reason for the size of the budget Super Kabuki had, and although the era of the “bubble economy” was one with serious problems, it was also a valuable period, I believe, when it was alright to experiment and perhaps fail at times. Is there anything in particular that you learned at that time about stage art by working with Ennosuke?
    To begin with, stage art is not just a matter of putting up a beautiful design. The communication with the director, with the other artisans involved in the set-making and with the lighting technicians and the other staff is important. Working within the grand organization and production that was Ennosuke’s Super Kabuki, I learned first-hand that the set and the stage art can’t be successful without communication.
    Also, since the realization of theater comes only when it is seen by the audience, I realized that it is not a matter of desktop design based on the dogucho (notebook of set-making diagrams). This may sound like a criticism of Kabuki, but even though the dogucho is only a collection of well defined sketches of what a set design can be, to this day the pre-production planning sessions by the set-maker are conducted only with the dogucho for reference. In the Super Kabuki productions we used scale models of the sets in our meetings, as is the common practice in contemporary theater. Apparently that was the first time that Ennosuke saw the use of scale models in set design, but their use definitely led to new ideas. He said several times that scale models should be used from now on in Kabuki stage design.

Even if they don’t make a colored scale model, they always make at least a white study model in theater set design today. Is it true that in Kabuki they still only use the dogucho?
    It’s true. But when you are only referring to the dogucho you can’t see the relations between the parts of the set in terms of their position on the stage and you can’t even tell front from back in some cases. That’s why there is often confusion and arguments when a Kabuki set is being put together. The old dogucho are no more than diagrams for making the parts of a set, it is not stage art. It is a set of working drawings. The set maker looks at the dogucho and gets a rough idea and then assigns lengths to each part as he constructs the set, but looking at the dogucho alone will not tell you which parts are to be fully 3-dimensional and which are false-backed (only 3-dimensional on the side facing the audience). The dogucho was a viable resource due to the fact that the person drawing the dogucho and the set makers working from it shared the same understanding of what the finished set would be like in a traditional Kabuki context.
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