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
NINAGAWA Twelfth Night
Written by W. Shakespeare
Directed by Yukio Ninagawa
Photo: Yuichiro Kanai
NINAGAWA Twelfth Night
NINAGAWA Twelfth Night
NINAGAWA Twelfth Night
NINAGAWA Twelfth Night
Technical drawings of the 2009 production of NINAGAWA Twelfth Night (Written by W. Shakespeare / Directed by Yukio Ninagawa). It will be performed in London, Tokyo and Osaka in 2009.
© Kanai Scene Shop
NINAGAWA Twelfth Night
NINAGAWA Twelfth Night
NINAGAWA Twelfth Night
One can’t help but be impressed with the variety of works you have been involved in as a set designer since Super Kabuki as well.
    After my work on Super Kabuki a lot of offers came to me. And for Kanai Scene Shop as well, the range of set-making jobs we received has broadened, and from the design aspect, the number of non-traditional stage art we are asked to do has increased. Still, there was understandably a strong image of Kanai Scene Shop as a maker of Kabuki sets, and in terms of scene [backdrop] paintings, there was probably an image of us as a shop that could only do Kabuki style backgrounds. It is only in the last ten years that we have become established in the contemporary theater scene as well. A recently example is the set we did for Gekidan Shiki’s production of Phantom of the Opera.

One of the most noted works you have done recently is with director Yukio Ninagawa’s NINAGAWA Twelfth Night production in the New Kabuki style at the Kabuki-za theater.
    At the press conference announcing the start of production NINAGAWA Twelfth Night, Ninagawa said that he was putting me in charge of set design as someone who knew the Kabuki-za theater inside-out, but in fact I had never worked at the Kabuki-za. When I told him that afterwards he looked worried and said, “Hey, are you going to be all right?” (Laughs) In other words, for both Ninagawa and myself, it was our first attempt working at the Kabuki-za. And since I didn’t know the Kabuki-za theater, I was determined to work with abandon and see what I could do.
    Ninagawa’s request regarding the stage art was that it comply with the basics of Kabuki. He also said that he wanted to use mirrors. Those were his only two requests. However, the way I interpreted “the basics of Kabuki” was not simply using the conventions of Kabuki. My interpretation of “basics” was simply that it not feel odd or uncomfortable as Kabuki.
    Not only in Kabuki but in any kind of theater there is an element left to the imagination; that a wall that should be there cannot actually be seen, or that a wall can be seen even though it is physically impossible, that a painting on a flat backdrop depicts a scene that extends far into the distance while props on the stage represent the foreground. There are many conventions like this. And, since these are the only real rules that apply, I read the script and then made scale models for the sets of each of the 14 scenes. It may have actually been a benefit that I didn’t know the Kabuki-za, because I was able to bring in my models and CAD printouts and ask the set makers there, who until then had only worked from dogucho to build the set based on the models and CAD-generated working plans.

CAD-generated working plans may be easy to work from in the sense that they show scale and dimensions clearly, but they must also be a lot of work to make, because all of the details have to be drawn in. The dogucho tradition of the Kabuki world allows for individual expression by the set makers. For example, the makers have used their sense and experience to make slight variations in the size of props or set pieces based on the physical size of the actor or his preferences. But a CAD-generated working plan basically tells the maker to “make it exactly like this.” This makes it difficult to maintain that kind of flexibility. Didn’t your working method cause problems for the theater’s set makers?
    There was a lot of that. I heard them saying behind me, “What is this supposed to be”? (Laughs) But only the opaque paints used in Kabuki set-making and the set and props were basically the types that can be made by Kabuki set makers. The production process involved a lot of explanation.
    Still, I don’t think my father, who concentrated on Kabuki set design all his life, would have thought of an Art Nouveau transom arch, for example. And even for the most experienced of the old guard of Kabuki set makers mirrors are not a material that they know how to use. Although it is not in my realm, the lighting that Tamotsu Harada designed brought moving lights to the Kabuki-za for the first time, and 45 of them at that. That surprised even me. But after that the technicians at the Kabuki-za found them convenient and they are using moving lights regularly now. Performers like Tamasaburo are now using them in their regular performances.

In that sense you may have opened some eyes at Kabuki-za. And it is a good thing if the change is in positive directions.
    I believe it proved that the Kabuki odogu craftsmen and artisans had the ability to work from CAD generated images as well as the dogucho and the skills to create the set we designed.

You have also worked with Kanzaburo [Nakamura] and the contemporary theater director Kazuyoshi Kushida on the “Heisei Nakamura-za” project. The productions of this series of new-style Kabuki performed in specially constructed temporary theater facilities have become well established now and expanded into overseas performance in New York and other locations. In this age when it is normal to perform in existing theaters, it certainly seems very contemporary and cool to mount traditional theater performances in a temporary facility.
    At the time the Heisei Nakamura-za project started (2000), Kanzaburo had already begun his “Cocoon Kabuki” series at contemporary theater hall. Although he had broken out of the Kabuki-za with that new series, he still felt the constraints of working in an existing theater facility. He said that he wanted to do Kabuki someplace that didn’t have those constraints and to recreate the atmosphere of the small [often makeshift] Kabuki theaters of the Edo Period. He wanted to perform in his own theater facility, even if it was no more than a tent. At first he apparently imagined the venue would be something like a circus tent, but when he came to see the actual temporary theater facility when it was almost finished, he was surprised to see what an impressive facility it was.

That first oval-shaped tent facility truly was well constructed. How was that facility actually made?
    That temporary theater was not an attempt to faithfully reproduce the Nakamura-za theater as it was in the Edo Period. I designed the exterior and the interior to be what you might describe as a showpiece of the Heisei Nakamura-za project based on my own interpretations of nishiki-e (ukiyo-e) prints of the Nakamura-za from the Edo Period. The main structure of the building is a tent, but the front entrance was made as a fully decorated facade and all the interior parts were done as odogu set decoration. In that sense you could say that the entire Heisei Nakamura-za theater was one big set in the odogu style.
    I designed the temporary theater’s interior with the traditional sajikiseki (tatami seating areas) and rakanseki seating just like the Edo Period Kabuki theaters. The rakanseki are exclusive seats positioned over the stage side of the inside of the main curtain, so when the play ends and the curtains are drawn they still have a view of the stage. I also designed the seating throughout to be tight in terms of space in order to create the feeling of a “packed audience.” I also included daijinseki, which are equivalent to the “royal box” in an opera theater and positioned directly in front of the stage in a way that enables the traditional device of having the actors interact with its occupants during the play.

All that was certainly sufficient to give the atmosphere of the small Kabuki theaters of the Edo Period.
    In short, you have to have the three basic elements of the audience the actors and the building come together in order to create that kind of atmosphere. It is sort of like a traveling amusement park concept: if you have these basic elements, you can create a real Kabuki atmosphere anywhere, and that is the purpose of the Heisei Nakamura-za theater facility.

Are there any special stage devices built into it?
    It doesn’t have the rotating stage that is often used in Kabuki, but it does of course have the naraku (trap under-stage), the hanamichi (stage entrance runway through the audience seating area) and suppon (trap in the hanamichi with elevation mechanism for rising entrances). There is also the passageway under the hanamichi that enables actors who have exited over the hanamichi to return to the stage area unseen. In fact the stage surface is a full 2.3 meters above the ground and the audience area is also raised to allow for a passage under the hanamichi. That is why you climb a set of stairs to the audience area when entering the theater.
    And there is absolutely no stage wing area. That’s why the set sections that are not in use are just standing outside in the open, and the set changes are made during recess time between acts. So, if you go around to the side of the theater you can see part of the backstage and the set exposed, but we decided that it was OK. And we used exactly the same construction for it when we took the production to New York.

The 2004 performances in New York are still fresh in our memories. Was the entire set shipped to New York from Japan?
    The parts to construct the entire temporary theater were shipped from Japan. It took about a month by sea freight and filled about 30 shipping containers. And there were also some parts that couldn’t fit in the containers. But when the temporary theater was completed, it drew a lot of attention in New York and was written up in the New York Times, in the theater section as well as the home section.
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