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
Heisei Nakamura-za
(Osaka, 2002)
Photo: Yuichiro Kanai / © Shochiku
Heisei Nakamura-za
(New York, 2004)
Photo: Yuichiro Kanai / © Shochiku
This year another Heisei Nakamura-za has been set up in the square behind the main hall of the Senso-ji temple in Tokyo’s Asakusa district for two months of performances in October and November. I have heard that it is a completely new facility this time. How is it different?
    Including the New York performances, this is the sixth time that we have built a temporary theater for the Heisei Nakamura-za series, and although it may not look much different from the outside, we have made changes in the design to accommodate the fact that we have only three weeks to put it up instead of a month. Changes were made construction process mainly to improve efficiency. For example, sections that were bolted together with ten bolts in the former design were re-designed to get the same strength with just five bolts.

Where there any stage art plans that were made possible specifically because it is a temporary structure?
    The stage art plans have been done by director Kazuyoshi Kushida, and in plays like Kagamiyama he was able to use a large water trough on stage because under the stage is just dirt, so it didn’t matter if there was a lot of spillage. Kanzaburo’s policy has been that any stage art is OK with the actors as long as it helps realize Kushida’s concepts. Of course, this was also true with Kikugoro and Kikunosuke in NINAGAWA Twelfth Night as well, and in both cases the actors’ stance is that as long as there is a director, the stage art should all be left up to the director.

Normally, in Kabuki there is no director, so the set designers work with the [lead] actors when building the set and we are told that it is a working relationship which requires the set designer to know all the preferences and peculiarities of each actor. If that working relationship is with the director rather than the actors in productions like Heisei Nakamura-za and Ninagawa’s NINAGAWA Twelfth Night, then it is really no different than contemporary theater for you, is it?
    That’s right. As stage designer, I am not being told anything directly by the actors. If there is something that comes up, the consultations are with the director. And when things come up it is not in the realm of design but about the acting or cues. But the actors and staff know very well that this way of creating the set and stage art is completely different from the methods of Kabuki. Personally, I have never once had that experience of working with the actors to design a set in the traditional Kabuki way. I have worked with Ennosuke Ichikawa and Koshiro Matsumoto IX but both of them were working as directors rather than actors in the traditional sense in those productions.

Listening to these comments, I find myself being surprised by the flexibility of these Kabuki actors. Until now, I tended to have an image of Kabuki actors as artists who held more strictly to the traditions of Kabuki. Do you think this flexibility is representative of the recent trend in Kabuki as a whole?
    In the past, actors probably said that if there is no hanamichi you can’t do Kabuki. But in overseas performances there will be theaters where it is just not possible to put in a hanamichi. When Danjuro did Kanjincho at the Paris Opera House there was no hanamichi. It must feel very awkward for the actors not to be able to use the hanamichi for their entrances and exits, but when it wasn’t possible they accepted it and simply said, “Well, it can’t be helped.”

In a play like Kanjincho where the hanamichi plays an important role in the climactic scene, you would think that the actors would say “No way!” about doing a production without it. The fact that they simply said, “Well, it can’t be helped,” must mean that there has been a big change in their ways of thinking. Now that your father Shunichiro Kanai as passed away, don’t you feel that the time has come for you to begin working on traditional Kabuki set design seriously? Do you intend to do that?
    I don’t have any worries in that area because the person who worked with my father for many years in our company’s Theater Dept. has taken over my father’s position as Kabuki set designer, but I do have the feeling that I would like to work on the sets of new Kabuki [newly written works for Kabuki] plays. But I imagine producers would fear that if they asked me to design a set they would end of having their theater turned inside out (laughs).

Theater technical people like myself have been taught originally that there are no rules about how a theater should be used.
    That is the way I feel too. I believe that in one sense a theater is an expendable property. When we did Super Kabuki at the Shinbashi Enbujo theater, I had them take a saw and cut off the daijin-gakoi (used as rigging poles), which was a permanent fixture of the theater but got in the way of the lighting for our production. Since then, it has been replaced with a box that is detachable, but at the time no one [in the Kabuki world] would have considered tearing the poles like that. And there are many people who don’t approve of the theater being used in that way.

Even though you have not always been watching Kabuki professionally, I know that you have seen a lot of the traditional Kabuki stages that has been over the centuries. Are there any aspects of traditional Kabuki style that you believe contemporary theater could learn from?
    I don’t believe that there is any particular need for contemporary theater to learn from Kabuki. There are unique and imaginative designs in the Kabuki stage art tradition that might be interesting for contemporary theater to imitate, but in the end, every staging of a specific play has its own necessary design elements, necessary stage devices and necessary spaces.
    Of course, I am not saying that there is nothing worth learning from Kabuki. Kabuki has its own unique stylizations and conventions and excellent theatrical know-how that has been handed down. If some contemporary theater director came to us and said they wanted to use a design from the traditional Kabuki set design dogucho collection at Kanai Scene Shop, I would gladly give them the materials and information they want. There are some people who might not be of the same opinion, but I believe that these traditional designs belong to us all, not any one person or company. And I don’t think that copying an isolated detail or two can qualify as an infringement of copyrights, and therefore there is no need to prohibit it. I would be pleased to have these things be used as a source of inspiration, but since the image rights do belong to our company, I would ask that they print the proper credits for their use.

You mentioned earlier that you would like to work on a variety of new works. By that do you mean that with regard to Kabuki as well you want to do works in a completely new style without referring to the old dogucho designs? Are there any real possibilities of that happening?
    [Director] Kushida has already begun doing that. His productions of Natsu Matsuri Naniwa Kagami and Sannin Kichisa in the Cocoon Kabuki series were done with completely new stage art. As is done with opera and other types of theater, I believe that it is all right to do Kabuki with completely new lighting, sets and costumes defined by the director’s stage plans. There are many good plays in the traditional Kabuki repertoire, and I believe that many new productions could be made with them.

You believe that there are many plays that could be brought to life anew by employing the power of stage art?
    Not just with regard to the Kabuki repertoire, but also from Japan’s Shinpa and Shinkokugeki, there are many good scripts and I don’t believe that they have to be done with old style stage art just because they are old plays.
    I think there are many people who have a misunderstanding about what it means to uphold a tradition. Any efforts to uphold a tradition in the performing art are meaningless if you are not attracting an audience for it. Theater is not something that can be preserved like arts and crafts or tangible cultural assets. Trying to preserve theater only for your own sake is meaningless.
    This is something that I often say at the company too: the funds to design and build stage art come from the audience. The audience are the ones who pay the salaries that enable us to work. If we don’t think seriously about what we are preserving the tradition for, we will end up simply becoming conservative. If you don’t understand this point, you will end up preserving the tradition in the wrong way. The job of upholding a tradition and the process of becoming conservative lie on two completely different vectors, I believe.

In other words, you believe that it is meaningless if it only ends up as nostalgia. And if people come to see Heisei Nakamura-za simply because they think they will see something new, that will also lead to nothing. You should at least show that Kabuki is still evolving. Is that it?
    The actors are changing and so are the directors, so I believe that it is an obvious truth that the theaters and the stage art have to change too.
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