The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
The unique appeal of old playhouses   Links to Edo Period theater culture
The unique appeal of old playhouses   Links to Edo Period theater culture
In the Yachiyoza restoration, when you replaced some of the floorboards that were in bad condition, you installed the new boards so they stuck up just a bit higher than the old boards. I hear that this was deliberate, so that as the boards shrunk in several years time they would be on the same level as the other boards and the floor would be flat again. I also heard that the color of the lacquer and the wall plaster when it is applied in the restoration is not the final intended color but a color calculated to reach the final desired color several years of aging.
In that sense, our calculations in restoration work are based on what state we want the building to be in after five to ten years of maturing. The railings in Yachiyoza are a beautiful red lacquer, but lacquer is a material that gradually becomes brighter in color after several years of oxidation through exposure to the air. If we were to finish them in a bright red from the beginning, it would become an unpleasing, ostentatious red after five or six years. In the case of floor boarding as well, if you replace just one board, it will stand out as overly white compared to the rest of the weathered ones. In such a case we use a technique called weathered color finish to make it match the other older boards better. What we do to get that one board to match the color of the boards that have been polished by the feet of people walking on it for 90 years? Today’s paints deteriorate with time, so what we ended up doing was just to rub in a thin gray coating of sumi ink and then put on a layer of persimmon tannin. If it is walked on for 10 years, the oil from people’s feet will permeate the wood and I believe that will make it the same color as the surrounding floor boards.

So, if we walk around on the floors of the Yachiyoza, the oil from our feet will be helping the building mature? That is a nice thought. We will be participating in the maturation of a building that has been around for 100 years.
That’s right. I’m making use of the audience and the actors to get the color I want (laughs). Buildings mature and change with age. A ferroconcrete building only deteriorates over time, but wood matures and gets better with age.

For the restoration, an external “false roof” was first constructed over the entire building. Since Yachiyoza is a tourist attraction in the hot spring spa resort town of Yamaga, there must have been a lot of requests from the local town concerning the restoration project and how it was carried out.
There was a very strong request that we not make Yachiyoza a museum piece but make it a functioning theater that could continue to be used commercially. When the Kanamaruza was restored in the early 1970s as an Important Cultural Asset, no one was thinking of using it as a playhouse, much less for commercial productions with a full audience. So, we added four steel pillars in the audience seating area as an anti-earthquake measure. But then, Kabuki actor Kichiemon Nakamura and Tojuro Sawamura said they wanted to perform there. That led to the three-day “Konpira Kabuki” performances in 1985.

Those performances were very popular and each year the number of performance days grew. The success of Konpira Kabuki had a big effect, prompting efforts to revive run-down old playhouses all around the country. It resulted in a succession of citizen movements to preserve and revive these buildings.
The approach gradually shifted from one of simply preserving cultural assets to include the importance of actually using these buildings. With the Yachiyoza we added strengthening members to the structure such as support pillars, increased the anti-earthquake strength of the walls and floors and other measures to increase the safety of the building. In addition, since old playhouses had no modern lighting or sound systems whatsoever, we took measures to run necessary cables under the flooring or through attic where they would not be seen in order to enable operation as a modern theater facility. We also added fire alarm and emergency exit lighting systems.
 In using buildings like these, I believe there are twp aspects to consider. One is “convenience and enjoyment” and the other is “safety.” Safety is something that is absolutely necessary, but when we consider what convenience involves, it brings up a number of possibilities. For example, even though some things might appear inconvenient by today’s standards, getting people to experience the way these theaters were used in the past by the actors and by the audience can be important, because it helps people understand what the enjoyment of theater was like in the old days. I believe that is the real way to enjoy an old playhouse. As I was working on the restoration, I was imagining the older people would enjoy the nostalgia of sitting in the tatami masu-seki of the ground floor seating area and younger people would choose to sit on the chairs in the surrounding semi-balcony sections. But, when the theater actually opened, it turned out that young people were enjoying the option of sitting in the masu-seki. The old ways have a special appeal for contemporary people.

During the Yachiyoza restoration you opened the construction site to the public. Can this be seen as a way of putting cultural assets to use?
The town of Yamaga is a tourist town, and as soon as the project started we were told that Yachiyoza was the symbol of the town and if it were closed for three years the town would lose its tourist draw. So, the town asked us to shorten the construction period. Because of the size of the building, I knew that the construction period might be lengthened but it couldn’t be shortened. The town couldn’t understand why all that time and money had to be spent on restoring a cultural asset. So we put our heads together with the cultural asset department of the city office to come up with a strategy. We told the city that if we made the restoration work itself an attraction it would be possible keep the tourists coming throughout the construction period and the tourist industry wouldn’t suffer. We built an observation gallery inside the false roof facility and conducted tours for the citizens eight times a year, and 35 times in all during the project. Every time I spent half the night drawing up a resume for the presentations to explain the work going on, and in all a couple thousand people listened to the presentations, even though they were rather technical in nature.
 Many tourists came through the observation gallery every day to see the restoration work, and for the almost four years it took to finish the project the average number of tourists visiting the town remained the same as before the start of the project. And, the people who watched the work would say that they would come back again to see the theater when the restoration was complete. In fact, we had a lot of repeat visitors.

Besides these national Important Cultural Asset buildings, movements to preserve and use old playhouses are continuing around the country.
I don’t think there will be any more “A class” playhouses like the Yachiyoza and Kanamaruza. The large playhouse in Nanao in Ishikawa prefecture no longer has its facade and the exterior looks just like a warehouse but there are local people working very hard to preserve it. The Awazu Enbujo theater in Komatsu city in Ishikawa Prefecture that was being used as an inn was just about to be torn down when a passionate group of individuals got together to save it.
 In effect, movements to preserve old playhouses are a form of local community development. So, it is natural that it be undertaken mainly by community groups. I, as a outsider, am glad to participate if I can provide some theoretical support for these local groups that are leading the movements. It is only people with specialized training like myself who can envision how some restoration can make a building that looks so run-down now become an attractive playhouse once again. I can draw a sketch for them of how appealing it can become with restoration based on the clues left in the building structure. And, we know it is possible that a single playhouse can provide an impetus for community development.

What is it about old playhouses that has attracted you to them so much?
The appeal of the people surrounding these playhouses is a big part of it. I am attracted to their passion for protect these places that tell the history of their towns.
 Another thing is their appeal as places for watching theater. In these playhouses, the stage and the audience are very close, so the vitality and emotions of the actors is communicated to the audience so well. Looking from the stage, the audience appears to be packed close together and I feel that atmosphere helps to melt the distance between the actors and audience and brings them together in spirit.
 When I was asked to head a project to remove the four steel pillars that were added to the Kanamaruza audience seating area as an anti-earthquake measure, I made an unexpected discovery. As I was surveying the building to find a way to support the roof without the steel pillars, I did a review of the rafters under the roof. I found that the trellis-like scaffolding that remained over the stage actually extended way out over the audience seating area as well. It was structured so that the stagehands could climb out over the audience and drop a shower of cherry blossom petals over the entire seating area. Since the scaffolding was actually a gridiron structured of bamboo lashed with straw-woven ropes, giving it a kick could extend it out, and with a winch and pulley attached above, an actor who had gone out into the audience could be pulled up with a rope lowered down to him from above. In other words, the Edo-period playhouse was designed as a space where the actors and audience could come together as one. In Kanamaruza we were able to restore that trellis scaffolding and use it to hide the steel girders used to strengthen the roof structure and thus preserve the original appearance (of the Edo-period interior). Once you have an opportunity to see a play performed in that kind of playhouse, you will surely experience a different kind of “theater” from what you see in a large modern theater.
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