The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Yukio Ninagawa
Born in 1935, the director Yukio Ninagawa began his career by joining the theater company Seihai in 1955. He was active as an actor until 1967 when he formed the company “Gendaijin Gekijo.” The following year he made his directing debut with the play Shinjo Afururu Keihakusa by Kunio Shimizu. In 1972 he founded the theater company Sakura-sha, which proceeded to lead the small-theater movement of the 1960s and 70s by presenting the socially controversial plays of Shimizu. In 1974 he entered the commercial theater world with a production of Romeo and Juliet. After that he produced a succession of theatrical hits characterized by dynamic group performance and stage spaces of great visual richness that came to be known as the “Ninagawa aesthetic.” After taking a production of the Greek tragedy Medea to Greece in 1983, he has mounted a large number of overseas productions. Recent years have been marked by an especially large number of productions in Britain, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1996, Shintokumaru in 1997, Hamlet in 1998 and a long-running production of King Lear in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1999 into 2000. These activities led to Ninagawa being presented a CBE of the 3rd order by the British government in 2002. His awards in the theater world have also been numerous. Presently he is the Dean of the Toho Gakuen College of Drama and Music. Representative works as a director include Chikamatsu Shinju Monogatari (Chikamatsu Suicide Stories), NINAGAWA Macbeth, Hamlet, Shintokumaru, Greeks, and Pericles.
Twelfth Night
Twelfth Night
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NINAGAWA Twelfth Night
Directed by Yukio Ninagawa

Date: July. 7-31, 2005
Venue: Kabuki-za Theater
Author: W. Shakespeare
Translation: Yuji Odajima
Playwright: Toyoshige Imai

Cast: Kikugoro Onoe
Kikunosuke Onoe
Sadanji Ichikawa
Tokizo Nakamura
Danshiro Ichikawa
Shinjiro Nakamura
Shoroku Onoe
Kamejiro Ichikawa
Kamesaburo Bando
Matsuya Onoe
Gonjuro Kawarazaki
Shucho Bando
Danzo Ichikawa
an overview
Artist Interview Artist Interview
What is the Kabuki version Twelfth Night? Yukio Ninagawa's new challenge  
What is the Kabuki version Twelfth Night? Yukio Ninagawa's new challenge  
For his artistic efforts to recast Shakespeare and the other classics of Western theater with new, localized context that mirrors today’s realities, Yukio Ninagawa is a director who has won consistently high acclaim with productions of plays including Euripides's Medea, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Pericles and a production of Macbeth titled NINAGAWA Macbeth performed before audiences in Britain, the U.S. and Greece, among other places. In May of this year, he brought to the traditional stage of Tokyo’s Kabuki-za theater a production titles NINAGAWA Twelfth Night as a new type of Kabuki that used traditional Kabuki actors instead of the contemporary actors he has consistently used in his other productions. The new challenge marked yet another exceptional step in the director’s illustrious career. In this production, the traditional conventions of Kabuki were maintained while adding bold new visual devices like backing the entire stage with mirrors. With its dynamic collision of Western theatric convention and the physical presence of Kabuki actors, this production has shaken the status quo in the Kabuki world at a time when it is having difficulty creating new works for its repertoire.
(Interview by Hiroshi Hasebe)

When I met you last at Tokyo’s New National Theatre before the start of the rehearsals for Twelfth Night, you said that your position as a director this time would be similar to that when you have directed opera. Now that the rehearsals are over and you have had opening night, what do you think the differences are?
First of all, there is no clear place for a director in Kabuki. Everything is developed so that it can function without a director.
Of course, I suppose you can say that the zagashira (leader of the troupe) performs the role of a director, but when the rehearsals start on the first day, the zagashira is not necessarily there standing in front of the actors directing them. How can one explain it? I guess you would have to say that the role of the zagashira (= director) in Kabuki is very ambiguous.
Knowing that this is the way Kabuki is, I was saying at first that the position of the director is not unlike that in Opera, where the orchestra conductor stands in the prominent position. Another factor is that I did not take along the assistants and staff I always have working with me in directing contemporary theater. You might say that I went into this with the intention of “studying abroad” in the foreign world of Kabuki. And I was thinking about what role the director could play within this context.

With a few exceptions, I think it can be said that within the repetition of performances of the traditional repertoire of plays that were completed in the Edo (1603~1868) and the Meiji (1868~1912) periods that has defined Kabuki since entering the Showa Period (1926~1989), there was no post equivalent to a director. In reality, when preparing a production, it is the zagashira that has final decision-making rights responsibility in directorial matters like casting for most plays. This time the zagashira was Kikugoro Onoe VII, but watching the rehearsals it seemed quite clear that he was making every effort to give you the role of director in the usual theater sense. Would you tell us if there were any difficult situations resulting from this kind of unusual arrangement?
In fact, there was little that you could really have called difficulties. I was well aware that I didn’t know the methods of Kabuki and that this fact and other all would be assumed. For example, I didn’t know the specialized terms for the aikata (short shamisen phrases as accompaniment to the actors’ lines) and the names of Kabuki’s different types of geza music, so I ask them to allow me to refer to all of it simply as music. To the usual geza music, consisting mainly of the nagauta vocals, shamisen and tsuzumi drum, the Kabuki authorities allowed me to do things like adding a boy soprano accompanied by cembalo (harpsichord) as a sort of overture during the curtain opening. In this sense there was little failure of mutual understanding.
As far as describing how my role as director was defined this time, it was to get the Kabuki actors to understand the composition of a Shakespeare play. And, since the rhetoric of the spoken lines in a Shakespeare play is different from the rhetoric of the Japanese in Kabuki that was written during a period from the late Middle Ages into the early modern era, finding ways to make it fit the Kabuki acting style.
However, there would be little meaning in just lecturing the Kabuki actors on my interpretation of the structure of Shakespearean plays. I had to try to use specific detailed instruction regarding the acting in order lead them to an understanding of the structure of the play in a tangible way. You might say it was a process of finding ways that the actor could communicate the meaning to the audience visually. That was about all it involved.
Speaking technically, my directing recently is improvisational and based in group art. This is true in my contemporary theater and it was true this time with the Kabuki production of Twelfth Night. I am surrounded with a group of people who have their own solid professional expertise in their respective areas. So all I have to do is to say “OK, I want music to come in here,” and I give them the image and they will go ahead and make the kind of music I want. If I say “Let’s make it a dance here,” and immediately they start improvising the choreography. This time I had no trouble working with the Kabuki actors and staff in the same kind of improvisational way because these are actors who have had the technique of their art drilled into them since they were children and the staff are all highly experienced professionals too.
Still, it was very interesting to me to see the ways that the unique rules of the theater that came out. For example, there is the expression “mikka joho (three day rule).” Although it was something that didn’t occur this time, this is a rule that says if an actor has to be replaced by an alternate due to illness, the alternate performs for three days, even if the original actor’s illness is cured after one day. It also applies in the case of the director changing things in the play. He can change things during the first three days from the opening, but after that … it becomes questionable. Anyway, everything works on a timetable of three days. And it is the same in England. In Britain it is generally the rule that the director has to leave by two days after the opening performance. He can stay longer at his own expense, but he is not guaranteed payment for any more than the first tree days. You can say that the system is the same in this way. However, in the case of Britain this is clearly stated in the contract. In Kabuki there is no written contract, so some ambiguity is involved. But, since the system is similar there was no uneasiness for me in working with the Kabuki system this time.

Probably it took a lot of courage for you, in your present position, to accept directing a Kabuki production. In short, it is hard to imagine what you could gain much from such a venture. On the other hand, by doing it you would be opening yourself to harsh criticism no matter how you directed it, either from those who would say your production was a destruction of the Kabuki tradition, or those who would say you were compromising on your own theater art. In the initial press interview you said that you had been persuaded by the strong wishes of Kikugoro’s 28 year-old son, Kikunosuke Onoe V.
Yes. To tell you the truth, that is the only reason I accepted the opportunity. Of course there was the possibility that it would lead me to some new discoveries, and I was also curious to get a taste of the world of traditional performance arts and its theater. Being a director here in Japan, there is still a big gap between Kabuki and contemporary theater, because we can only see the Kabuki world from out front in the audience. Well, people like Hideki Noda and Kazuyoshi Kushida have worked with Kabuki’s Kanzaburo Nakamura XVIII in dramatization or a directing capacity, but I think I have seen more Kabuki than them since I was a child. And, for that very reason, I knew that this [Kabuki] world was one that I didn’t want to enter casually and do something insubstantial. Honestly speaking, if I am asked for example, “What kind of aikata (music as accompaniment) should we use here? Should we use an arashi (storm) aikata?” I don’t know what to answer. If I am asked, “Shall we make it a half beat faster?” I haven’t studied this area enough to really know what to say. I don’t know the behind-the-scenes Kabuki world, so I can’t make those kinds of practical decisions. I knew that the only way to deal properly with a traditional art like this was to either have all the necessary knowledge to make those decisions or else to approach it completely as a novice. I never watched Kabuki in the past with the idea that I would be directing it myself some day. The only way I had been watching it was for what I could steal for parodies in contemporary theater (laughs).

You have just spoken of aikata, and in this production you introduced Western music, like the boys’ choir signing in Latin and a harp somewhere later on. Was it your intention to create a clash of cultures?
For example, in NINAGAWA Macbeth. I set the front of the stage with something resembling the Buddhist alter (Butsudan) in Japanese homes where the family ancestors are enshrined. What you hear coming out of it is Buddhist chants or shomyo, and this is overlapped with Faure’s Requiem. So, in the case of the Kabuki production of Twelfth Night this time, I didn’t want to be completely loyal to the conventions of Kabuki. I wanted to bring in about 10% or 20% new and different elements.
What makes the Kabuki-za theater difficult is the fact that most of the audience is made up of people who love the classics (of the Kabuki tradition). One of the roles of Kabuki is, on the one hand, the proper continuation of the classics. However, I believed that there has actually been a good degree of transformation in what people call the proper continuation of the tradition. The theater itself is clearly different from what it was in the old days, with the stage being much wider than they used to be, for example. And, with the changes in the structure of the theater and the advances in lighting and such, the plays themselves have surely been transformed considerably from those of the Edo Period and the Meiji Period.
However, if your purpose is to go out and destroy people’s image of what they think classic Kyogen is today or what Kabuki lovers think traditional Kabuki is, or the Kabuki-za is, then there is no reason for you to do that at the Kabuki-za theater. Also, this time I was working with the Kikugoro Company, which is a company that has already thinned out to some degree what you might call their traditional credentials or their adherence to an “academic” approach to their art. Considering this, I thought it would be enough this time to just introduce some new elements, without going so far as to do things that would disturb some people. Anyway, if there is a sudden change in the taste of an old shop’s fare, most people are likely to say that they preferred the old taste, and with Twelfth Night I think the approval-disapproval ratio was about seven to three. Three in favor, seven against; I think that can’t be avoided. But my view of the realities initially was that I wanted to make this a work that 70% of the audience would like and 30% dislike.
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