F Artist Interview: Yukichi Matsumoto (Ishinha) | Performing Arts Network Japan
The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Yukichi Matsumoto
In university, Matsumoto majored in fine arts. He formed the Nippon Ishinha troupe (renamed the Ishinha in 1987) in Osaka in 1970, and has handled the playbooks and directing for all its works since 1974. Centered on Matsumoto as its leader, the Ishinha is known for continuing a kind of theatrical activity that cannot be fully accounted for by the framework of drama. Matsumoto presents performances that are comprehensive works of avant-garde art, with every element under his direction, including an outdoor theater the troupe built with their own hands; the formidable artwork of Yuji Hayashida, who is known as the art director on several films; lines making use of the Kansai dialect intonation, similar to Balinese Kecak music, that they call a Jan-Jan Opera; and music by Kazuhisa Uchihashi, who has received acclaim around the world for “Altered States,” the improvisation unit he leads. In recent years, he has produced the “Hyoryu series,” in which the audience travels around with the troupe. Their performances at such locations as Murouji Temple in Nara and on outlying islands have attracted attention. Matsumoto received the Asahi Performing Arts Award for Kankara, an outdoor drama performed at the site of a former copper refinery on the island of Inujima.
view clip Kankara, Ishinha, 2002
Natsu no Tobira
Natsu no Tobira
Natsu no Tobira
Natsu no Tobira [The Summer Door],
Ishinha, 2005
photo: FUKUNAGA, Kohji (Studio epoque)

Stage art model of Natsu no Tobira
an overview
Artist Interview Artist Interview
Leaders of Japan's avant-garde theater, The World of Yukichi Matsumoto and Ishinha  
The Ishinha theater company (led by Yukichi Matsumoto) is known for its unique style of theater called “Jan-Jan Opera” that is performed is specially built large-scale temporary outdoor theaters. In addition to their regular outdoor productions in Osaka, the company has been performing overseas since 2000. This autumn they made their first tour of Latin America, appearing as guest performers at Mexico’s Cervantino International Theater Festival, which featured Japan this year, and in Brazil at the Teatro do SESC Santos. Furthermore, these performances marked the world premiere of the company’s new work Natsu no Tobira, a new departure for Ishinha. We spoke with Matsumoto about the “world of light and shadow” that delighted his Latin American audience unprecedented stagecraft.
(Interviewed and edited by Jun Kobori, recorded at the Inshinha office in Chuo-ku, Osaka)

Following your outdoor theater performances of Mizumachi in Adelaide, Australia in 2000 and your performances of Ryusei in Hamburg, Germany, and Belfast Northern Ireland, in 2001, this was your first Latin American tour, as well as the world premiere of your new work Natsu no Tobira.
Our first group arrived in Mexico’s Guanajuato on Sept. 25 and the second group on Sept. 28. We had two different sets for the Mexican and Brazilian performances that we made completely in Japan and then shipped to the two countries. We spent about one month putting together the sets from the end of July and sent the first one to Mexico at the end of August. The group of buildings that makes up the set this time was designed by Takeshi Kuroda. He also did our last set for Keaton, giving 3-dimensional for to my idea.
The theme this time was a “stage of light and shadow.” The audience is amazed when they suddenly see a blazing white-light stage. The origami-like buildings of the set are made of plywood. They are painted a delicately tinted gray and become white when the lights are shown on them and become virtually black when no light is shown on them. The entire set fits in four 20-ft. shipping containers. It is an awfully big set to be taking overseas.

When did you begin your rehearsals for this production in Japan before leaving?
We started in January of this year, do three or four hours a day, six days on, one day off. We decided on the title early on with a special consideration for the fact that we would be performing in Mexico and Brazil. We seem to associate the image of summer with Latin America, don’t we? So we thought of the Japanese summer, the Mexican summer and the Brazilian summer. The consciousness of these three is certainly different. We also wanted to keep a feeling of openness to the title, so it became Natsu no Tobira, or “The Summer Door.”

That is a title that stimulates the imagination. The play Sakashima you did once earlier at Nara’s Murou village was a play about one girl’s summer. Wasn’t it?
The Sakashima performed in Murou, Nara is a summer in the countryside. This time it was going to be an urban summer. A story about a girl who spends her whole summer vacation watching television.

In the story there is an incident of a phantom murder and other fragments of contemporary Japanese life. Does this represent a new change in your subject matter or writing style?
I wanted to bring out a “shadow” aspect. Or, shall I say “virtual image” aspect? Since Ishinha is originally a group that started out acting with whitewashed bodies, there has always been a strong fictional or fabricated aspect to our plays. Since that is the case, we thought we could try doing something even more fictional or fabricated in nature. With Natsu no Tobira we used television as the connection to the real world and then used a device by which the girl’s fabrications develop from that starting point. Her younger brother is murdered by a phantom killer, as if her brother had died in an instant, she can’t really identify with the event when she sees it reported on the TV news. Like the shadows made by the summer sun, the virtual image apart from reality begins to grow bigger. For the sound, we use recordings of a television left on.

When I saw your rehearsal in Japan the Japanese news coming from the television made an effective background noise, but in your overseas performances did you use subtitles or something?
There are ten scenes to the play with titles like “utatane, “machikage” and “kageboshi,” and these are the only things we used title for, in the Japanese hiragana, in the Romanization of the Japanese and their translations in Spanish and Portuguese. There was one case where the Japanese title “kawatare” (which means asking someone who he/she is at twilight) was mistranslated into Spanish with the meaning “kataware — my other soul.” We corrected it, but I thought that other title was interesting, too (laughs).

How did the physical training begin in your rehearsals?
First of all we think about the “body.” We worked very thoroughly on the concepts like “unnatural movement,” unnatural and un-free movement when you can’t move as you want to. For example, moving the legs at a seven-beat and the arms at a three-beat. If you wait until the script is finished to begin working on that kind of movement it will be too late, so in rehearsals we work first on creating the “body” movement. The movements are things that I think of and also things that the actors think up, but with the work this time, there was a stronger element of what the playwright myself was dealing with in the part that was created in the rehearsals. I wish we had had a little more time for what you might call the “rehearsal stage ideas,” and the work of fitting the movements that came out in the rehearsals into the script of “light and shadow.”

Part of the appeal of the Ishinha Jan-Jan Opera is the unique use of words and a unique off-beat type of step to the movement. What made you begin pursuing “unnatural movement”?
For me, just doing dance isn’t really interesting. Of course, there may be good movement in dance, but for me it is not interesting just to follow the dictates of a body that begins to dance of itself even when you are not intending to dance. It takes a lot of will power to give up that inclination to dance, and it even takes a deliberate development of technique. It is something you can’t do unless you put it together first in your mind. For a baby to eat, it is easiest just to pick up the food with its hands, but we teach the child to use chopsticks to pick up the food. It is the same kind of movement that requires a conscious effort for the body to learn.

Are you saying that what Ishinha requires is not dance as designated form but movement as undesignated form?
There are numerous people with different bodies in Ishinha. We don’t do things that require the kinds of bodies that fit dance style, we have to do things that fit the weight that each of our members carry in the form of their individual bodies. In some small theater works, they often bring in things like a jazz dance sequence, but I don’t like to see actors who don’t have that kind of body trying to do that jazz dance sequence anyway. I think there is movement that fits the people who are actually up there on the stage. We don’t use a choreographer, we have each person think of their own movement. That is Ishinha.
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