The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
Leaders of Japan's avant-garde theater, The World of Yukichi Matsumoto and Ishinha
Keaton, Ishinha, 2004
photo: FUKUNAGA, Kohji (Studio epoque)
Yukichi Matsumoto Interview — Part2

This interview from 1998 was first published in the book Ishinha Taizen. It is being reissued here with the permission of the Ishinha theater company in translation for overseas transmission.

From the time of the Nihon Ishinha, the predecessor of your current company, you were already making special efforts to stage outdoor theater productions. What does outdoor production mean to you personally?
In the past, I have said a lot of things on this subject, but recently I have come to feel strongly that the most important meaning of “outdoor theater” is its character as a form of ”one-time theater production” in a “one-time theater.” It is not something that can be done without a strong will, determination and solid planning. It can’t be done in a haphazard or irresponsible way.
In the case of indoor theater, you reserve a time slot with the theater for a production one or two years in advance. But that is not something that requires any special energy to do, and in the end you reserve it as a matter of scheduling adjustment. In the case of an outdoor production you have to maintain a constant output of energy from a year before the event. If the involved can’t keep up that energy and someone says they want to quit, the whole thing falls apart at that point.
In other words it is a matter of full concentration on the project without thinking about what you’ll be doing the next year. So, if I am not thinking anew each year what makes us do outdoor production it loses its meaning. Because, to begin with, there is nothing forcing us to go to the trouble of doing an outdoor production.

The scale of Ishinha keeps getting bigger, and there must be a proportionate amount of extra effort and difficulties involved.
Although we are doing the productions in an outdoor format, we are striving to bring more of an entertainment aspect to our productions lately, so we are playing down any shallow-level avant-garde or underground aspects. In simple terms, we are setting things up so that the audience can see the plays more fully from their seats and we are doing the ticketing and seating responsibly. We are making sure about how the tickets are sold and that each production has scenes that the audience will appreciate…even if the play as a whole may be lacking in content (laughs). This is because we believe that basically we have to do right by our audience. And I believe that there is an audience that looks forward to our once a year outdoor productions.

Is this outdoor format something that is inseparable from your methodology as a theater artist? Are you going to be doing outdoor productions forever?
I haven’t been thinking about that, and it would start to get heavy if I did (laughs). In the sense of being a social outlaw…well, I think that the people writing the works are in fact outlaws, but my personal belief is that you should not be bound to any fixed ideas of outlaw type style or methodology. Outdoor is not simply a matter of building a theater outdoors, it is a matter of “continuing to stand outside.” It’s because you don’t want to be drawn into the establishment, you want to continue to be on the periphery, on the borders or margins. You want to continue to be drifting free.
There may also be ways of being even more outlaw-ish than doing outdoor. Because this is a period when we still want to be outlaws saying to the “inlaws,” “Look, we were right and you were wrong.” To be able to say, look how big an audience we can draw outdoors, or look how big a production we can do. Just because we are on the periphery doesn’t mean we have to be doing marginal scale things. We want to be the center of attention and do things on a mainstream scale too. It’s just that the place where we take our stance is different.

Looking at Ishinha’s outdoor theaters from an architectural standpoint, it seems that you can do some extremely unique things architecturally that have the capability to shake some foundations in the architectural world.
Since we are building structures that will not remain standing afterwards, what we are building cannot really be called architecture. It is a one-time temporary structure that is site-specific. When architects and architecture students come to see our structures they are jealous. What is good about it is that it is very architectural in a design sense but not architectural in a structural sense. Basically, a theater is a place where you create the border between seeing and being seen, so some people think that you can draw lines on the ground and say, “The stage is from here to here,” like the cure-all potion sellers who used to set themselves up on the street and hawk their wears.
If you make a theater using paper-faced shoji panels, it is the kind of boundary where you can lick the tip of your finger to open a peeping hole in the shoji. That is the kind of idea that comes out most often. When we did the play Ashi no ura kara meioh made at Yodogawa in Osaka, we dug a trough around the stage area and filled it with water as a boundary. In the end, I think a theater is probably a place where you create a door to what you might call the darkness that we fail to see in our daily life, or an “other world,” and you show that door, that boundary, as a kind of tool.
But in our case, we make the whole thing ourselves in a hand-made process that even includes making the audience seats, so it becomes a theater that creates not 2-dimensional viewer perspective on the stage like a movie screen but 3-dimensional perspective that allows glimpses here and there of the darkness or the “other world.” Since it is a temporary outdoor theater, it is different from a theater within concrete walls in that there are gaps where breezes can come in and places where you can sense other presences. But, it also adds another difficult aspect in that we have to deal with the problem of attracting the audiences’ interest in this “theater structure as expression.”

Among the key words that keep appearing in Ishinha works are roji (alley) and haikyo (ruins).
Roji (alley) and haikyo (ruins) are “kaze no sumika” (places where winds reside).
The philosopher Takaaki Yoshimoto made an interesting observation. People who line up their potted bonsai trees in your own backyard are setting them where they can be seen by themselves from their own porch, but people line up their bonsai along the alley are putting them out where they will be seen by passersby like the stand of a noodle peddler who sets up on the street at night. And if they set them out on the alley like that, they can’t really complain if a passerby walks off with one? An alley is that kind of place. It is both a road and an extension of the people’s yards. It is a place where the boundary between you and other people is ambiguous and where the sense of propriety is lax. But human beings also have a characteristic tendency to need to always distinguish in their lives between what is one’s own and what is the other’s. But for irresponsible and sloppy people like us, this kind of world of lazy ambiguity can be very refreshing and welcome. I think what defines the alley is the relief in knowing that “They’re that way too. I’m not the only one.”
A “Home” is something where there is a creator and an owner, but alley and ruins have neither creators nor owners. There is an apartment complex in the Shimotera-cho district of Naniwa-ku, Osaka that is like ruins, like the old Kowloon apartment buildings of Hong Kong. When you look at it you can imagine a 3-dimensional form of “alley.” They say that originally it was a stylish complex designed by a French designer, but the residents let it go to pot. It seems that a lot of difficult tenants lived there. That was in the Taisho Era, so it is not like it was full of today’s proper salaried workers, and the result was that they undermined the original intentions of the designer. I guess that instinctually they just weren’t able to abide with the apartment concept, where everyone has the same uniform living space.
You don’t find many ruins left in Osaka today, but it seems to me that it would be healthier if there were ruins like old wells here and there around the town. Places where the bad can be bad, places where birds can build nests, places like scars in the cityscape … A city without scars is not a very interesting place.

The musician Yukio Fujimoto says that what impressed him so much about the Ishinha stages is that although they may seem earthy in spirit, in fact they are composed with a high degree of modern simplicity and functional beauty.
The director Shogo Ota said that Ishinha is misunderstood because they call their works “outdoor theater,” which brings with it images of fields, earth and nature, so perhaps they should think of using another term. Just because we are doing outdoor theater doesn’t mean we are nature children, and in fact what we are doing is very man-made. We like artificial lighting, tin roofs and thin overlays. We also like the world of plastic and miniatures. In that sense we might be quite modern. I personally consider myself ultramodern (laughs).
| 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 |