The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
Leaders of Japan's avant-garde theater, The World of Yukichi Matsumoto and Ishinha
Ryusei Shooting Star
Ryusei [Shooting Star] Ishinha, 2001
photo: FUKUNAGA, Kohji (Studio epoque)
In the Ishinha staff you have people from the movie world like the art director Hiroshi Hayashida and the stage director Kazushi Ota, don’t you?
People whose training is in theater tend to think in terms simplification or symbolist methodology. They say for example, “You can’t use water on a stage, so let’s use paper,” and they think in terms of abstraction. That becomes their theory. “Theater” itself is an abstract thing. The film people I know what you might call a more masculine way of creating things. They tend to want to use the real thing, and they dislike things that are artificial or synthetic. So they choose the real thing whenever they can. Even though movies are an art form where reality is converted into images on film, they are more inclined to insist on the real thing. When we are working to create outdoor productions, that kind of approach used by movie people often provides us with good examples.

Are there any specific movie directors who have influenced you or whom you like?
There are interesting films that come along from time to time, like Blade Runner and Baghdad Cafe and Bad Blood (Mauvais Sang), and the Japanese director Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories and the list goes on and on.
And, when it’s a Fellini or Bertolucci film I can’t resist watching to the end. Among the Japanese directors I like Kaneto Shindo. I think his Hadaka no Shima is masterpiece. I like the gritty humaneness of it. There is also the movie Hadaka no Jukyu-sai based on the story of the 19-year old Norio Nagayama who was given the death sentence. I like movies that follow the traditional theories. I love Kurosawa. He was a true artist, very skillful at layouts, maybe even more so than Picasso, I think. He was very good at drawing, and he planned and filmed his shots very carefully. For example, if an actor is standing here in one shot, he has to be over here in the next shot.

In terms of literature, it seems that more than any other company Ishinha has developed on the adventurous use of words that Kenji Miyazawa pioneered. Do you feel a special affinity for Kenji’s word play or worldview?
I have been influenced by his forms of expression, as if there is spirit inside a lump of mineral. The fact that the lines in my scripts are often strings of metallic and material nouns may be because I learned about the mineral quality of expression from Kenji Miyazawa. I have never staged a Miyazawa play but I probably have been influences by his worldview. But for me, Kenji Miyazawa is a literary giant, so I don’t try to talk about his work like an authority.

What is the most relevant contemporary issue for you today?
The thing that I am most concerned about is how today’s young people have lost a sense of home. They have no hometown in their hearts. I tell the young people in our company to create a hometown in their hearts, even if they have to go out and find one deliberately. A person without a nostalgic hometown is not really a full person. That hometown doesn’t have to be one with a traditional Japanese style wooden house. It could be the South harbor section of Osaka where Ishinha does its outdoor productions, or it could be an apartment building. I tell them to find a hometown and create lots of legends around it. Because I believe you can find nostalgia almost anyplace. I think the novelist Haruki Murakami has tried to create something like the nostalgia of an apartment complex. I think everyone should find or create their own hometown.

Can you say something about the involvement and influence of visual arts in your work?
In our day there were a lot of interesting people in the art scene. If you ask about my influences I would have to say the Gutai Group of Osaka, led by Kazuo Shiraga and Jiro Yoshihara. They were people who truly sought to break apart the concepts of art. They were very avant-garde but also very hot-blooded. They literally put their whole body and soul into the things they did. Because I discovered them at an impressionable age in high school, their spirit remains very strong in my memory.
In the end, expression is doing things that no one has done before, break down the things that already exist and create expression that hasn’t existed before. More important than any internal themes and such is the fact that you have to first of all finding material and method. If you find something that is interesting you have to make it your own. It isn’t a matter of the contents. If no one has done it before it is going to be interesting.
Another influence form a different period came from the group “Play,” which was what you would call a performance group. It was led by Keiichi Ikemizu. I helped out with some of the performances too, but they were a group doing interesting things. In those days it wasn’t called performance, it was called “happenings.” They did things like making a 5-meter “egg” of fiberglass and setting out to sea at Cape Usio. The egg would then ride the sea currents and end up in someplace like San Francisco. One famous work they did was to stack two or three hundred logs into a sort of pyramid structure to try to capture a thunder demon. They were doing these things as a natural extension of art, but all we heard from the people who saw it was, “Is that art?”

We hear that you like books of photographs.
Photographs are often more interesting than paintings. Since you actually have to go to the “place” to make a photograph, you can’t just sit in your studio and create works. The works produced in a creative process that starts and ends in the confines of the studio are not interesting to me, no matter how finished they may be. I am interested in the kinds of works that can only be made by going out and doing the on-site documenting and encountering the external world.
I think the Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado’s book Workers: An Archeology of the Industrial Age with its photos of workers is very interesting. I once wrote a play based on images I developed from looking at the photography collection Inu no Kioku and Hikari to Kage of Daido Moriyama.

We hear that you were also influenced by the thought of the Surrealists.
When I was a college student we got into exploring the concept of the “surreal.” It was a process of creating your own personal interpretation, not the one accepted as the art term’s definition. The usual worldview is one where you have the big framework of the world at large and then a variety of elements are included in that framework, but the concept of surreal that we came up with was exactly the opposite. We thought that in fact it was a case of there being insignificant and indefinable individuals existing and the world was nothing but an uncertain concept resulting from the sum total of all those individuals. In that sense it was very Buddhist and defining a world where literally anything could happen. We thought that the true meaning of surreal was that when you accept all the separate evils and goods and try to put it together into a world, any images you have of the world would fall apart. It was an idea completely different from Dali’s image of the surreal.
So, you can never have an overview of action and no person in this world can take a stance in a place where they can look down and get an overview of it. It is inherently impossible to gain a consciousness of the world and if what we see as the world is merely the chance accumulation of its parts, the concept of the world is something that constantly rustling in the wind and no fixed image is possible. We thought that if a wind happens to blow a log at you, all you can do is to catch it. That is the place where the three points of the body, action and consciousness collide.
I think that the surrealist concept is that you start from a very individual realm and go out and fight the people you should fight and kill the people you should kill and that lead you to the world. So, the point of departure for the surreal worldview is taking care of very personal things on a daily basis.
Around that time I read something in a theater magazine that made me laugh. At the time it was popular to talk about Brecht and publish discussions between noted figures in the theater world with titles like “Can the World Be Recreated in Theater?” What kind of theater people are thinking about such things (laughs)!? Do they think they can conceptualize the world? I thought that was overdoing it, setting the sights too high. Even though that was just the viewpoint of a limited group of people, it seems that they were under the illusion that the whole theater world thought that way. And I remember think this is what makes the theater world seem so far removed.
But now, it makes me mad to see the opposite is happening, as playwrights are overly concerned with their own personal world. There are times when I want to say, “Don’t just write about yourself. Why don’t you try writing about the world sometimes (laughs)?

We hear that you are always objecting to things like environmental or anti-nuclear activism as insincere.
Those kinds of people always have their worldview as if some kind of “world” really exists. I was taking to the butoh artist Akaji Maro once and he said, “If they ever build a bridge to America, then I will believe that the world is one.” Can you get a feeling that the world is actually one by getting on an airplane and flying to another country? Are there people really have that feeling, have they taken a measure and tried to measure it (laughs)? If they ever build bridge that reaches all the way across the Pacific and build a road on it, then I’ll believe that the world is one. As long as we are flying around the world in airplanes, it may be only natural that there are going to be world wars and racial prejudice.
When I went to the public bath at Ryugu Hot Spring Spa at Tenpozan near the Osaka harbor, it was full of men who work on the international transport ships. They were all muscular men and you could see clearly the different regions they came from. If you go to a regular public bath in Osaka, it may be reassuring to see the usual salaried worker and shop owner types around you, but at the Ryugu Hot Spring bath those men looked tough and you could see that the faces of even young junior. high school age boys, who had probably followed their father’s profession by going to sea, were already weather-worn. It gave me a renewed appreciation for the reverse regional ethnicity in the contemporary [global] world. One might think that people’s bodies and ways of thinking are getting increasingly homogenized today, but when you look closely you find it isn’t really true. Scientifically speaking it may be getting more homogeneous, but in fact things haven’t really changed much. And even when a billion people or so are connected by the Internet, I don’t think this part will really change.
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