The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
Leaders of Japan's avant-garde theater, The World of Yukichi Matsumoto and Ishinha
Mizumachi Water City
Mizumachi [Water City] Ishinha, 2000
photo: FUKUNAGA, Kohji (Studio epoque)
What is different about the former Nihon Ishinha theater company and the present Jan-Jan Opera Ishinha?
Eventually the biggest difference is that before I was directing and staging with my own body as the basic medium and a sense of myself at the main actor, so everything was done while listening to my own body. Because I was thinking about everything with this body of Yukichi Matsumoto as the central axis and the company hinged around that, I was more of a single butoh dancer than a director.

Is it safe to say that the change came around 1985 with Osiris?
Yes. I was beginning to feel an age difference between myself and the actors and the era wasn’t as interesting as it had been before. So, it was a period when everything I was doing was trial and error, and I think it was a period just going no place. It wasn’t until entering the year 1990 that I began to feel that I could relate something to society again and it became easier for me to create works, shall I say, or the distractions were gone and I could get into works more deeply.

What does the body mean to you?
I am not conscious now of my own body but the body in general. I personally have this weak body, so I have always had this image of the human body as an awkward and clumsy thing. I started out with this image of the body as a very awkward thing, like the shape you see when you take an X-ray. But when you step some distance away it starts to look better. I like that step to a distance where it looks better.
So, I never had the idea of expressing physical beauty on the stage, rather I was thinking things such as making the embarrassing and unappealing form when you are squatting over the toilet look a little better by raising it five centimeters or so. Or, I think of things like wouldn’t it be interesting if you took away the scythe from an old woman working in the rice paddy and had her walk backwards on the path between the paddies like a pantomime. What I consider our job to be is to take material like this and make it our own.
At a public bath you would see that my body is different from most of the men in the world. I used to be self-conscious about that difference between my body and everyone else’s, but now I think that I made dance out of that difference. For example if a thin person like me got into a fight they would eventually lose, so I became good at dressing to make myself look bigger than I am. There is a big difference between the bodies of people who size themselves up against the rest of the people and make efforts from the time they are kids to compete and the bodies of those who never even try at all.
A person’s body shows everything, about the way a person thinks and how he or she lives, so if you watch that person’s body for a day you learn everything. So think it is a matter of how much you have looked at people’s bodies as you grow up. The weight of our history of watching people’s bodies as we grew up is great. Watching your parents’ backs as they prepare your meal, watching your parents at work and whether you felt like you want to be more like them, or whether you reject them …

Is there a core to the Ishinha that hasn’t changed all these years?
We believe that we get more fun out of what you might call the chemical reactions that happen in expression. For example, the moment when a log suddenly looks like a pillar of gold, or when feces look like gold; that kind of magic.
When they had us paint long ago one of the themes was making everything look uniform. In other words, making things like soft meat and hard objects appear to be of the same quality with no distinction between things like living things and non-living things. The image that our Jan-Jan Opera is working with today is pursuing that kind of uniformity. Speaking in more universal terms, it is seeing everything as matter. A worldview where there is no difference between the organic and the inorganic.
There is uniformity is a scene where everything is wet after a rain, and also the scene of desert where everything is dry sand. If the ordinary, everyday is a world where everything seeks to make its individuality clear, we long for an extraordinary world of homogeneity where everything withdraws its expression of individuality and become uniform and equal. Meanwhile, I also long to melt into that world. This is a core thought that Ishinha has always had.

It can be said the “enlightenment” (satoru/satori) is a state where you can see everything as being equal and uniform can’t you?
It is not stressing your difference but breaking out of your shell, shedding your colors and letting yourself be enveloped by something larger, like a speck of dust in the universe, and letting a deeper self be born from a denial of the present self. That’s what “satoru” is.
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