The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
Directing through the worlds of Brecht and Kabuki Exploring the world of director Kazuyoshi Kushida
Kamikakete Sangotaisetsu
A play written by Tsuruya Namboku IV. It premiered at the Edo Nakamura-za in 1825. It is a story that is highlighted by a dramatic murder scene resulting from the passionate contest between two characters for the love of a Fukagawa geisha. It was performed for the third Cocoon Kabuki production in 1998.

Natsumatsuri Naniwakagami
This is a play written jointly by Namiki Senryu, Miyoshi Shoraku and Takeda Koizumo. It premiered at the Takemoto-za in Osaka in 1745. It is the story a man named Danshichi who has just gotten out of prison, and in order to prove his loyalty to his master, he becomes involved in a battle to the death with his father-in-law. It is full of images from the summer festivals of the Naniwa district of old Osaka. It was performed for the second Cocoon Kabuki production in 1996 and the fifth in 2003. It was also performed in the 2004 Heisei Nakamura-za production in New York.

Sannin Kichisa
A sewamono (genre) play written by Kawatake Mokuami. It premiered at the Edo Ichimura-za in 1860. It is a story of inter-tangled human relationships as three thieves going by the name of Kichisa and their fathers fight over a purse of 100-ryo money and a famous short-sword named Koshinmaru. It was performed for the fourth Cocoon Kabuki production in 2001 and the eighth in 2007.
Sannin Kichisa
Sannin Kichisa
Sannin Kichisa
Sannin Kichisa
Sannin Kichisa
(2007, at Bunkamura Theater Cocoon)
Photo: Hisanori Saito
In the Cocoon Kabuki you have replaces the seats the front half of the audience area with a flat platform to create traditional floor seating. What is the aim of this?
In regular theater seats where there is likely to be a stranger in the next seat, you are refrain from turning around to watch when the actors have come out into the aisle behind you. But with a flat sitting area, the audience have more freedom to turn their bodies around this way and that when the actors come out into the seating area. In that sense, sitting on floor pillows (zabuton) is more convenient than seats with a backrest, and I also wanted to add some of the aspects of the old Edo period Kabuki theaters, where people would sit on zabuton and spread out their box lunches to eat while they watched the plays. But, today’s young people aren’t used to sitting on the floor, so we actually find that the regular seats in the back half of the theater sell out before the platform seats (laughs). It’s a bit disappointing really.

In the Cocoon Kabuki you don’t have a traditional Kabuki theater hanamichi (raised runway through the audience area for actor entrances and exists) so the actors come down through the aisle and then directly onto the flat platform seating area. The audience really seems to appreciate this, but what is the reaction of the actors?
They seem to enjoy it. In the Kabuki-za today the hanamichi is a sacred space like the stage itself that cannot be violated, but I believe that in the old days it was probably a much more freely-defined thing that involved going in and out of the audience seating area. I believe that there was more of a sense of going from this side into your own world and going from your world into this other side.

Your friend from the Jiyu Gekijo days, the actor Takashi Sasano, appears in both Cocoon Kabuki and the Heisei Nakamura-za productions. At the beginning it seems that there was a lot of objection to this, but know he has become such a familiar part of the production that today the audience calls out to him in Kabuki style with a yago (name the audience calls Kabuki actors by during the performance as a form of salute), in his case “Awaji-ya” after his native Awaji, Hyogo prefecture.
At first it was just a small part. In Kamikakete Sango Taisetsu there is a pauper who comes out at one point in the play and all he says is “Masu masu, masu masu.” It is a part that has no real consequence in the story and it is usually cut from the Kabuki productions, but I felt that it was a waste to cut out such a fun character. However, I was told that there were no Kabuki actors today who do that part, so I asked Sasano to do it. Then it happened that one of the Kabuki actors in the production with a bigger part got sick, and Kanzaburo asked Sasano if he wanted to try the part, saying, “I bet you can do it.” That’s how it happened.

Your own designs for the stage art also include things so revolutionary that no one would think they were for a Kabuki set. I imagine that these are designs that have resulted from the unique characteristics of the Theater Cocoon space, but how did you come up with the ideas?
One thing that I think can be said—and this is not limited to the sets—is that there are many interesting things used in Kabuki, they tend to be just lined up with little consciousness, so full advantage is not taken of their unique qualities. For example, the traditional Kabuki sets tend to be flat in nature, but they have the fascinating effect of at times making the 3-dimensional actors appear 2-dimensional, but that effect is not consciously taken advantage of in the plays. For that reason people feel that the lighting could be used more effectively to create shadow, and not only the horizontal but also the vertical movement could be taken into more consideration. In this way, the good aspects of Kabuki sets are being negated to the extent that it is a waste. My designs are based on this feeling that more respect should be given to the good points of Kabuki sets.

What about the stage lighting?
The lighting used in Kabuki today is the electric lighting that was adopted in the Meiji Period (late 19th century) and the lighting used was up until then was discarded at that time. In the Edo Period candles were used for lighting, so there was surely darkness and shadows on the stage. The people of that period were used to the darkness of candlelight in their daily life and they watched the plays with the same kind of peering into darkness to see everything that they could. But when electric lighting was first introduced in the Meiji Period, on one knew how to use the lights and they ended up just giving the stage even, flat lighting across the whole stage. Entering the Meiji Period the flat seating platform was changed to chairs and the lighting was changed to bright electric lighting, but for some reason everything stopped there and hasn’t changed since. When you think about it in this way, you might say that I am just feeling natural doubts about why time suddenly stopped for Kabuki. It is not my idea to try to make Kabuki modern or change it but, rather, I think I am looking at Kabuki with the feeling that it was actually quite different originally from what it is now and that the Kabuki people of old would gladly have used some of the tools available today if they had had access to them at the time.

When you did your first Kabuki production of Natsumatsuri Naniwa Kagami, you covered the stage with a layer of soil and surrounded it with the kind of straw mats used to make a vendor’s stall at a festival grounds and it created the atmosphere of watching the play in a temporary festival shack.
I often tell people that my first theater experience and my original image of theater was seeing a play in just such a makeshift shack theater when I was three years old in the countryside where I was evacuated during the War. I had been sent to a place near the city of Shinjo in Yamagata Prefecture for about a half a year near the end of the War and the farmers there took me to the play. I don’t know whether it was a rural Kabuki play or a play by a traveling actors troupe, but I can still remember that it was in a makeshift shack with a few naked light bulbs hanging here and they and that the actors were doing pantomime. So, I wanted to do Natsumatsuri Naniwa Kagami in that image. For the first performance I even tried planting some shepherd’s purse grass on the stage but the trampling of the actors ruined it right away. The dust that rose from the stage during the action got to the actors’ throats and the hems of their kimono got dirty. The actors said they couldn’t stand it, so for the next production the dirt was replaced by a dirt effect using cloth. I still want to do it with real dirt though (laughs).

For the second production the back of the stage was opened onto the streets of Shibuya and people came in through the opening carrying a festival shrine, and in the end a patrol car was driven in too. I remember thinking how amazing it was to be doing these kinds of things in a Kabuki play. I believe that only an artistic director who knew his theater completely could have done such things.
That is the theater’s receiving bay, and I had insisted strongly during the planning of the building that the architects make it so that the receiving bay open directly into the middle of the back wall of the stage. The architects had asked why I was so concerned about the location of the receiving bay and told me that I was overstepping my bounds to insist on a thing like that. But I kept insisting that it come in the center of the stage. I knew that some day it would be useful (laughs). I also asked that the air-conditioning system be designed so that it could be used effectively when filling the stage with smoke effects, and at that time also the architects were asking why an artistic director is making demands about the air-conditioning system (laughs). There are lots of secret devices like this in Theater Cocoon.
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