The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
Directing through the worlds of Brecht and Kabuki Exploring the world of director Kazuyoshi Kushida
Tokaido Yotsuya Kwaidan
This is a “sewamono” (genre) play of the Kabuki repertoire written by Tsuruya Namboku IV. It premiered at the Edo Nakamura-za in 1825. Based on the historical Chushingura story, it tells a tale of horrible obsession of the ghost of the woman Oiwa. It is known as the masterpiece of the Kyogen horror story genre with many dramatic scenes. It was performed for the first Cocoon Kabuki production in 1994 and the seventh in 2006.

A sewamono (genre) play adapted by Nagawa Shimesuke from the original story Sumidagawa Gonichi no Omokage. Rare among the plays of the Kabuki repertoire, this play takes the form of a comedy, telling the story of a beggar priest named Hokaibo who works a series of mischievous deeds against the backdrop of a samurai family crisis involving the whereabouts of a scroll painting entrusted to the house by the Imperial court and the marriage of the family’s daughter. The fate of Hokaibo is depicted with a comical touch even as he is eventually killed, and as the final scene he returns as a ghost and performs a magnificent dance. Being set in the Sumida River area of old Edo (present Tokyo), this play was chosen to open the first Heisei Nakamura-za Kabuki production in an outdoor temporary theater set up by the Sumida River. It will be performed in New York in the summer of 2007.

Subject: Hokaibo
Artist: Heisei Nakamura-za
Season: Festival 2007
Photo credit: Ryoji Sakuma / © Shochiku
Subject: Hokaibo
Artist: Heisei Nakamura-za
Season: Festival 2007
Photo credit: Ryoji Sakuma / © Shochiku
Heisei Nakamura-za for the Lincoln Center Festival
Renjishi (The Three Lions)

July 16-22, 2007
Avery Fisher Hall
For the set of Sannin Kichisa you created a round pool of water about seven meters in diameter in the middle of the stage with a bridge across it. What’s more, you took the unprecedented step of making it so that the pool and bridge could revolve during certain scenes.
Sannin Kichisa (The Three Kichisa) is a play where the riverside setting is particularly important. Edo was a city of waterways and I thought that it would be interesting to have numerous riverside scenes. But having to take time out to change the scenery for each scene would detract from the interest of the play as a whole. So, even though I knew that it would be odd to have a round river, I thought it would be forgivable if a simple revolving of the pool and bridge enabled a variety of quick scene changes. I also thought that it would be nice if we could get some beautiful effects by reflecting light off the water surface.

One of the unexpected things you did was to have the Ojo Kichisa (the young pickpocket Kichisa who dresses like a lady) deliver his famous line about the moon and the misty spring sky from atop the revolving bridge and pool and have him begin the line while facing the back of the stage and end when the bridge has turned 180 degrees and he is facing the audience. The actor must have had a very difficult time with that scene.
Now he is especially proud of that delivery whenever it is performed, but apparently at first he thought I had really gone overboard on that scene (laughs). But, although they deliver that line facing the audience in the regular Kabuki performances, there apparently were doubts about where the moon should be in the past. The scenery is painted on the back wall of the stage and the moon is painted there too, so why should that line be delivered facing the audience instead of facing the moon? It is said that there was an actor seeking a higher level of realism in the Meiji Period who said that the moon must be reflected in the water, so he decided to deliver the line looking down into the water (laughs). So, it is interesting to realize that the people in old days also struggled with these problems.
There are many anecdotes like this in the Kabuki world. For example, in the past they used a real dog in the monkey scene in Sannin Kichisa until Kikugoro the 5th or 6th once used a real monkey. He tried to do something new by using a monkey in the monkey encounter scene, and apparently things had gone well in the rehearsals, but on opening night the monkey ran off into the audience—probably because the people there had their food spread out and were eating—so they had to cancel the monkey appearance after the first performance. The people of old were always trying new things, it seems.

In the climax scene in a snowfield you have an electric guitar playing the sound of the wind and Ojo Kichisa stands in this field of complete white in a bright red kimono. When the three Kichisa, Osho Kichisa, Obo Kichisa and Ojo Kichisa have committed suicide by killing each other and the three bodies lie on the ground with snow falling on them, the music is a lullaby written and sung by a rock singer, Ringo Shiina. I was very surprised and impressed how well Shiina’s song and the electric guitar blended together.
At the premiere six years ago, we used a tape recording of actual wind. In Kabuki, the sound of wind and the sound of snow falling is traditionally represented with a “den den den den den” sound made on a drum, but I proposed using real wind sound. Even at the time, however, I had doubts about whether that was the right thing to do, but now I have gone even farther by using an electric guitar. That’s how much things have changed with me in these six years, and it makes me think.
In Kabuki, when there is an important line in which the actor is about to reveal the truth about something that happened several years earlier, there is a particular shamisen sound known as an aikata that is always made on the shamisen to punctuate the moment. In this latest production of Sannin Kichisa I used the electric guitar not on for the wind but for that aikata sound too. But, when you use the shamisen, that sets the timing of the delivery and you can’t pick up the tempo of the delivery even if you want to. They suggested that if I wanted a faster paced delivery they could remove the shamisen aikata, but I suggested that instead of removing the aikata, we could change it to a different sound and I played them a tape of an electric guitar sound. When Kanzaburo heard it he said it sounded OK. That is how we came to use it combination with the wind-sound guitar part.

By the way, you began directing the Cocoon Kabuki from the second production, Natsumatsuri. How is it that you didn’t direct Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, which was the first production of the Cocoon Kabuki series?
At first I participated in the ambiguous role as artistic director. At the time I thought that I could never direct a Kabuki production, that it was sacred ground I dare not desecrate. At the same time, however, I had the feeling that a partial, unclear sort of role was also not a good thing. If I was going to be involved, I should be involved completely, with full responsibility.
I still have the feeling somewhere in the back of my mind that I should not be directing Kabuki, that I may be breaking down something that shouldn’t be broken down. I still have this inexplicable sense of uncertainty. If things go on like this to the point where we are using rock music and the costuming get to the point where anything is allowed, what will remain to call it Kabuki? I believe that we constantly have to be thinking about what we will be losing in the process.
For example, with cell phones and computers, we gladly use them because they are convenient but we may suddenly realize at some time that by using them we have lost something that was equally important and it is too late to recover them. But I don’t know what is being lost, so I believe that I just have to keep going. I sometimes try vainly to take it on myself to find out what we are losing by going to the Kabuki-za, but I still don’t know. So, I wonder if the essence that was once there hasn’t already been lost.

I would like to backtrack a bit to 2000, when the Heisei Nakamura-za was launched in a temporary theater constructed on the banks of the Sumida River in Tokyo with a performance of Hokaibo. What was the idea behind that move?
That was a realization of Kanzaburo’s idea of recreating the original form of Kabuki. His obsession with this idea moved a lot of people. On the opening day the Chairman of Shochiku was there to pat Kanzaburo on the shoulder and say, “You do your ancestors proud.” I believe that there are a lot of things he has in mind and feelings that are hard for us to know, such as the fact that Kanzaburo’s (Kankuro at the time) ancestors were the heads of the Nakamura-za Kabuki koya in the Edo Period.

Then he went to New York in 2004 and set up a Heisei Nakamura-za temporary theater in the square in front of the Lincoln Center and put on a production of Natsumatsuri Naniwa Kagami. I didn’t see it myself, but they say that it was a great success.
Yes. People with no preconceptions about Kabuki, people with no ideas about how Kabuki has to be, were watching it, so they were able to appreciate it with the same perspective as watching contemporary theater or Shakespeare. The reviews also treated as any other play, talking about the story, the intentions of the staging and direction, and, not knowing that Sasano was not a Kabuki actor, they called him “great actor.” So, I felt that it was a good thing to show it to people who could watch it as theater with no preconceptions.

From July 10 of this year, a Heisei Nakamura-za production of Hokaibo is scheduled to be performed at the Lincoln Center. This is a work that you directed at the Tokyo Kabuki-za in 2005. For that production it was very interesting the way you set up audience seats on either side of the stage and filled them with dummies and a few real people. Was that an attempt to re-create the atmosphere of the theater koya of old?
Actually, ideas like this come from an archive of things I have thought about over the years. Once long ago I went to see a performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute and I had the idea at that time that it would be scary if the people in the audience seats actually turned out to be dummies. Once when I went to the Haiyu-za Theater to see a “New Theater” play as a middle school student, all the people in the audience around me were strangers and adults and I became really scared when I thought that maybe all of these people are serious drama enthusiasts and perhaps even actors in the play themselves and that I was the only one who wasn’t a part of the play (laughs). I have had these kinds of common experiences in the back of my mind for all these years, and that is why I decided to put dummies in those seats in Hokaibo. Also, I wanted to remind people once again that everyone in the audience is actually being seen by the other people in the audience. What’s more, I wanted to do something to narrow that very wide stage at the Kabuki-za, and I also had in mind the fact that in the Edo Period theaters there were seats off to the side of the stage that were the cheapest seats of all.
Hokaibo is a unique work in the Kabuki repertoire. The main character is a beggar priest who appears as a peripheral character in a family feud, and he is a kind of objective observer who refers to himself in the third person. In the Lincoln Center production I want to have all of those comedy lines delivered in English.
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