The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Yuichiro Kanai
Yuichiro Kanai
Born in Tokyo in 1960, Yuichiro Kanai graduated from the Department of Architecture, Faculty of Science and Technology of the Tokyo University of Science. Became the president of Kanai Scene Shop Co., Ltd. after the passing of his father, Shunichiro Kanai, in 2006. Awards include the Japan Theatre Arts Association Grand Prix (2001), the Outstanding Staff Award of the Yomiuri Theater Awards of 2004 for Yume no Nakazo Senbonzakura and the Heisei Nakamura-za production of Kagamiyama Gonichi no Iwafuji and the same Outstanding Staff Award in 2006 for the stage art for NINAGAWA Twelfth Night. In 2008 Kanai won the Ito Kisaku Award for stage art for Tsukigami.

Kanai Scene Shop Co., Ltd
SIS company production Mabuta no Haha
May–June, 2008 at the Setagaya Public Theatre
Photo: Yuichiro Kanai / © SIS company
Mabuta no Haha
Mabuta no Haha Mabuta no Haha
an overview
Artist Interviewアーティストインタビュー
Meet set creator Yuichiro Kanai, 4th-generation president of a Kabuki set production company and set designer for contemporary theater and new Kabuki  
Yuichiro Kanai has revolutionized traditional Kabuki stage art with his use of Art Nouveau designs and massive mirrors for the set of director Yukio Ninagawa’s contemporary Kabuki production NINAGAWA Twelfth Night. Since entering the world of stage art after an internship at the New York’s Metropolitan Opera and going on to contribute stage designs for Ennosuke Ichikawa’s “Super Kabuki” productions, he has breathed new life into the world of traditional Kabuki set design. As the 4th-generation president of the renowned Kanai Scene Shop Co., Ltd. (Kanai Odogu) Kabuki set production company and a contemporary-theater stage designer, Yuichiro Kanai straddles two fascinating worlds. Here we spoke with him about his innovative stage art.
(Interviewer: Toshiya Kusaka, President, Art Space Factory)

There is a book titled Kabuki Odogushi (Kabuki Set Maker) written by the Kabuki set backdrop painter Kumaji Kugimachi at the age of 85 as a memoir of his career. It was just reprinted last year and in preparation for this interview I read it again.
    The book tells how Kugimachi gradually changed the former dogucho (set-making notebook), which was the notebook containing little more than sumi ink sketches and written notes that the odogushi (the “set makers” including carpenters, paper [wall] hangers and painters) referred to when making a Kabuki set for a given play. Kugimachi gradually recreated these set-making notebooks into fully illustrated 1/50 scale working blueprint type drawings that came to be known as the Kugimachi style dogucho.
Reading Kugimachi’s memoir Kabuki Odogushi, which begins from the time he entered apprenticeship at the age of ten under the master set painter Kanbe-e Hasegawa XIV in 1912, you get a good idea of how the work of the Kabuki set makers was carried on through the late Meiji, Taisho and Showa periods of the 20th century.
    Originally, Kabuki sets were built and painted by craftspeople working as stage crew at each of the small Kabuki theaters and Kanbe-e Hasegawa I, a traditional (shrine) carpenter working in the Nihonbashi district of old Tokyo (Edo) was apparently the first to establish a separate set-making company in 1650, under the Hasegawa name. As I understand it, the Kanai Scene Shop Co., Ltd. (Kanai Odogu) that you have now become the 4th-generation president of was established in 1924 by Kugimachi, who until then had worked as a scene painters at Hasegawa, and Yoshitaro Kanai, who also worked at Hasegawa as a master carpenter who had apprenticed under Kanbe-e.

    That’s correct. The profession of the set (odogu) maker was already established in the Edo period, and at that time Hasegawa Odogu was the only maker company status. And today, Kanai Scene Shop is the only company carrying on that Hasegawa Odogu tradition. I would add that Hasegawa Odogu is carried on today by the Kabuki-za Butai Co., Ltd. run by Shochiku as the maker of Kabuki sets.
    I took over as the 4th president of Kanai Scene Shop when my father (the late Shunichiro Kanai) passed away in 2006 after specializing himself for many years in Kabuki set production.

And how did you become a set designer yourself?
    There may be a lot of people who grow up in a family like mine and start spending increasing amount of time at the theater from childhood. But to tell you the truth, in my case I didn’t even truly know what my father’s job was until I went to college. It was due to an educational policy that my parents had: not to talk about the theater. In short, it is not like the case of kabuki actors, who have to learn their art from an early age by more or less growing up in the theater. My parents believed that when the time came that I discovered what my father’s profession was and decided I wanted to pursue it too, it would not be too late, and it would be my own decision. So, through elementary, middle and high school I grew up like an average kid and it wasn’t until I went to college that I learned what my father’s job was.
    In college, I happened to choose to major in architecture, and that is when I started working part-time at my father’s company. In 1983, I went along with my father when the first Kabuki performance was staged at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. That was my third year in college and I still had no idea what the work of Kabuki set design and production involved.

Did you go along as an official (working) member of the staff?
    I was just what you might call an errand boy (laughs). That was the first time that I really got to see the work of stage set making (odogu), and how interesting it could be. After that, I graduated from college and entered my father’s company, Kanai Scene Shop, and when Danjuro (Ishikawa) and Tamasaburo (Bando) took another Kabuki production to the Metropolitan in New York again in 1985, this time I went along as official staff. It turned out that I was part of the team, mainly because I could speak English, and Joe Clark, the Metropolitan’s technical director at the time, asked me if I wanted to come to study under him. With that invitation I was able to get a grant for foreign study from the Agency of Cultural Affairs and spent two years studying and training at the Metropolitan.

Though we say training, in reality the labor unions are so strong in the American and British theater industries that it is very difficult to get the opportunity to actually work on the front line if you aren’t a union member. Isn’t that true?
    However, when I got over there and they asked me what I could do, I said I had studied architecture, so I could do blueprints. They gave me some to do and when they saw the results they said they could use me. At the time, the only person at the Metropolitan Opera who was drawing blueprints was Patrick Mark, who was an assistant technical director. So, they immediately put me to work measuring all the sets and making blueprints of them as a means of recording and cataloging the stage art. Those blueprints were then stocked as records of the theater’s productions so that when the productions were restaged the blueprints could be used and minor changes added. And the stock is still being used that way today.
    So, you could say that rather than being given a job of my own I was filling in where help was needed, and that turned out to be a fortunate arrangement. Usually a trainee is either just left to watch or asked to help out in menial jobs like filing materials and the like. In my case I was able to join in the meetings and make blueprints from the sketches of some of the leading stage designers of the day. At the time, the Metropolitan had two assistant technical directors, and then there was only Patrick Mark besides them, so it was better for them to have four people working rather than just three. They told me to join in, so by the second year I was being given a production to be in charge of on my own.
    After my two-year study period was over they asked me to stay on, but I felt that if I did I would soon be thinking and acting like an American and lose my ability to deal effectively with the Japanese way of doing things, so I returned to Japan, knowing that my links with the States would not be cut completely.
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