Hidenori Inoue takes a stab at Richard III

The founder of Gekidan★Shinkansen and leader in entertainment drama is looking farther afield for source material

by Nobuko Tanaka

During his final year at Osaka University of Arts in 1980, Hidenori Inoue founded the Gekidan★Shinkansen theater company with several classmates. The 48-year-old native of Fukuoka in Kyushu hasn’t looked back since.

“I got a huge response from audiences early on,” he told The Japan Times recently, “and because applause is a hard thing to turn away fromI have continued as a stage director for nearly 30 years.”

Though Gekidan★Shinkansen practices what Inoue calls a manga style of theater — “with full-on sound effects and stylish and speedy action scenes” — his works have come to be known as “Inoue kabuki.” The showy productions dominate the entertainment drama scene in Japan, but Inoue is not one to rest on his laurels. In recent years, he has collaborated with other types of dramatists to concentrate on story-telling over effects. His latest such production is “Richard III,” his second attempt at Shakespeare, opening Jan. 10 in Sendai. As one who has never been afraid of taking the bull by the horns, Inoue is a more than appropriate dramatist to feature on this New Year’s Day.

Why did you choose “Richard III” as your first Shakespeare play?

If I was going to do Shakespeare, I wanted to do “Richard III.” His character fascinates me because he flaunted his evil deeds and kept carrying them out vigorously until he achieved his goal — the throne. Then, after he got to the top, he became a doomed wreck in next to no time. I just think that that’s an amazing story.

Recently, during rehearsals, I realized he probably had a big mother complex, something I’d never imagined before. But in this production, Kazuyo Mita plays his mother, the Duchess of York, and I don’t know if it’s because of her acting, but I can see clearly Richard’s mother complex now.

I wondered how Richard felt when his mother belittled him for his deformity (a hunchback), and thought it might be similar to how modern delinquents sometimes become criminals if their own mother finds fault with them.

How have you actually made Shakespeare’s play into a Shinkansen “Richard III?”

I’ve cut some of the details of English history during the Wars of the Roses (1455-85), as that’s too detailed for Japanese audiences. However, at first, I thought of doing the play in our usual Japanese style, as if it was a story about barons in the Heian Period (794-1185) or something. But I thought people would say that it was a copy of Yukio Ninagawa’s productions, so I tried to do a faithful Shakespeare.

After “Richard III” I believe that you will be doing another big production.

A month after “Richard III” closes, Shinkansen will present a new samurai-period play in Tokyo and Osaka. Our trademark action-drama productions that people call “Inoue kabuki” are written by our resident playwright Kazuki Nakajima, but for this new play, “Kagerou Touge (Mayfly Pass),” I asked Kankuro Kudo (one of Japan’s most popular playwrights) to write his take on a cool bandit drama. About three years ago, Kudo dramatized Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” (titled “Metal Macbeth”) for us, with live heavy-metal music, original songs and 1980s-style leather costumes. This is his first original period play for Shinkansen.

Most of Japan’s theater companies are said to lose money. Has Shinkansen been making a profit?

When I founded Shinkansen in 1980, Japan was just entering its bubble-economy period, and we kept moving from one theater to a bigger one and then a bigger one again. Many contemporary theater companies were doing the same thing. Although Shinkansen did quite well, it wasn’t until 1995 that we could stand alone without help. So, in the first 15 to 20 years, we didn’t make any profit.

Nowadays, most young dramatists are not interested in going up that ladder, and I suppose that’s OK. Certainly small- scale theaters are important, and many of them create high-quality performances. On the other hand, it is a reality that they have to survive financially, so theater needs support from somebody.

Without healthy economic conditions, Japanese theater in the future will have to have mass appeal, such as with musicals or large-scale entertainment dramas.

What are the main differences between the theater scene now and 30 years ago?

I think young theater people now are much more skilled. Back then, you could be on stage if you were just good looking or had a loud voice, but most of today’s young, small theater groups display real quality from the start.

In my early days in Osaka, there was a unique local drama culture, and a theater called Ogimachi Museum Square supported us financially and artistically for a long time, so that we could later be successful in Toyko. That theater closed in 2003 and, to be honest, the drama scene in Osaka is now dead. Interesting and talented people there are setting their sights on owarai (stand-up comedy), and not on theater.

Now, it is just Tokyo that is barely keeping up theater culture with its many small-scale companies. But I was disappointed to hear that the 150-seat Theater Tops in Shinjuku will close in March as the building’s owner has plans for the site. Theater is the first sector to suffer in a recession, and there is a limit to how many individual bailouts there can be, so I hope the government or big corporations will move in with support. Otherwise, once the passing-on of drama culture is broken, it’s so hard to restart it. After all, the reason why kabuki is still flourishing is because it’s been continuing so long without a break.

“Richard III” shows Jan. 10 and 11 at Izumi City 21 Hall in Sendai and Jan. 19 to Feb. 1 at Akasaka Act Theater in Tokyo, a 2-minute walk from Akasaka Station on the Chiyoda Subway Line. For more information, call Parco Entertainment at (03) 3477-5857 or visit www.parco-play.com “Kagerou Touge” runs Mar. 13 to Apr. 12 at Akasaka Act Theater and Apr. 21 to May 7 at Umeda Arts Theater in Osaka. For more information, call Dipps Planet at (03) 5283-0656 or visit www.kageroutouge.com