With only a few new works a year, Ishinha is all about quality theater

by Nobuko Tanaka

Among all of Japan’s many theater companies, the innovative Osaka- based Ishinha (Reformers), founded in 1970 by its current director Yukichi Matsumoto, has stood out consistently. While most companies eye their bottom line, pack their schedules with different productions and move to Tokyo to maximize the number of bums on seats, Matsumoto, now 63, only stages one or two new works a year. And whereas many dramatists are nervous about venturing overseas, Matsumoto and Ishinha have been globe-trotting for over a decade, both as sought-after guests at international festivals (Ishinha will be at the biggest of them all, Edinburgh International Festival, in August 2011) and on many foreign tours.

But what really sets Ishinha apart is that the company members often select a non-artistic outdoor space at which to perform — then, with just a few specialists helping out, they build themselves a theater. Among Ishinha’s previous do-it-yourself venues have been a stage built over Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, another in a derelict rail yard in Shiodome, Tokyo, and one in an abandoned ferry terminal in Osaka.

Ishinha is the only performing-arts program among the 75 projects at the first Setouchi International Art Festival. Its open-air wooden stage, auditorium and entrance bridge, hand built from some 4,000 assorted logs and other timber begged, borrowed or occasionally bought in the Kansai region, is the setting for “Taiwan no Haiiro no Ushi ga Senobi wo shita toki” (“When a Gray Taiwanese Cow Stretched”) for a two-week run.

Premiered at the festival, the play is the third in what its writer, Matsumoto, describes as his “20th century trilogy” — after “Nostalgia” (2007) and “Kokyu Kikai (“Breath Machine”) 2008, which took as their respective subjects poor Japanese emigrants to Brazil and war orphans in Poland. For “Taiwanese Cow,” Matsumoto turns his focus on Japan and Southeast Asia.

Matsumoto, enthusing about the number of visitors to the Setouchi Art Festival who may become theatergoers after seeing Ishinha’s performance, talked about how such crossovers can help to open up the country’s closed theater world.

Why did you choose Asia as the theme of this last play in your “20th century trilogy”?

It was because I imagined a sea route from here, the Seto Inland Sea, to the archipelagoes of Southeast Asia. Usually people focus on Shanghai or Manchuria to explore historical themes about Japan, but I wanted to portray citizen-level stories that are usually overlooked or ignored. It’s interesting, for instance, that records about Japanese who went to other Asian countries and promoted local industries or succeeded in business often remain in those places — most Japanese have never heard of them. For example, as I refer to in the play, in Taiwan there’s still a statue of Yoichi Hatta (1886-1942), who, during Japanese rule, made a huge contribution to hydraulic engineering industry there. It’s even survived Chiang Kai-shek’s rule, during which time most other memorials were destroyed.

Why did you decide to stage this play at Setouchi International Art Festival?

First and foremost, I wanted to do the final part of the trilogy in an open-air theater. Then the festival staff approached us, so last June we went to the seven islands taking part in the festival and decided on Inujima. We performed “Kankara” (“An Empty Can”) at the same place in 2002, and since then, I have regretted the fact we didn’t use the splendid natural setting well enough. Back then, I was overwhelmed by the area’s massive scale and just relied on its backdrop. So, this was a timely opportunity to put that right.

I also wanted Ishinha to take part in some fine-arts festivals. Our self-made stage and sets are in themselves artworks and our performances place great emphasis on visual effects. Many of our followers are art lovers. In Japan, I feel that there are more critically minded and socially aware people in the arts than, unfortunately, there are in the theater world. I wanted to meet interesting artists, see their work and exchange opinions. This festival could become a real hot spot where artists can share their perceptions about today’s world situation.

In December, “Taiwanese Cow” will play the Saitama Arts Theater in Tokyo. Do you often make changes to sets for different venues and will you do so for Saitama?

There are advantages and disadvantages to open-air performances. For Setouchi, we start at 6:30 p.m., while it is still light, so that audiences can enjoy the beautiful sunsets and natural color changes in the background for the first half of the play, even though some of the audience may have difficulty concentrating on the play!

Indoors at Saitama, I expect we will find a way to make a distinct visual image of sea routes around Asia to help audiences visualize a clear map in their heads. I have to admit I’m still trying to work out how to do this (laughs).

I understand you have also been invited to take your troupe to the Edinburgh International Festival next summer. How different is it for Ishinha to perform to a foreign audience?

At the beginning, we were frankly just curious about performing in foreign countries. But then I started to think more deeply about what we were doing because it became clear that whenever Ishinha was invited to be an international guest at a festival, most of the audience were upper class or celebrities. I prefer to give performances to a young and not overprivileged audience — those who normally don’t go to the theater. However, it’s difficult to change the audience strata — so I changed my way of thinking.

I started to try to bring something back to Japan from such trips, things that could be used to make new and better programs here.

Do you have any standout experience from your foreign tours?

When we went to Brazil to present “Natsu no Tobira” (“Summer Door”) in 2006, children at the very bottom of the social ladder volunteered to help build our theater. They probably only got a bit of pocket money and didn’t even get given lunch. I suppose they’d never seen theater before, but I strongly felt that they were the kind of people who, above all, should see our creative performances. So we let them watch from the wings and behind the stage, and we all felt they were watching much more closely than the people in the auditorium.

There are still many performing arts festivals we’ve not been to, and if possible I’d like to have many more chance encounters like that. That’s why I’ve continued with theater for all this time.

“Taiwan no Haiiro no Ushi ga Senobi wo shita toki” runs Dec. 2-5 at the Saitama Arts Center, an 8-minute walk from JR Yonohonmachi Station (Saikyo Line); tickets ¥3,000-5,000. For more information, call Saitama Arts Foundation on (0570) 064-939 or visit www.saf.or.jp or www.ishinha.com