“This wonderful project started when my friend, the Lebanese writer Wajdi Mouawad, gave me a book and said I should make a movie out it,” Francois Girard explains. “But after I read it I got back to him and said, ‘Sorry, I disagree with you. This is really not right for a movie — but it’s perfect for theater.’ That book was ‘Ryoju’ (‘The Hunting Gun’), a 1949 masterpiece by the genius novelist Yasushi Inoue.”
Canadian director/screenwriter Girard, 48, is a prolific creator for both the stage and screen. He first made his mark in 1998 with his direction of the Oscar-nominated film “The Red Violin,” and he’s particularly well-known for writing and directing “Zed,” the Cirque du Soleil’s program currently being staged at a specially built theater in Tokyo Disney Resort in Chiba Prefecture. He has now also created “Zarkana,” a new show for the same entertainment group, which opened recently in New York.
In 2007, when Girard was directing the movie “Silk,” the story of a 19th-century French silkworm dealer who travels to Japan on business and falls in love with the concubine of a rural bigwig, he came across actress Miki Nakatani. Though she wasn’t the lead role, Nakatani’s skill impressed Girard enough for him to decide he wanted to work with her again.
Nakatani was one of the first actors Girard contacted when he was invited to direct a stage version of “Ryoju” written by fellow Quebecois, Serge Lamothe. The play, a collaboration of Japanese actors taking the main roles and Canadians making up the rest of the creative team, including the director, stage and costume designers, and sound staff.
The play, like the book, is built around three letters, each written by one of three women — Midori, Saiko and Shoko — and all to the same man, Josuke Misugi. Josuke is Midori’s husband, Saiko’s lover and Shoko’ uncle. Girard offered Nakatani the choice of any one of the main roles, but was surprised and inspired when she replied that she wanted to play all three.
As a result, for Nakatani’s stage debut, she not only plays all the lead roles, but she also narrates this acute exploration of three women’s relationship with one man.
Back in July, when he was in Tokyo to promote the nearly two-month staging of “Ryoju” in Japan, which starts on Oct. 3, Girard sat down to talk about the play, his relationship with Nakatani and working with both Western and Japanese actors.
What interested you about this project?
It spoke to my heart, and my heart said it was important to put this novel on the stage. It’s a tribute to the beauty of Inoue’s work.
I have several favorite lines in the novel, and I particularly like the image of an episode in the letter written by the ill-fated Saiko (Josuke’s lover). She recounts talking to classmates in school about using passive and active language in English grammar, and someone says as an example: “Do you want to love? Or, do you want to be loved?” She recalls that question of love as her life draws to an end, and I think it’s an interesting question that’s raised in such a beautiful context. I guess we all want both — but probably few people can have both.
What do you think makes this story of universal appeal?
Love and possible love; fate and how we get caught in secrets and sometimes in lies; how passion is sometimes so difficult to live with; and how sometimes we hurt the people we love.
This is a very wise and mature fiction of human passion, and its contents are true in Japan as well as in Canada (the play recently had its four-day world-premier run at the Usine C theater in Montreal, Quebec).
“Ryoju” the novel was written 60 years ago, and you are staging the play at the Parco Theater which has a reputation of a young, trendy audience. How do you hope to appeal to them?
We don’t have an agenda to teach anything new to today’s audiences. Everybody loves Shakespeare because it still rings true in our hearts and nobody cares when it was written. So, if Inoue’s book touched my heart, then I believe my role as a director is to share that feeling with the audience.
Inoue’s story is a familiar one. It crosses different times and cultures — love is love, desire is desire, and lust is lust. Even today’s Shibuya girls have their own individual ways of living and reasons to live. It’s the same for anyone.
Having said that, I think it would also be good for the younger to learn about the traumatic postwar period of this story, as back then, in 1949, Japan was just waking up from a nightmare and Inoue exuded positive thinking. Now, Japan is recovering from the Great East Japan Earthquake, the country’s biggest disaster since 1945. I think this play has a very real connection with today’s Japan, and its meaning can be grasped by anyone.
What advantages are there to Nakatani taking on three roles as well as narrating.
First of all, it’s a prerogative of theater to offer new possibilities — and what a beautiful possibility to have one actress show us three different characters. I also think it’s very touching to see an actress take on such a challenge, so it has a high emotional value for audiences, too — to see a single actress fight such a brave battle.
If she only acted one role, which do you think it should be?
For me, Saiko is the closest to Miki, as Saiko is the most thoughtful and evanescent of the three women.
In your experience, what differences are there between Western and Japanese actors?
There are, of course, differences in the way they express themselves. Japanese actors tend to hold their emotions inside, which can require more power than releasing them. The empathy isn’t simply derived through certain triggers such as screaming, tears or emotional behavior.
You can still connect to an audience by keeping emotions inside, and it can lead to a more powerful affect. In this play, I expect Miki’s sensibility will achieve such a result.
What do you think about new media like YouTube and Internet broadcasts of plays?
They are platforms; we are living in era of digital technology and it’s an even bigger challenge to create unforgettable and meaningful stagings, because people now have a lot more to watch and see.
I have nothing against such new media, and I actually use them for my research. But, nothing is a more powerful experience than when hundreds of people gather in a dark room and see imaginative sets and actors’ live performances in a theater. That will never been replaced by anything.
“Ryoju”runs Oct. 3 to 23 at the Parco Theater, in Shibuya. It then tours to Hyogo, Niigata, Fukuoka, Nagoya and Kyoto from Oct. 29 to Nov. 27. For more details, call the Parco Theater on (03) 3477-5857, or visit www.parco-play.com.