In the theater world, director Yukio Ninagawa is a living legend. Practicing his craft for more than 30 years and in the international spotlight for 20, he has yet to exhaust his renowned creativity and energy.
However, Ninagawa, still feisty at 65, attributes his success to something beyond imagination and stamina. “I like to fight,” he said. “Not physical fights, I like to fight with different moments.”
Ninagawa is a man who likes a challenge. Three years ago, he set out to direct all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays at the Saitama Arts Theater. He gave himself 13 years; his most recent, “Macbeth,” was the eighth. That production has now moved to Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon in Tokyo, and, as if he weren’t busy enough already, he’s simultaneously directing “Chikamatsu Shinju Monogatari (Suicide for Love)” at the Meiji-za Theater in Ningyocho.
And still no sign of exhaustion. Fortunately, for this writer, he also showed no signs of his notorious short temper during a recent interview. He was happy to talk about his career, his fame as a Japanese director of Western works and the revival of his award-winning production of “Chikamatsu Shinju Monogatari.”
Born in Saitama Prefecture, Ninagawa once dreamed of becoming an actor. After years of struggling, he gave up his failing onstage career and moved offstage to pursue directing at the age of 32. Here he found his forte. Ten years after making his directorial debut, he made his masterpiece, “Chikamatsu Shinju Monogatari.”
This production marked a new direction for Ninagawa — up to that point, he’d concentrated on the works of Shakespeare. “I had directed a lot of Western plays,” he explained, “but the time had come to read again some of the greatest Japanese classics.”
And it was this production combining both ancient and modern Japanese traditions that won him the Grand Prize at the Arts Festival in Japan in 1979. International success soon followed.
Still, even acclaimed directors get nervous. Recalling his first overseas production of Shakespeare in 1983 — the staging of “Medea” in Rome — Ninagawa says he was scared to death.
“Tadao Nakane [who has produced almost all of Ninagawa’s plays since the early ’70s] and I watched the performance in a bush at the back of the outdoor theater, shivering with fright.”
He can easily say this with a smile because his fears were unfounded. Just four years later, “Medea” and “Ninagawa Macbeth” were staged together at the Royal National Theatre in London, winning him a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for best director.
Earlier this month marked another major milestone in his career — the 1,000th performance of “Chikamatsu Shinju Monogatari.” But Ninagawa’s reaction to this achievement is humble. “When it was first performed,” he simply said, “I never imagined that it would run for so long.”
“Chikamatsu Shinju Monogatari” is based on the works of Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724), a writer of joruri (melodramatic operatic dramas) and one of Japanese theater’s most important playwrights. It tells the story of two lower-class couples walking the path toward double-suicide.
A tone of classic traditions is set at the play’s start, with a joruri puppet appearing on the darkened stage (worked by leading puppet maker and puppeteer Jusaburo Tsujimura).
But Ninagawa incorporated other, more modern traditions, such as the inclusion of an enka song later in the play, sung by the husky-voiced veteran Shinichi Mori. He also used actors from shingeki, a European-influenced school of drama that evolved during the early 1920s.
Little has been altered in the revival from the original 1979 production, something Ninagawa says is because “the original directing plan was so good.” Both the stage design and script, written by Matsuyo Akimoto, have been left untouched. Cast and costumes aside, the only major update is to the scene of the doomed lovers’ suicides on a snowy mountainside.
Because the penultimate scene — a comic exchange between a merchant and his wife — tended to distract from the gravity of the suicides that followed, Ninagawa decided to crank up the final scene’s dramatic beauty by having snow fall not only on stage — as he did in the 1979 run — but on the audience as well.
But there’s another, less obvious reason for the change. “I’m afraid of growing old,” Ninagawa confides. “That’s why I challenge my own work and continue creating new things.”
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