Internationally acclaimed theater director Yukio Ninagawa has staged countless plays in Japan, elsewhere in Asia, and in the United States and Europe.

Born in Saitama Prefecture on Oct. 15, 1935, he began his 47-year stage career as an actor with the Seihai Theater Co. in Tokyo, before switching to directing in 1969 and making his debut with Kunio Shimizu’s “Shinsei Afureru Keihakusa (Hearty but Flippant).” Since then, he has tackled many of the classics of Western theater — including Shakespeare, Sophocles and Chekhov — as well as Japanese classics such as “Chikamatsu Shinju Monogatari (Suicide for Love),” based on the works of Chikamatsu Monzaemon.

His distinctively vivid productions bridging Japanese and Western theatrical traditions have won him fans the world over — though not without generating some controversy among critics and scholars of Western theater.

As if Ninagawa’s self-imposed regime of directing six plays a year wasn’t taxing enough — along with his ongoing commission from Sai No Kuni (Saitama Arts Center) to stage the entire works of Shakespeare — he recently also directed his third film, “The Blue Flame,” based on a novel by Yusuke Takashi and due for release in spring. Further extending his scope, he is now working on Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” which he will direct with the Welsh National Opera in 2004 — the same year he will direct the Royal Shakespeare Company in “Hamlet.”

Meanwhile, his “A Midsummer-Night’s Dream” has just completed a national tour and will be performed in Paris at the Maison de la Culture du Japon from Oct. 10 to 12. Overlapping with that, his “Macbeth” will run in Tokyo at Theatre Cocoon, Bunkamura, from Oct. 9 to 24, before traveling to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York in December. (For more details, visit www.dssstage.co.jp or call Point Tokyo at (03) 3423-7045.

“A Midsummer-Night’s Dream” is one of your hallmark plays. Why did you choose this comedy after directing several tragedies?

In 1970, Peter Brook staged his “Dream” at the Nissei Theatre in Tokyo. At the time, it shocked us young generation of thesps and opened our eyes to the possibility of staging Shakespeare as modern theater. It was a revolutionarily shocking production to us young Asian actors at the time — it was Shakespeare as we had never seen it before.

So when I was looking around for a [Shakespeare] comedy to direct, “Dream” seemed the natural choice. It occurred to me that it would be the perfect opportunity to fashion my own response to Brook — and to come up with a response as a Japanese dramatic artist.

Brook’s “Dream” takes place in midair, and so I thought I would set mine on the Earth. I thought this could work as the rock garden at Ryoanji in Kyoto, where I set my play, is a kind of small universe unto itself. I thought the garden would be a powerful metaphor, symbolizing the Japanese cosmic view of the world.

What is the relevance of “Dream” to a contemporary Japanese audience?

Think about it like this: There’s nothing more embarrassing than reading over next morning that love letter you wrote in the middle of the night. Or when you think back on a phone conversation you had the night before, don’t you ever stop and wonder in the clear light of day — “What made me say all those crazy things?” To me that’s the soul of “A Midsummer-Night’s Dream” — human folly. When I was on tour in Britain, I had the chance to see a British production of the play. It was very cerebral and logical in its approach — perhaps too logical. I felt extremely uncomfortable with this interpretation because I felt that in the middle of the night human beings do crazy things — reason retreats. That’s why, for example, I used two actors to simultaneously play the role of Puck.

So do you believe that the plot and themes of this play are timeless ones in the human comedy of life?

Yes. But you have to understand that when we Japanese read Shakespeare, it’s a completely different process from that of our British counterparts. English isn’t our native language, so we naturally encounter a number of hurdles from the start. Also, as we haven’t lived through the history and culture of that country, these things will always be no more than an appendage to our knowledge. The part of Shakespeare’s work that reaches us after overcoming all those hurdles is what I take to be the essence of the work. My job is to capture this essence and bring it to life on stage — it is this part that addresses universal themes of humanity.

Are there differences in the way British and Japanese audiences react to your “Dream”?

The reactions are completely different. To start with in Britain, the moment the yakisoba scene with the workmen draws to a close in Act 2, there was a deafening wave of applause and roars of laughter. I get the impression the British audience had been looking forward to this scene and had been curious as to what kind of workmen I would give them. In Japan, by contrast, there’s silence when the curtain falls at the end of that scene. At this point in the play, I imagine the Japanese audience is trying to find its feet and gauge the appropriate response — whether or not to laugh. In Britain, after that scene the play takes off, whereas in Japan it is still warming up, and it takes a bit more work and time to get the audience completely engaged.

Has there been a notable difference between the British and Japanese critical responses to your work?

The three top national newspapers branded the Benisan Pit [theater’s production of] “Dream” as “the worst Shakespeare — ever.” I think many Japanese critics find it hard to say they liked it definitively. For one thing it was so different from versions staged in Japan up till then. Take my casting of a Chinese opera actor in the role of Puck, for example — they just didn’t know what to make of touches like these.

I’m surprised to hear there were such reservations about your Puck. For me, Puck was one of the most ingenious creations in your production and the most captivating to watch.

In the ’90s, when I was mulling over ways to meet the challenge of producing theater of international caliber, I starting thinking about the characteristics of Asian theater that set it apart from its European counterparts. It struck me that it was the importance of physical as well as verbal expression in the Asian dramatic vocabulary that makes its so special. Traditional forms of Asian theater, such as Chinese opera, are extremely physically demanding, whereas European theater is less so, and the focus is on verbal expression.

What is it about your plays that have enabled you to be successful outside Japan?

Firstly, I think my works are visually intelligible. When presenting a classic European play to a Japanese audience, there are too many things that cannot be communicated by rhetoric alone. It’s impossible to win the hearts of the Japanese audience without producing vivid visuals. This has been my attitude toward my work, and that’s why striking visuals are vital to my mode of communication.

Much value is attached to language, but personally I’d like people to recognize the importance of the eye — this is where I’ve clashed with the critics.

Secondly, I’ve only directed plays that address themes common to all humanity. There are a lot of Shakespeare plays that I have not touched, such as “The Merchant of Venice.” This is because the Jewish issue does not have the same sense of immediacy or social and historical meaning to us Japanese as it has for Europeans. I could not do justice to the play.

Was the gap between your philosophy of theater and the role of language in it, and that of your British critics, particularly apparent with “King Lear”?

I clashed with them over “Lear” — especially over the storm scene. In this scene Lear is encountering a storm of life-shattering magnitude — so what if stones rain down from the heavens in this mad storm? From the point of view of drama, the words should take a back seat at such moments. But it doesn’t work like that in British theater, of course. When I go to Britain, the reaction I get is: “What the hell are those stones doing in this scene?” Over there, the “correct” way of doing this scene is by using the power of rhetoric alone to create the storm — but it’s precisely this kind of logic that I want to question.

You often superimpose Japanese dramatic arts such as noh and kabuki on classic Western theater, and this has at times attracted criticism from purists. What is your response to such criticism?

I’ve had very little negative feedback from people involved in the traditional Japanese dramatic arts. On the other hand, a number of scholars of European and English theater have labeled my work “Japanesque.” But from my point of view, the only reason I resort to Japanese or Japanesque modes of expression is because I want Japanese audiences to understand my work. It’s not that I’m using these symbols for the benefit of foreign audiences — this is a totally misconceived criticism. My main audience is the Japanese audience, and I think the best way to enable my core audience to understand my work is through typically Japanese analogies.

Do you think you have contributed to changing the perception of Shakespeare in Japan?

That’s a tough question, and one that I don’t quite know how to answer. All I can say is that people have kept coming to see my plays, which makes me want to believe that at least they are enjoying them and finding them entertaining. I’d like to think this is a sign that they understand what I’m trying to do. (Laughs).

What kinds of people come to see your plays? What are they looking for?

They are from all walks of life, from teenagers to pensioners. I think they’re seeking an “exciting” and intense experience removed from the realities of daily life — an espresso rather than an American, if you use the analogy of coffee. I think that’s what they come for, and that’s what I hope to offer them.

What challenges have you come across from your experience of working abroad, especially working with the RSC on “King Lear” in 1999?

When I work with British actors, I have to start from square one. For me as a director, it’s always been a terribly humbling and eye-opening experience. I think it’s important to be faced with challenges like that now and again to keep one’s pride in check — that’s something I learned working with them. They refuse to budge unless you give them a logical explanation to get them to do what you want them to do. It’s always Why? Why? Why? In contrast, in Japan everything operates smoothly under the veil of tacit consent. But I’ve realized that it’s healthy to be challenged to articulate one’s thoughts. That’s why I don’t lose my temper so often these days — communication comes first.

Why have you focused your directorial energies on Western rather than Japanese dramatic works?

I think the problem with Japanese plays is that compared to Shakespeare and other European works, the dramatic structure is too weak. The dramatic conflicts are too wishy-washy. They are far too preoccupied with the reconciliation of conflicts, and the result is lack of dramatic tension.

What does theater mean to you?

Theater provides me with a framework for communication — I feel liberated within the fictive world of theater. It’s the only way in which I feel I can truly express myself, and be myself.

In Japan, where the public profile of dramatic arts is so low, how did you get involved in theater in the first place?

I initially aspired to become a painter, but I flunked art school. After that I had a stab at acting, but I always felt awkward and self-conscious on stage. It was only when I started directing that I felt truly in my element and freed from my inhibitions. It’s hard to explain, but I can be myself when I’m in the rehearsal studio and assume the role of “director.”

What is the value of theater in society?

To be honest, I think the reality is that theater is something to which this society is indifferent — it doesn’t make much of a difference whether it exists or not.

That’s a depressing thought. Do you think attitudes to theater are likely to change in the future?

I’m not so sure. I don’t have much confidence that things are changing. It’s clear to me that people don’t care about theater in this country. Perhaps it’s a natural outgrowth of indigenous customs and lifestyle. It might also be because theater has yet to fully mature as an art form in Japan — I don’t know.

After the war, people were so eager to catch up with Europe and the U.S., that in the mad rush to improve the material quality of life we forgot about the most important things. And to this day people still don’t give a damn about theater — even though it shouldn’t be that way. Of course, I’d like to think that people will start slowing down some day and each person will start reawakening to the spiritual side of life. That’s my hope. As for reality . . .

Do you have any pearls of wisdom to offer budding actors, directors or producers who aspire to follow in your footsteps?

There’s no point bemoaning the status of theater in Japan — nothing will come of it. I think the only thing you can do is to continue to work your butt off and strive to produce the best plays for your audience, even if your audience only consists of a handful of people. All I need is an open space and an actor to create a play. So what if you’re on a tight budget — make the wigs and props by hand. Don’t let small details like that stop you from doing what you want to do. As long as you have talent, or rather confidence in your own talent, you can make it happen.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.