A grand splash

Dramatist updates classic kabuki at Theatre Cocoon


Just before Japan’s economy took a downturn, the Tokyu railroad conglomerate celebrated good times with the construction of the splendidly designed Bunkamura arts complex just behind its flagship department store in Tokyo’s Shibuya district.

Bunkamura, comprising a concert hall, cinema, gallery and Theatre Cocoon, opened in 1989, and Kazuyoshi Kushida, a dramatist known for his radical productions since the 1960s, was appointed Cocoon’s artistic director. Having been involved in the planning stages of the new theater, Kushida wasted no time turning it into one of the premier venues for contemporary theater by regularly staging works directed both by himself and other luminaries such as Hideki Noda, Suzuki Matsuo and Yukio Ninagawa.

But not being one to settle for proven success formulas, Kushida continued to push the envelope . . . and so he set his sights on updating kabuki.

In 1994, together with his longtime friend, the leading kabuki actor Nakamura Kankuro (honored last year with the name Kanzaburo), Kushida pioneered the genre known today as “contemporary kabuki,” with a production of “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (Yotsuya Ghost Story).” Kushida cast traditional kabuki actors, but beyond that there was nothing traditional about the way he reworked the old story, or the visually innovative manner in which he staged it.

Kushida wanted to broaden the kabuki audience, but unlike Ichikawa Ennosuke, whose then-headline-grabbing “Super Kabuki” relied on visual bombast such as lasers, and actors flying about on wires, he wanted to explore the genre’s dramatic potential.

Contemporary kabuki has since taken on a life of its own, and collaborations between traditional and contemporary theater people have ceased to be sensational — with the exceptions, of course, of Noda’s “Togitatsu no Utare (Togitatsu’s Revenge)” in 2001, which earned the first-known curtain call at the highly conservative Kabukiza in Tokyo, or last year’s groundbreaking kabuki version there of “Twelfth Night” by Ninagawa.

For Theatre Cocoon’s seventh kabuki season, Kushida decided to go back to the beginning — but with a twist — by staging not one but two productions of that pioneering “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan” from 1994. One version, which he calls the Minami (South), virtually re-creates the ’94 production; the other, which he calls the Kita (North), is a very different, revised version that explores the original story more in the manner of contemporary drama. In this, which is being performed 16 times, alternating randomly with 38 performances of the Minami version, Kushida has reworked the story extensively and added episodes cut from the original. He has also replaced the traditional live music with his original contemporary music, and adopted an altogether more experimental approach to the drama.

Kushida, now age 63, with 40 years of theater experience under his belt — including extensive work with regional theater groups and drama workshops — made time last week to talk with The Japan Times between rehearsals for his new kabuki productions at Theatre Cocoon. The topics covered range from his present directorial challenges to the broader outlook for the arts scene in Japan.

Twelve years ago, what inspired you to initiate “contemporary kabuki”?

A long time ago in Shibuya there had been the Toyoko Kabuki [productions staged by young kabuki actors at the Toyoko Hall, from 1954 till 1972] When I was the first artistic director of the Theatre Cocoon [1989-96], the Shochiku Co. [kabuki/film production company] invited me to stage a kabuki play there. I thought it would need to follow in the footsteps of the old Toyoko Kabuki, with a traditional kabuki-style production performed by young actors. But the Shochiku people said that I could do it in whatever way I wanted and create something different if I wanted.

I have always thought that the theater stage should be more open and closer to the auditorium both physically and in terms of atmosphere. However, many modern theaters have a fixed, proscenium-style layout, so there is always a distance between the stage and the auditorium, whereas old-time theaters, and the old kabuki venues, were not like that. We had made Theater Cocoon as free, changeable as possible and the people from Shochiku were intrigued by this. I called my friend [the renowned kabuki actor] Nakamura Kankuro and he came to see the venue and immediately fell in love with it. So then we decided to do a Cocoon Kabuki, and staged “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan [Yoysuya Ghost Story]” in 1994.

Had you always been interested in doing kabuki?

No. For a long time I was rather opposed to its conventional nature, but then I came round to thinking that contemporary and traditional theater are simply different forms of the same thing — theater. Furthermore, kabuki — a rare traditional art form, like kyogeki in China or even noh in Japan — had largely become a “heritage” medium, although it was still able to flourish alongside other forms of theater. They are all mainstays of Japanese entertainment.

But I didn’t regard kabuki as a historical art form to be studied in books or a museum, because its relatively simple themes of love and hate or loyalty and betrayal still appeal to the lives of people today. So, for the Cocoon Kabuki, I chose programs from the Kizewa genre [stories depicting the realities of the lives of Edo citizens] and as those stories are about ordinary people’s lives, even young Shibuya audiences could enjoy them without any special knowledge of history.

I heard that there is a very short preparation period in kabuki, less than a week on average, because most of the programs are repertoires. Is that the case at Cocoon?

Yes, it usually is very short. Since we started the Cocoon Kabuki, I have always asked the kabuki people to extend the rehearsal periods as much as possible. Although kabuki actors can competently perform a play with only a few days’ rehearsal, and that’s generally all the time they have, I thought that that wasn’t enough, so for these productions we finally got 18 days.

You are staging two versions of “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan.” How do they differ?

Most existing kabuki programs are already a digest of the original script. In terms of creating highlight scenes, for example, if a popular actor is playing a small role in a scene, it may be extended longer, while other small episodes might be edited or cut. This time, I reread the original script by Tsuruya Nanboku [1755-1829], and I am going to stage the play faithfully following that script. That gives a big presence to ordinary people’s experience by exploring many of the minor roles rather than just focusing on the heroine’s drama. We are calling this version the Kita-ban. Meanwhile, the Minami-ban re-creates the 1994 production, which earned great acclaim for its innovative theatrical effects, such as a samurai fighting scene in a huge pool with lots of splashing, as well as for some of its classical kabuki acting and effects, such as a quick costume change when the heroine Oiwa [Nakamura Kanzaburo] becomes a ghost.

Moreover, the endings are completely different in the two versions. The Minami-ban ends with a fight scene between two heroes, but the Kita-ban ends with a scene in which one hero, Iemon [Nakamura Hachinosuke], frantically tries to climb up some steps out of hell while many others fall into the abyss.

How do you aim to address society through theater?

I think there should be a various kinds of theater today and I do not want to criticize any other kind of theater, even if they are different from my style. However, one of my policies is to make theater that touches people’s real lives. I don’t want to make a play that only gives the audience instant satisfaction, that only works inside the theater hall. It would be great if my plays influence the audiences’ daily lives in some small way. Sometimes, I take three years to realize a new project, and I have caused producers concern because I’ve gone over budget or extended the preparation time. But I don’t worry about these kinds of things, though I actually should (laughs).

When the English director Simon McBurney came to the Setagaya Public Theater few years ago, he took a very long time to prepare, going over it again and again until he was satisfied. Even though that might be the usual procedure for Simon in England, it hardly ever happens in the Japanese theater world. So, gradually, the Japanese theater approach is changing. For example, my production last year, a musical version of “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” by Bertolt Brecht at SEPT, began three years before in a workshop in Hokkaido.

Do you think theater needs more support from the society, from government or big companies?

We need the financial support, of course, but more than that, we need a better understanding of theater.

A long time ago, when I did a play at the Hakuhinkan Theater in Ginza, I asked them to let me use the venue for 10 days in advance for the rehearsals. The owner was shocked and said it only took one day to decorate a department store for an event, so three days for rehearsal should be enough. I said to him that a play isn’t a bargain sale or a department store’s showcase. Some business people think if they are going to take the same amount of money in the end, so it’s better to cut corners when they make their products. This is a natural dilemma for artists — as to whether theater should be beholden to business or artistic satisfaction.

Do you have any advice for the next generation of dramatists?

I would urge them to create their productions a bit more carefully — especially the young dramatists, who need to think more deeply about the content and the production values. Of course, it’s never good to cancel or delay an opening, but on the other hand, I think that sometimes that would be better than opening a hurried, unpolished and mediocre work.

Why do you think young dramatists may fall into this trap?

I personally prefer to take time to create something carefully at my own pace. When I had to take a break because of poor health recently, I thought about how so many people these days constantly follow the latest news or trends, and they think that they are staying one step ahead. But I think they have actually lost their direction due to their hectic lifestyles.

What does theater mean to you today? What do you want to express the most?

I want to stress the importance of a liberated sense of values. As I said before, the audience should have different, individual opinions about each play. Even if only few people out of hundreds liked a play, the production still has a raison d’e^tre. Nowadays, people check the Internet before they go to a restaurant so they can be satisfied with a predictable result. But I think it’s necessary to experience something that is unpredictable and unexpected.