Seventy-six-year-old theater director Yukio Ninagawa is famed and honored the world over for his magnificently visualized stagings of Shakespeare and Ancient Greek tragedies — as well as modern Japanese plays.

He was awarded a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 2002, and has been invited to present his latest interpretation of “Cymbeline,” at the World Shakespeare Festival in London this month.

Yet this lofty international figurehead of Japanese drama — who usually has at least two productions on the go — uncharacteristically betrays more than a hint of an apology for the outcome of his latest project, an adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s 2002 fantasy novel “Umibe no Kafka (Kafka on the Shore)”

Ninagawa writes in the program to this play, “I hope Murakami won’t see this play, if that’s possible.”

“Kafka on the Shore” was an international best-seller, with Philip Gabriel’s translation of it earning a place as one of the New York Times’ best 10 books of 2005. U.S. playwright and director Frank Galati’s stage version of the novel, which is based on Gabriel’s translation, originally premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in 2008. It followed Galati’s debut adaptation of Murakami’s “After the Quake,” in 2005. Both the plays garnered rave reviews.

Ninagawa, it seems, has a lot to live up to in that this is the first-ever staging of “Kafka on the Shore” in Japan.

“The novel is so theatrical, funny and erotic,” wrote Galati in a recent e-mail interview. “The boy Kafka, and his alter-ego Crow, plunge into a labyrinth of myth and the collective (human) unconscious. The story of Oedipus is the template for Murakami’s narrative and yet his prose has the flow of jazz.”

It’s a tale of two parallel journeys. The hero, a taciturn 15-year-old boy named Kafka (played in Ninagawa’s version by Yuya Yagira), accompanied by an imaginary companion named Crow (Hayato Kakizawa), leaves home to escape from his screwed-up father and heads for Takamatsu in Shikoku to search for his estranged mother and sister.

Meanwhile, Nakata (Katsumi Kiba), a disabled old man, leaves his home in Tokyo’s Nakano Ward, not far from Kafka, and hitchhikes to Takamatsu to find a special stone that he believes will offer him divine guidance about his troubled life.

On their journeys, these neighbors, who’ve never met, experience fateful encounters — Kafka with his Oedipus icon Saeki (Yuko Tanaka) and Nakata with a young long-distance truck driver named Hoshino (Tsutomu Takahashi). Both end up facing unknown futures in what is a story charged with metaphors.

“The task of adapting a work of fiction for the stage starts with the sense that you have as you follow the thread of a narrative,” said Galati of his writing and direction of “Kafka on the Shore” in Chicago. “Inside the epic story, a play is perhaps lurking.”

He explained that he tried to give particular consideration to the distribution of narration among the characters so that audiences could gain access to their inner lives.

While Galati’s direction allowed him to be swept away by Murakami’s fantasy world, leaving its actual interpretation to the imagination of the audiences, Ninagawa’s version strives for something more concrete. And perhaps this is where he goes wrong, in his attempt at what he’s usually so good at: bringing text to visual life through his extraordinary imagination.

As Ninagawa explains in the program, “I tried as much as possible to present audiences with multiple-layered sets giving alternative visual information about the labyrinth that was hiding — or lurking — in the text of ‘Kafka on the Shore.’ “

This translated into numerous huge, three-sided box-like plastic wagons on rollers, inside which Ninagawa constructed realistic scene sets — a thick forest, a precisely rendered room of a public library, a full-size truck — that were moved around by black-clad stage assistants.

It is a stunningly original way to switch between discrete visual scenes, and their self-contained neatness also lent a certain tranquillity befitting of Murakami’s writing style. So what’s the hitch?

Well, as astonished as the audience was, the novelty soon wore off and those compartmentalized sets became obstacles to the flow of the drama. They started to dominate the stage rather than complement performance, especially when it took a considerable time to shift the set-boxes around. As a result, the play ended up running for almost four hours — compared with Galati’s two-hour Steppenwolf version.

As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, the actors’ movements were also restricted in the boxes, making it difficult for them to freely express their characters.

Luckily, under such circumstances, Tanaka still managed to give a superb performance of the mysterious Saeki, convincingly portraying her character’s agonies irrespective of any distractions.

Yuya Yagira — perhaps best known as the 14-year-old boy who won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004 for his role in Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Daremo Shiranai (Nobody Knows)” — also just managed to carry off his first-ever stage role, as Kafka.

Despite these performances, though, perhaps we should take “Kafka on the Shore” as an exception that proves the rule when it comes to Ninagawa. There’s no doubt that the director can be a genius on the stage. It’s just here, unfortunately, it seems to rather baulk the flow.

“Umibe no Kafka (Kafka on the Shore)” runs till May 20 at Saitama Arts Center. It then plays from June 21 to 24 at Theatre Brava! in Osaka. For more details, call Horipro at (03) 3490-4949 or visit www.horipro.co.jp.

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