Yoshi Oida has appeared in many works by the famed Paris-based English director Peter Brook, and in 2013 the Japanese actor who has, like him, also lived in the City of Light for more than four decades, was made a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government.
Looking back over his career in a recent conversation we had in Tokyo, the 81-year-old veteran who left mainstream theater in Japan to perform in Brook’s “The Tempest” in Paris in 1968, explained, “During my childhood, kabuki troupes would put on koshibai (short plays) at little theaters, which I loved and watched every week. Then, when we were evacuated during the war, I enjoyed watching the village plays.
“But when I was 12 or 13, I got interested in Shakespeare, Chekhov, Beckett and the like, and I never looked back — though I’ve got nostalgic in my old age about three dreams I’ve had since I was a child: To perform in taishū-engeki (theater for the masses) and also kabuki — and to play Harpagon in Molière’s ‘L’Avare ou L’École du mensonge.’
“Now I will soon realize those dreams, because this year I made a guest appearance in a taishū-engeki play and also took a small role in ‘Sannin Kichisa’ directed by Kazuyoshi Kushida at Cocoon Kabuki in Tokyo — and next year I will play Harpagon in Hyogo!”
Recalling that Cocoon appearance in June, he said, “I can’t imitate kabuki well, but there’s a lot I’ve learned from it. Any kabuki actor can execute very splendid kata (forms), but a good actor can bridge the moments between kata with ‘human’ expression. So, as Kikugoro Onoe VI (1885-1949) once said: ‘I can teach you how to point your finger and say, “Look at the Moon” — but the space between your fingertip and the Moon is up to you.’
“In contrast, modern Western theater involves preparing the interior of a role and exposing it outwardly, somehow finding a way to show this part that is hidden from view. Yet with either one, the outside and the inside must come together in order to express a role well.”
As to how Paris came to be his home, Oida said, “I became an actor because I wanted to become a director, but I was told I wasn’t good enough and I despaired. Then I had a chance to meet Brook and I felt, ‘This man is my teacher.’ A Japanese person wouldn’t have been a good fit for director’s assistant, so he hired me as an actor.
“He never says, ‘Do it like this,’ and he encourages us to always explore. He never says acting or directing is ‘such-and-such a thing’ — but when I first directed, in 1975, I asked him to tell me his secret in one word, and he said: ‘Perseverance.’
“You wait and persevere until the actor attains what you have in mind. Then, the actor can continue discovering alone, and the work can achieve a high quality and be full of lively energy.”
As for his teacher’s own directing, Oida noted, “Brook likes to provide the minimum of information to the audience, and entrust it to their imagination — in other words, minimalism. In comparison, kabuki — which I enjoyed as a child — is baroque. Now I favor minimalism. But it seems Japanese people tend to prefer the baroque.”
When I asked Oida — whose long and varied career has recently included directing operas — what his advice would be for young people aspiring to the theater, he replied: “You need effort, talent and luck — but I think everyone has talent. Children can play for ages with anything at all, but once we get older, we say ‘that’s a such-and-such’ — and it doesn’t appear to be anything more, right? So it’s important to eliminate the social conventions that kill free imaginative power.
“But speaking with regards to chance, we always have at least three roads in front of our eyes, though we often don’t notice them. That’s why I hope people will value each day, and look and choose carefully the roads ahead. You write your own history, so when you’re deciding what to do next, why not think about whether it’ll make good or bad history when you die.”
This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.