Stage

Young dramatists mark the Bard's anniversary in style

by Mika Eglinton

Special To The Japan Times

Hot on the heels of Hideki Noda’s radical adaptation of “Richard III” being staged by Singaporean director Ong Ken Seng at Shizuoka Performing Arts Center from April 29 to May 1, another intriguing transformation of Shakespeare’s Machiavellian king will follow at Theatre Fuusikaden in Tokyo from May 6-31.

Whereas the former is not short of big-name connections, the latter production by Kakushinhan — a company only set up in April 2012 by Ryunosuke Kimura — is somewhat at variance. In fact, though, the young troupe — whose name means “convinced criminals” — have already served their time, with this “Richard III” being their ninth Shakespeare production.

As to why so much of the Bard in so short a time, Kimura said in a conversation we had during rehearsals on a cold March afternoon that he’d been “gripped by Shakespeare’s words and his world” since he had the chance to direct “Macbeth” in English as a freshman at the University of Tokyo.

After that, Kimura, 32, became what he termed a “wandering apprentice” in the Japanese realm of Shakespeare.

Enthused by a video of 1980’s (truly) legendary “Ninagawa Macbeth,” he successfully asked to be an assistant in rehearsals for “Titus Andronicus” — directed by Yukio Ninagawa himself.

Then, influenced by Kotaro Yoshida’s portrayal of Titus, he started acting with the Shakespeare Theatre Company led by Norio Deguchi who, in 1981, became the first Japanese director to stage all 37 of Shakespeare’s works.

Kimura also became a student at Tokyo’s venerable Bungakuza, where he continued to learn and hone his directing skills in that hub of straight mainstream theater.

On March 11, 2011, however, the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami struck and — “in order to grasp the here and now” of Japan’s biggest postwar tragedy — Kimura and peer actresses Maimi and Yuko Hama formed Kakushinhan, for whose debut production he wrote and directed “Hamlet × Shibuya — Hikari yo Oretachi no Fukushu wa Kegaretaka” (“Hamlet × Shibuya — Light, Was Our Revenge Tarnished?”).

Set in central Tokyo’s lively Shibuya entertainment district, that sexually charged reworking of the tortured Prince of Denmark’s tale may at first sight have seemed quite a stretch from the original, but according to Kimura, he has “little difficulty in transporting the Elizabethan English plays to present-day Tokyo.”

As the director-playwright explained, he believes there are “strong affinities between the Bard’s ‘big’ narratives and the minutiae of everyday life.” Hence, with Elsinore Castle recast as a love hotel in his “Hamlet × Shibuya,” Kimura echoes the renowned late Polish-born theater theorist Jan Kott’s resounding motto: “Shakespeare is our contemporary.”

None the less, after trials and errors with that adaptation, and also “Romeo and Juliet on the Seashore” in 2012, Kimura decided on a “more direct approach to Shakespeare’s language” and began basing his works on Kazuko Matsuoka’s acclaimed translations, which he believes “vividly reflect the contemporary Japanese ethos and its language from a female perspective.”

With an influx of fine new actors in their 20s and 30s — including Yamato Kochi, Hodaka Saito, Yudai Iwasaki and Akihiro Otsuru — Kimura then presented five more Shakespeare pieces before his fast-rising company’s “Julius Caesar,” which played to full houses in January 2016.

In part, such success is likely down to Kimura’s characteristic, satirical style that saw the Roman Senate transformed into the country’s Diet in “Julius Caesar” — while in “Titus Andronicus” he’d enlisted the fluidity of gender and race he’s also known for by casting his leading actress Maimi as both the black slave Aaron and Titus’s abused Roman daughter, Lavinia.

In addition to all this, last year the company also launched its self-styled Pocket Kakushinhan project with a much-condensed, satirically feminist take on “The Taming of the Shrew.” Aimed at creating what Kimura styled “a sort of happening entertainment,” the project’s next offering will be a speedy version of Shakespeare’s three-part “Henry VI” running concurrently at Theatre Fuusikaden with the full-length “Richard III.”

Coming from such a fresh and seemingly fearless young company eager to change perspectives on Shakespearean characterization and stereotypes, the upcoming “Richard III” (and its Pocket companions) appear to be fitting commemorations of this month’s 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death — and the 452nd anniversary of his birth — as the company continues to help blaze new trails for theater lovers in Japan.

“Richard III” runs May 6-31 at Theatre Fuusikaden in Tokyo, where “Pocket History, Henry VI Trilogy” will also be staged from May 19. For more details, visit kakushinhan.org.