"Chapter 3: Yukio Ninagawa."

In Brook, Hall, Ninagawa, Lepage: Great Shakespeareans 18 vols. Vol. 18. Edited by Peter Holland. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. pp. 79-112.

Full text: http://www.gwu.edu/~acyhuang/Publications/Huang_Ninagawa_Holland.pdf


In one of the landmark twentieth-century productions of Macbeth, a gigantic set resembling a butsudan Buddhist household altar takes up the entire stage, and the massive shutters are opened and closed at various points by two mysterious crones.[1] When the light comes on, witches played by Kabuki female impersonators (onnagata) dance to falling petals behind the semi-translucent screens in what appears to be a cinematically inspired slow motion scene (see http://globalshakespeares.org/). A gateway to other worlds, the altar compels the audience to dwell upon memories of the dead. The doors of the ancestral altar writ large serve as the gates of a castle in a later scene. The ‘shelves’ within the altar become a grand staircase. As a metatheatrical and metaphorical framing, the proscenium-arch altar transports audiences into Macbeth’s world and facilitates conversations between the realms of the living and the dead. The doors of the altar not only regulate aesthetic and historical distance between the audience and the play’s world, which is set in Japan of the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1598), but also physically demarcate contrasting stage actions up- and down-stage.[2] During the production’s international tours, intercultural dialogues took place across the divide of the shutters.


Conceptualized by acclaimed Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa (1935 - ) as dialogues with the dead and Nature, the production’s powerful visual imagery (the altar) and filmic vocabulary (human tableaux against cherry blossom) work in tandem to redefine the supernatural. Ninagawa is not only conversant with multiple Japanese stage genres but also with the techniques of defamiliarizing the quotidian that were pioneered by Akira Kurosawa’s (1910-1998) film adaptation of Macbeth as Throne of Blood, the English title for his Castle of the Spider’s Web (1957). In Ninagawa’s production, the Buddhist altar—a small wood cabinet containing images of Buddha and family ancestral tablets, commonly found in many Japanese homes – is enlarged and transformed by Ninagawa into a framework in which the chronicle of samurai warlords unfolds as a play-within-a-play. The altar serves as both a mundane symbol of the sacred and a secular interface between the present and the past. Likewise, Kurosawa’s film is set in the samurai world and infused with Buddhist interpretations of Fate and retribution. Throne of Blood opens with Macbeth and Banquo riding on horseback through a forest that is so dense that it is like a maze and a spider’s web. In later scenes we are introduced to castles that are constructed of the wood from the spider-web forest—a metaphor for ensnaring desires and historical forces. Kurosawa’s signature long shots frame the low-ceilinged castles as an icon of impenetrable and inescapable social order. Both Kurosawa and Ninagawa transform familiar artifacts into venues of estrangement. In Ninagawa’s production, the two anonymous elderly women sitting by the outsized altar reinforce both a sense of daily life and estrangement.

In addition to the Buddhist altar, cherry blossom is another visual image that dominates Ninagawa’s production. A cherry tree and falling petals adorn many of the key scenes in the play, providing an uncanny link between extreme forms of violence and beauty. Shifting moods and emotions of the play are marked by changes in season. The color and motif of cherry blossom appear on the panels upstage, on the costumes of the Macbeths, and in the lighting scheme. Spring turns to autumn as Macbeth wades through blood in his campaigns. When Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane, soldiers carry boughs of cherry trees and the swaying boughs—replete with literary associations with religious sacrifice—threaten Macbeth with death, if not honorable samurai-style suicide, and remind the audience of the transient world and a Buddhist sense of resignation. As Ryuta Minami points out, the ideas of impermanence and the inevitable fall of cherry blossom are ingrained in the highest ideal of a samurai (‘hara kiri’), which is why the cherry blossom, like the spider-web wood in Kurosawa, is such a compelling subtext.[3]

The memorable production acquired divergent meanings during its performances at Nissei Theatre in Tokyo in 1980 and later in Edinburgh, London, Amsterdam and elsewhere throughout that decade. The prestigious venue, Nissei Theatre, carries historical significance, because it hosted Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1973 when Ninagawa was beginning to work with American and European dramas.[4] Brook’s production prompted Ninagawa to take an even more remarkably auteurist approach to stage work.[5] The Ninagawa Macbeth has been seen by audiences at Japanese and international performance venues alternately as an exercise in visual delights, fantasy of pure Japan-ness, a samurai story infused with Buddhist rituals, a stage work with cinematic qualities inspired by Kurosawa,[6] an innovative Kabuki performance, a relatively conservative interpretation of the unspecified ‘universality’ of Macbeth, a self-serving self-Orientalizing production that appropriates detached local traditions, and sometimes all of the above.[7] The production was appropriately named, because it embodied many of his signature approaches to theatre and Shakespeare. Journalists and scholars have written at length on whether Macbeth spoken in Japanese is still Shakespeare and whether Asian theatres should be used for Shakespearean drama, but the story of the double impact of Shakespeare on Yukio Ninagawa and of Ninagawa on Japanese and worldwide appreciation of Shakespeare goes far beyond such false dichotomies of East versus West. One thing is clear. While Shakespeare is one of the most revered and frequently produced playwrights in Japan, Ninagawa was among the first to charge ahead with avant-garde stage experimentalism after World War II. Riding on the wave of renewed Western interest in Japanese culture and Japan’s rise as a major economic power in the last two decades of the twentieth century, Ninagawa’s touring works have shaped the trajectories of both Japanese and Shakespearean performances. He has directed Hamletsix times (a play that has had over a hundred different translations in Japanese), and is on track to complete, in 2016 when he will be 81, productions of all 37 Shakespeare plays for the Sai no Kuni Shakespeare series, a task he began in 1997 as the prestigious series’ artistic director.[8] Apart from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (2010) and John Ford’s 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (2006), Ninagawa tends not to direct plays by Shakespeare's contemporaries.

Stemming from a culture of translation, Ninagawa’s interpretations of Shakespeare were nurtured by Japan’s rebirth and consolidation of its national identity after the war. His stage works thrive in the contentious space between cultures. In fact, the notion that ‘modern Japan is a culture of translation’ has been taken for granted by many Japanese writers, playwrights, and their audiences.[9] In his own words, Ninagawa came from ‘a generation that has always been very interested in Europe, which is why [he has] been blending elements of Japanese culture and European culture.’[10] One reason why so large a part of Shakespeare’s afterlife is connected to translation is because translation already plays a major role in the formation of Shakespeare’s aesthetics.[11] Shakespeare’s plays often exploit the instability of words, or what George Steiner calls ‘a duplicity of ambience.’[12] In his close reading of Posthumus’ monologue about the ‘treachery’ of women in Cymbeline 2.5, Steiner proposes the idea of ‘understanding [literature] as translation.’ He demonstrates how acts of literary interpretation are translational in nature, because ‘every language-act has a temporal determinant. No semantic form is timeless.’[13] On the most basic level of dramaturgy, many of Ninagawa’s productions pose profound questions about textual and performed meanings. Translation creates new vernaculars and gives rise to local literary canons. Translating Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ speech into Japanese, for example, will require substantial rewriting, because Japanese does not have the verb to be without semantic contexts. Even within the same adaptation registers and language could create interesting variables. Ninagawa’s 1988 production of Hamlet features two different translations: a classical Japanese version spoken at the court and a modern vernacular outside the court. The linguistic difference is regulated by dramaturgical needs. For instance, Ophelia speaks to Hamlet in the nunnery scene in an antiquated language, creating an impression of psychological distance. Hamlet speaks in the modern vernacular, but his language becomes infected by Ophelia and begins to shift to the antiquated version. In other scenes, the historical and psychological distance created by the antiquated version can signal secrecy, suggesting that the character is plotting against others or lying. Working with Japanese, a language more complex than English from a sociolinguistic point of view, a translator would have to wrestle with more than 20 first- and second-person pronouns to maintain the ambiguity and subtlety of gender identities in a play such as Twelfth Night. In addition to making the right choice of employing the familiar or polite style based on the relation between the speaker and the addressee, the male and female speakers of Japanese are each confined to gender-specific personal pronouns at their disposal. Before a translation can be undertaken, decisions will have to be made about the register and gendered expressions to convey Orsino’s comments about love from a male perspective and Viola’s apology for a woman’s love when in disguise as Cesario, or, in As You Like It, the exchange between Rosalind in disguise as Ganymede and Oliver on her ‘lacking a man’s heart’ when she swoons, nearly giving herself away (4.3.164-176). But limitations create new linguistic and cultural opportunities.

This chapter focuses on the artistic terms of the cross-cultural ventures of Ninagawa as a great Shakespearean, a man of theatre, and a ‘metteur en scène’ in the words of Tadashi Suzuki (1939 - ).[14] Kurosawa, while well known in the West, is far from the first or the only Japanese filmmaker to engage in in-depth conversations with Shakespeare’s works. Nor is Ninagawa the only stage director of note. They worked in and against various Shakespearean traditions and in an artistic ecological system of networked intracultural and intercultural cross-references. Over the past five decades, Ninagawa has produced such a wide range of works—classical Greek, Shakespearean, operatic (Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, 1992), and modern and contemporary American (A Streetcar Named Desire, 1991) and Japanese—and achieved so much in the fields of theatre and cultural diplomacy that it is necessary to place him within the contexts of Japanese, touring, and Shakespearean performance cultures.


Taking Japanese Genres to Task

Japan holds the unenviable position of being one of the most closed societies in terms of its insistence on a sense of native exclusivity that makes it difficult for foreign persons and ideas to assimilate fully, and simultaneously one of the first East Asian countries to systematically translate and appropriate a larger number of Anglo-European cultural texts since the late nineteenth century. Japan in the twenty-first century still has a ferocious appetite for translated literature and drama. Japan has come a long way in its engagement with representations of Western cultures since the country emerged from some two hundred years of self-imposed isolation in the mid nineteenth century. In 1801 Shizuku Tadao coined the term ‘closed country’ (sakoku) to describe the situation when translating from Dutch into Japanese the three-volume History of Japan by Engelbert Kaempfer, a German physician to the Dutch Embassy in Japan, 1690-1692.[15] While, strictly speaking, Japan was not entirely isolated from other nations under this Tokugawa-era ‘sakoku’ system, only very limited trade was permitted with Dutch, Korean and Chinese merchants in what is Nagasaki Prefecture today. Before U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry negotiated and signed a trade treaty with Japan to open the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate to American ships in 1854, foreigners who entered Japan could face death penalty. An earnest but contentious process of modernization—which was often assumed to be synonymous with Westernization—and rethinking of local traditions soon followed new trade relations between Japan and other countries.[16]

In the realm of literature and philosophy, Confucius, Euripides, Chaucer, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Flaubert, Balzac, Dickens, Poe, Chekhov, Shaw, Ibsen, Lu Xun and many other authors were translated, appropriated and embedded in a wide range of genres throughout different historical periods. Shakespeare quickly rode to the top of the late nineteenth-century wave of translation and emerged as one of the most widely taught, read and performed English playwrights in the country. Conversations between Shakespearean and his Japanese interlocutors such as Ninagawa are very much part of the country’s political and cultural modernization project. Shakespeare’s canonicity prompted some twentieth-century Japanese directors to treat him as a contemporaneous modern author (despite knowledge among leading intellectuals of Shakespeare’s place in early modern English culture), and Shakespeare’s plays were often produced in similar fashion to those of Ibsen. The Japanese scholar Anzai Tetsuo even proclaimed in 1989 that ‘Shakespeare’s plays are modern Japanese plays when produced in modern Japan’,[17] echoing the renowned translator Yushi Odashima’s comment on the analogy between Shakespearean and modern drama: ‘Having learned to see Hamlet with the same eyes as I see [John Osborne’s] Jimmy [in Look Back in Anger], by a natural progression I came to see the rest of Shakespeare in the same way as I saw contemporary British drama.’[18] In Anglophone countries in the twentieth century, Shakespeare is often seen as the epitome of classic high culture—to be embraced or rejected. In Japan, Shakespeare is a usefully foreign and ‘modern’ classic author who comes from outside the immediate circle of Chinese and Korean Confucian, Buddhist and literary influence on Japan.[19]

The first public performance of Shakespeare in Japan was a staged reading of ‘Hamlet’s Instructions to the Players’ in English in February 1866, two years before the Meiji Restoration (1868) that would flood Japan with translated literature. Hosted by the Silk Salon, the event aimed to entertain British expatriates in Yokohama. Similarly, the introduction of Shakespeare into Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia and other Asian countries, the first performance events were not in the local language and typically consisted of informal staged readings or improvised renditions of select scenes. Shakespeare’s dramatic works followed a winding, indirect path into Japan, via incomplete rewritings, performances of select scenes, and multiple adaptations. In fact, the first phase of Japanese, Korean and Chinese appreciation of Shakespeare was based not on his text but on Charles and Mary Lamb’s 1807 prose rendition of Tales from Shakespeare. The Lambs’ moralistic rewritings of select Shakespearean tragedies (by Charles) and comedies (by Mary) were initially intended for women and children who would not otherwise have access to Shakespeare’s plays in printed form, but the collection has remained one of the most popular English-language rewritings to this day. In Japan and China, the Tales was reframed in Confucian ethics for the male elite class (Hamlet for example was presented as a filial son). Between 1877 and 1928, the Tales were translated and printed 97 times in Japan, while over a dozen editions appeared in China between 1903 and 1915. Early Japanese productions were based on the Lambs’ Tales rather than complete translations of the plays themselves, including Inoue Tsutomu’s retelling of The Merchant of Venice in 1883, titled ‘The Suit for a Pound of Human Flesh’.[20] The Kabuki adaptation by Katsu Genzo of The Merchant of Venice (May-June, 1885) was something of a sensation and sold out quickly. It was revived in 1886 and in 1894 with slight alterations.

More productions by Japanese and touring companies followed in both Japanese and English for local and foreign residents. In 1891, the Miln Company (led by British actor George C. Miln) staged full productions of Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, Othello, Richard II and several other plays in English in Yokohama, inspring such translators as Tsubouchi Shoyo.[21] Much like Ninagawa’s internationally renowned intercultural works that would flourish a century later, these early productions in Japan were informed by multiple layers of filtering among several cultures and multiple artistic genres. Entitled The Season of Cherry Blossoms: A World Where Money Counts for Everything (Sakura-doki Zeni no Yononaka), the 1885 Kabuki Merchant by Genzo drew upon journalist Udagawa Bunkai’s novel (serialized in an Osaka newspaper in 1885) which was itself based on the Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare.[22] The reference to cherry blossoms in central Osaka in Bunkai’s novel, which was retained in Genzo’s dramatization, would literally blossom in Ninagawa’s Macbeth a century later in Tokyo, London and Edinburgh, to signify not the beauty of Osaka (which stands in for Venice) or the volatility of financial matters but for transience and death in the tragedy. Cherry blossom appeared again in another production. When it toured to the Barbican in London in 2009, the Kabuki-style Ninagawa Twelfth Night (performed by the Shochiku Grand Kabuki Company) opened with a love-sick Orsino against the backdrop of a sea of cherry blossom; soon a ship glided across the stage, followed by a storm of billowing cloth.

Just as Japan was appropriating and digesting select aspects of Anglophone literary culture during this transitional period, Western observers were also introducing Japanese culture, along with their own biases, to the outside world. The eclectic remix of traditional popular theatre forms such as Kabuki, early modern and modern legal debates in The Merchant of Venice, and journalistic and scholarly discourses about Western modernity which was partly embedded in Shakespeare’s iconic status, prompted Basil Hall Chamberlain (1850-1935), professor of Japanese at Tokyo Imperial University, to write in 1890: ‘To have lived through the transition stage of modern Japan makes a man feel preternaturally old; for there he is in modern times, with the air full of talk about bicycles and bacilli … and yet he can himself distinctly remember the Middle Ages. The dear old Samurai who first initiated [me] into the mysteries of the Japanese language, wore a queue and two swords.’[23] He is right in his observation of the uncanny, and mostly peaceful, coexistence of the old and the new, and the local and the foreign, in Tokyo, but he is wrong in his oversight of local artistic creativity. He dismissed early adaptations of Western classics that were ‘hastily donned Japanese dress’ as ‘provisional only,’ and claimed that ‘some of these days, when the life-time of competent scholars shall have been given to the task, Shakespeare and Victor Hugo may possibly be rendered into Japanese not much more unsatisfactorily than we render Homer into English.’[24] Japanese intellectuals soon became, in Chamberlain’s words, ‘[self-appointed] broker[s] between East and West’, an East that was ‘eager to communicate all the manifestly useful elements of [Western] culture that it has absorbed to her neighbors.’[25] In the early twentieth century, Japan was indeed one of the most important East Asian purveyors of Anglo-European loanwords (many of which then entered other East Asian languages), Western ideas such as democracy, and works by Adam Smith, Freud, Ibsen, and of course Shakespeare.[26]


Double Visions

Observers and practitioners alike continue to be confused and awed by Japan’s capacity to be simultaneously closed and open to foreign ideas. The duality has contributed to both the false dichotomy in critical debates about cultural assimilation and borrowing and to Ninagawa’s own system for working with different location-specific visual and aural elements for the same production. When a production tours to international festivals, he sometimes increased the presence of distinctively Japanese visual images. In his own defense, he has insisted he ‘only had the Japanese audience in mind’ when he directed his 1980 Macbeth, though it is also true that the production was so well received outside Japan because of its visual appeal.[27] He has made a similar statement about his 2012 production of Cymbelineat the Barbican in London: ‘I used visual effects that draw on my country’s cultural memory and sense of style to help bring Japanese audiences closer to Shakespeare. … Then I transferred the production to England with no changes at all. Hopefully, it expressed a Japanese understanding of Shakespeare to its British audience.’[28] The dual realities of Japanese insularity and openness have led to Ninagawa’s assumption that Shakespeare’s language, even in contemporary Japanese translation, can still be challenging for his Japanese actors and audiences; hence the need for visual framings. Of his production, Ninagawa maintained that ‘[the Japanese] Cymbeline is a translated work and there’s a limit to what you can do with words alone. I used visual effects that draw on my country’s cultural memory and sense of style to help bring Japanese audiences closer to Shakespeare.’[29] While this may be true, Shakespeare is no less difficult for Anglophone audiences today. Visualization does not necessarily draw an audience ‘closer’ to Shakespeare, for better or for worse. What has yet to be examined is whether Japanese visualization would work effectively as an intellectual prosthesis or heuristic device for modern Japanese audiences who may be more familiar with certain Anglophone-inflected global icons than with traditional Japan.

Further, visual familiarity can be a double-edged sword. In the reception history of Ninagawa’s Shakespeare, there are both anxieties about ‘fake’ Japaneseness and celebration of his intercultural visual strategies. In conversation with and parallel to the works of directors who appropriate traditional Japanese theatre such as Ariane Mnouchkine, particularly her Kabuki-style Richard II, Ninagawa’s stage works espouse a chameleon quality in reception. In their visual approaches to Shakespeare, different cultural elements are seen as aesthetic possibilities rather than predetermined responsibilities to any nation-state. As Dennis Kennedy writes, Ninagawa has significantly adapted the components of Noh, Kyogen, and Kabuki which became ‘inauthentic,’ and he has created ‘a synthetic or artificial Japan parallel to that Mnouchkine had created a few years earlier.’[30] The Ninagawa Macbeth was shaped by liberal mix of Christian and Buddhist elements, Kabuki dance choreographer Kinnosuke Hanayagi, and the director’s and the actors’ hybrid styles (for instance, in its Kabuki-style witches, the way the nobles and warriors moved more like samurais on screen, and the un-Kabuki-like vocal work of Komaki Kurihara’s Lady Macbeth). This is why a production by Ninagawa in Tokyo might smack of Occidentalism but be accused of Orientalism while on tour to Britain. Scholars and directors have criticized and praised his Occidentalism as a form of empowerment—‘a declaration of interest from an outsider who feels at liberty to appropriate Europe [for his hometown audiences] the way Europe has traditionally appropriated Japan’—and visual Orientalism that tends to drown out actors’ speeches as a form of selling out.[31] Among others, Ninagawa’s contemporary, the director Hideki Noda has criticized his tendency to pander to the international penchant for Japanese exotic visual beauty. Ninagawa’s works have often been labeled Japanesque, which is a cause for both celebration and contestation. Over the years he has vocally objected the criticism of what the critics see as some version of japonisme, a mode catering to Western audiences. He defended his appropriation of Japanese culture and cited approval from practitioners of traditional Japanese theatre:

I’ve had very little negative feedback from people involved in the traditional Japanese dramatic arts. 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, and I think the best way to enable my core audience to understand my work is through typically Japanese analogies.[32]

Kazuo Matsuoka, who translated Titus Andronicus into Japanese for Ninagawa’s 2006 production, suggested that, just like the trajectory of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, ‘what Ninagawa created for the Japanese audience unexpectedly became accepted internationally.’ Ninagawa even discounted non-Japanese markets:

The aim was to produce a Shakespeare play that could be understood by ordinary [Japanese] people. I wasn’t thinking about appealing to the international market while I was producing the play. But [my producer] Nakane was interested and suggested we go abroad.[33]

The director has not always been successful, but he has remained brutally honest and faithful to his own visions. When touring to Britain, not all of Ninagawa’s works enamored audiences, however. His non-Japanese-language productions with transnational casts tend to run into uneven terrain in reception. The same theatre critics who wrote rave reviews of the 1985 Ninagawa Macbeth turned hostile when reviewing his Peer Gynt. Even in their otherwise enthusiastic introduction to Michael Billington’s interview with Ninagawa, Maria Delgado and Paul Heritage had to concede that the production ‘was generally regarded as a failed experiment in interculturalism.’[34] Ninagawa’s King Lear, starring Sir Nigel Hawthorne, met with suspicion as well. Tetsuo Kishi and Graham Bradshaw opined that at stake in the contrasting fates of Ninagawa’s Japanese and English productions in the U.K. is not style but language:

When the production was in Japanese which the critics could not understand, they loved it. When the production was in English which they understood perfectly well, they hated it. They did not seem to realize, however, that Ninagawa is an extremely consistent artist and his directorial approach to Macbeth was essentially the same as that to Peer Gynt and King Lear. [The critics] loved [the Japanese-language productions] because they were able to concentrate on non-verbal aspects of the productions without being bothered with what the actors were saying.[35]

While their theory might explain some of the patterns of intercultural reception of Ninagawa’s touring works, it does not capture everything. Ninagawa is one of the ‘great Shakespeareans’ whose careers are chronicled in the present volume not because he is all things to all men but because of his ability to evoke strong emotional responses to Shakespeare and initiate debates about cultural differences. When his Macbeth premiered in Tokyo in 1980, the Japanese reception was mixed, partly because of his bold attempt to combine several genres in order to break out of the then siloed approaches to Shakespeare through the distinct forms of Shingeki, Kabuki and other local genres. Even in the U.K. where most critics embraced The Ninagawa Macbeth, there were critics who voiced objection. Charles Osborne categorized the production as a ‘bastardisation’ of Shakespeare’s play and suggested that ‘there is something faintly ridiculous in a Japanese company attempting to grapple with Shakespeare.’[36]

What the theorists and journalists failed to grasp is the fact that most theatre works have a presentational and a representational dimension. The play script is far from transparent. The narrative may be said to be a compelling, or authentic, representation of human nature, but actors and directors use presentational techniques to bring the representation to life. Stephen Orgel intuits that, ‘however authentic our texts are assumed to be, they clearly represent something more than the playwright’s mind. Plays have more often been held to be transparent, vehicles for the representation of … history; what is authentic in them–Shakespeare’s perfection—lies in … something behind the play and beyond it that the play brings to life.’[37] If exoticism means unfamiliar perspectives, its potentially alienating effect can create a usefully ironic distance to Shakespeare and Japanese culture. As Leonard Pronko argues, instead of distancing the spectators from the stage work, exoticism ‘often draws [them] in, intriguing [them] by its colourful differences and, in the case of Kabuki at least, overwhelming [them] with extravagant theatricality. … Explosively non-realisitc, Kabuki Shakespeare free[s] us from our Euro-centric provincialism.’[38]

The question of japonisme aside, it should be noted that the Ninagawa’s works are enriched by their visual quotation and dislocation of other traditions, including European neo-pictorialism, Giorgio Strehler’s scenography (compare the opening scenes of the Italian and Japanese directors’ versions of the Tempest 1978 and 1987), Kabuki, Noh and Shingeki. As the dominant popular all-male theatre in early twentieth-century Japan, Kabuki was the first vehicle for Japanese interpretations of Shakespeare. Today, Kabuki techniques remain an important element in Ninagawa’s and other directors’ works. One of the most important figures in the Japanese reception of Shakespeare, dramatist and translator Tsubouchi Shoyo (nom de plume of Tsubouchi Yuzo, 1859-1935) published translations of the complete works of Shakespeare in widely read pocket book format in 1933-1935. Along with Yushi Odashima (1930 - ), Shoyo was one of the two earliest translators who worked directly from Shakespeare’s play text. He translated and adapted Julius Caesar in 1884, which is regarded as ‘an extension of Kabuki’.[39] In fact, in this period Shoyo favored Kabuki as a lens to interpret Shakespeare, and compared Shakespeare to Kabuki playwright Monzaemon Chikamatsu (1653-1725) who was Shakespeare’s contemporary.[40] However, Shoyo also translated The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet for the emerging Shingeki (‘new drama’), a new Japanese theatre genre that drew upon nineteenth-century European realist theatre and the dramaturgy of Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, Eugene O’Neill and other modernists. When the Literary Association (Bungei Kyokai) presented Hamlet based on Shoyo’s text in July, 1911, it became the first full production of the play in Japanese translation.

While Kabuki Shakespeare remained popular, there were other voices. When novelist Natsume Soseki reviewed this performance of Shoyo’s Hamlet for the newspaper Asahi Shimbun, he commented that the most feasible way to render Shakespeare’s poetry into Japanese was through the poetic style of Noh theatre.[41] Indeed Shakespeare soon found a ready home in the classical actor-led stylized genres of Noh, Kyogen, Bunraku (puppet theatre) and Shin Kabuki, and the director-centered modern genres of Takarazuka, Shinpa (also spelled Shimpa) and Shingeki, along with the politically charged Shogenkijo ‘little theatre movement’ and antirealist Angura ‘underground’ experimental theatre movement that focus on using actors’ bodies for expressive purposes. Ninagawa started out as a Shingeki actor and became involved in the underground theatre movement.

Following on the heels of Kabuki adaptations of Shakespeare was the brief reign of Shinpa Shakespeare. Shinpa is a ‘new school’ that was set up in diametric opposition to the ‘old’ all-male Kabuki conventions and repertoire of historical narratives. Some exemplary Shinpa Shakespeares were the 1901 performance of two scenes from Kohei Hatakeyama’s adaptation of Julius Caesar and productions of Othello, The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet by the director, actor and playwright Otojiro Kawakami (1864-1911) in 1903, all set in contemporary Meiji Japan. Under Kawakami’s leadership, Shinpa became Japan’s first modern theatre with a repertoire of adaptations of Shakespeare and other Western plays in contemporary middle-class settings. The momentum of Shinpa declined during World War II, eventually losing ground to the Shingeki (‘new drama’) which emphasized textual fidelity and translation over Japanized adaptation, but the experimental spirit of Shinpa lived on.[42]

As a modernist theatre that drew on European realist acting, Shingeki has refocused attention on translated, rather than appropriated, Shakespearean plays performed in their original settings. It thrived during the postwar Allied Occupation of Japan (1945-1952) due to censorship of potentially nationalist and feudal elements in Bunraku puppet theatre and Kabuki. Shingeki was therefore actively encouraged by the government, and for several decades Shakespeare was almost synonymous with Shingeki, a form that was perceived by many Japanese audiences to be quintessentially Western in outlook and style. One of the most prominent Shakespearean directors of this genre is Koreya Senda (1904-1994) who is one of Japan’s foremost Brechtian artists working with political theatre and plays by Shakespeare, Brecht, Chekhov and Kobo Abe (1924-1993). Senda, a Marxist at heart, brought social relevance and topicality to Japanese theatre. While Senda is often seen as the figure that established political Shakespeare in Japan, it should be noted that he was never overly didactic. His work was part of a larger movement in international theatre circles of the mid twentieth century initiated in part by the Berliner Ensemble to bring socialist readings of contemporary issues into Shakespearean performance. As a Shingeki director and actor, Senda held a then radical view that ‘[Shakespeare] feels closer to us in our own work than the great men of our own tradition: Zeami, Chikamatsu, Mokuami. This is in no way related to the fact that our New Theatre [Shingeki] itself appears Western in style. Rather, it truly feels to us that Shakespeare is our contemporary.’[43] His 1964 production of Hamlet toured widely within Japan and, along with his philosophy, exerted great influence over the anti-establishment Angura ‘underground’ theatre movement of the decade. Ninagawa, among others, benefited greatly from Senda’s works that showed how Shakespeare was their contemporary and how directors should not be subservient to any tradition.[44] In the same decade, the Shogenkijo ‘little theatre movement’ took root in Tokyo-area universities as students and intellectuals reacted against the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty (1960). These movements eclipsed the dominance of Shingeki, a form that Angura and Shogenkijo leaders saw as limiting because of their Westernized literary dramaturgy. The Little Theatre Movement contested the ideal of the fourth wall and the dominant role of play text. It is through this struggle between Western universalism and local perspectives that today’s leading Shakespearean directors of Japan emerged, including Norio Deguchi, Hideki Noda, Tadashi Suzuki and Yukio Ninagawa. For example, Deguchi, founder of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, was renowned for his youthful, low-budget productions of Shakespeare ‘in jeans and T-shirts’. He started producing all thirty-seven of Shakespeare’s plays in a small theatre in the basement of a church in Shibuya, Tokyo, in 1975. By May, 1981, he became the first Japanese stage director to complete the task.


‘Japan’ and ‘Shakespeare’ Served Three Ways

Throughout the twentieth century there are three approaches to Shakespeare that are not mutually exclusive. The first approach involves localization of a foreign canon. Shakespeare has been assimilated into localized narratives and mise-en-scène to promote Anglophone or Japanese cultures, as is the case with Tsubouchi Shoyo’s strategy of using his ‘naturalized’ translation of Julius Caesar in 1884 to promote a progressive political agenda.[45] In general, Ninagawa has closely followed Shakespeare’s scripts in translation, and his stage works do not tend to use this approach. Otojiro Kawakami’s 1903 Shinpa adaptation of Othello is another example. Set against the backdrop of the Japanese colonial expansion, the adaptation chronicles General Muro Washiro’s military campaigns. He is sent from Tokyo to put down a native insurrection on Taiwan’s Penghu Islands and ends up killing his wife Tamone, daughter of the Minister of Finance.[46] Kawakami’s play participated in the formation of a double colonial gaze in a time when Japan looked to other East Asian nations as colonizable subjects while Japan itself was occupying a ‘subaltern’ position in relation to certain Western cultures.[47] The country’s rapid postwar development and economic prowess in the 1980s changed the dynamics.

Shakespeare has also been recruited as a ‘cultural catalyst’ to help address the needs to revitalize, internationalize or ‘modernize’ certain genres.[48] In 1887, the Meiji government set up a committee for theatre reform to modernize Kabuki (Engeki Kairyo Kai) and to make this highly erotic commercial theatre more palatable to Western audiences. Other artists, with different agendas, also set out to bridge Japanese genres and Shakespearean plays. The Western notion of the director and dramaturge play an increasingly important role in genres traditionally led by actors, such as the male-dominated Kabuki. Actresses joined actors on stage in Kabuki and Noh, sometimes alongside with female impersonators (the hitherto standard mode of acting female roles), in experimental productions. At the same time, tighter directorial control of an auteur has also transformed director-centered genres such as Shingeki. Techniques from one particular tradition tend to be applied freely to scenes that are foreign to the tradition. For example, in 1998 Ninagawa directed a production of Twelfth Night at Saitama Arts Theatre outside Tokyo in which he incorporated a Noh stage structure and Heian-era costumes. His other version of the play, the Ninagawa Twelfth Night (2005; 2007; 2009), employed Kabuki techniques such as hayagawari (rapid change of roles). Onoe Kikunosuke V played both Viola and Sebastian, sometimes in rapid succession, and brought a new perspective to both the masculine and feminine identities of Cesario. The actor disappeared as one character and immediately reappeared as another, sometimes with a different costume. Hayagawari was also used in Hamuretto Yamato Nishikie (Japanese Woodblock Prints of Hamlet) directed by Koji Oda, a Kabuki-style co-production between Shochiku and the Tokyo Globe (Tokyo Globe, 1991; Sunshine Theatre, 1997). Here Hamlet and Ophelia were played by the same male actor, Ichikawa Somegoro, who effectively showcased the duality of the psyche of the pair. In fact, Somegoro also played Shiratori Juro (Fortinbras). Innovations do come at a price. According to Izumi Kadono’s study, cuts to their dialogues and the fact that the pair were never seen together in the same scene made it challenging to grasp Ophelia’s inner struggles.[49] Innovations can also be seen in Kyogen theatre. Yasunari Takahashi’s well-known Kyogen play The Braggart Samurai (Tokyo Globe, 1991) borrowed material from The Merry Wives of Windsor (the plotline of Mistress Ford and Mistress Page’s deception of Falstaff) to widen the appeal of Kyogen to international audiences at the World Shakespeare Congress. As such, it moved Kyogen beyond its comfort zone even though it continued to rely, as traditional performances did, on the star power of the lead actor, Nomura Mansai. Similarly, Genzo’s Merchant of Venice (1885) and Kuniyoshi Ueda’s Hamlet (1982) introduced new dramaturgical concerns and strategies of characterization to the stately grandeur of Kabuki and to the mask theatre of Noh respectively. Ueda is a pioneer who experimented with English-language performances of Noh. His Noh Hamlet used Shakespeare’s lines except for the addition of ‘not’ to Hamlet’s speech, ‘to be or not to be, that is not the question.’ After its premiere in Japan, the production was performed in the U.S. by Ueda and an American cast in 1985. In explaining his motivation to expand Noh practices, Ueda quotes the following principle by Motokiyo Zeami (1363-1443), one of the most important figures in Noh theatre: ‘To write new Noh plays is the life of this art.’[50]

Ueda went on to create the Noh Othello in English in 1986 and in Japanese in 1992, featuring the renowned Kyogen actor Nomura Mansai as Emilia; this represents a third approach that fuses two or more Japanese and Western genres to cater to the director’s artistic vision or for international touring purposes. Central to the attempts to internationalize Japanese Shakespeare and to bring global Shakespeares to Japan was the Tokyo Globe, a premier indoor venue designed by Arata Isozaki. The Tokyo Globe opened its doors in 1988, a decade before the London Globe was built. A 700-seat arena theatre, the Tokyo Globe hosted important performances from an eclectic range of countries, including Ingmar Bergman’s Hamlet (Sweden), Lin Zhaohua’s Hamlet (China), and Robert Lepage’s The Tempest (Canada). Tadashi Suzuki’s famous adaptation of King Lear was staged there in 1989. In Dennis Kennedy’s and Ryuta Minami’s reckoning, there were thirty-three productions of Shakespeare in Tokyo alone in 1994, more than in London.[51] Over a period of fourteen years until it closed in 2002, the Tokyo Globe ‘allowed Japanese Shakespeare an unbridled license that resulted in almost limitless experimentation,’ and nearly all of the Japanese performance genres were represented there.[52] For example, Tadashi Suzuki combined techniques (graceful walk without lifting feet from the ground) and conventions (blurring of present and past and between dream and reality) borrowed from Kabuki and Noh in his all-male metatheatrical adaptation of The Tale of Lear (1984). His signature training and performance method of the actors stomping or beating the ground with their feet is born from this fusion of physical theatre and traditional Japanese theatres (

Ninagawa also took up an active, auteurist role in combining elements from many of these genres to carve a niche. There are crucial differences between Suzuki and Ninagawa, however. Suzuki often uses dialogues from Shakespeare with those from other works. He usefully sums up his own method:

Usually an insane person is my main character. The structure of my theatre is that a person with excessive illusions sits alone in a room in real time, … and the texts of … Shakespeare possess him or her. It’s not a drama in which the action follows chronological time. The real drama is what transpires in the consciousness of someone who may just be sitting quietly in one moment of time. … Shakespeare writes speeches that the characters themselves may not understand, but others do. [For example,] there is a gap between the character Macbeth and what he says. I am very sensitive to what lies in that gap.[54]

Whereas Suzuki incorporates Noh and Kabuki techniques to deconstruct them and to create an ironic distance between form and content,[55] Ninagawa, trained as a Shingeki actor, tends to create a strong thread of visual imagery (such as cherry blossoms) and a framing device (such as the family altar writ large) to present established or new Japanese translations of Shakespearean plays in their entirety without changes to the words or cuts. The Suzuki Company of Toga (SCOT, established in 1976), Ninagawa Studio (established in 1984) and a large part of the Shakespearean oeuvre now operate as transhistorical and transnational brands.


Career Milestones

Born in Saitama to the north of Tokyo in 1935 into a middle-class family as the son of a tailor, Yukio Ninagawa frequented Kabuki and Bunraku performances with his mother. He trained as a painter with the goal of obtaining admission to a visual art program in college before moving on to a drama school and, upon graduation, becoming a Shingeki actor in the Seihai Company in Tokyo in 1955. His first major role was the queen in Alfred Jarry’s burlesque Ubu Roi. Over the next decade he worked as an actor under various circumstances and became acquainted with such directors and playwrights as Kobo Abe and Ken Kurahashi.

His experience as a trainee and subsequently professionalShingeki, and as a television and film actor was important to his career as a versatile stage director. His training in Shingeki theatre and Western dramatic theories of Brecht and Stanislavski does not translate to an ideological embrace of the genre. Instead, he spoke of going on a ‘study abroad’ trip to both the ‘foreign world[s] of Kabuki’ and Shakespeare as he rethought the role of the director in stylized Japanese theatres when he staged the Ninagawa Twelfth Night in Tokyo’s prestigious Kabuki-za Theatre in 2005.[56] In his own words, his involvement in Shingeki as a dominant, de facto ‘modern’ theatrical form had prevented him from gaining a full picture of Japanese traditions:

They did not teach me anything traditional. We all looked towards Western theatrical techniques. When I decided to become a theatre director, I began to learn about traditional Japanese theatre and tried to get back to it.[57]

As it turned out, both Kabuki and Shakespeare are useful dramaturgically and interesting artistically because they are ‘foreign’ to Ninagawa’s sensibilities and upbringing.

When Ken Kurahashi—under whom Ninagawa was first trained—left the Seihai Company, Ninagawa turned from acting to directing. In 1967 he directed his first play, Nine Chapters from Wolfgang Borchert’s Works, a play that connected the Trümmerliteratur (literature of the rubble) style of this twentieth-century German writer in his opposition to dictatorship and war to the Japanese experience of atrocities and what has come to be known as A-bomb literature (genbaku bungaku).[58] Brochert was traumatized by his wartime experiences as a soldier on the Russian frontier during World War II, and he wrote numerous short stories about it after returning home in 1945 to a devastated Hamburg. Ninagawa started his own company in a similarly politically charged environment. His Contemporary People’s Theatre (Gendaijin Gekijo, established 1968) was part of Japan’s Little Theatre movement, and members of the company participated in anti-war protests. They played in non-traditional spaces for live performances such as movie theatres. According to Arthur Horowitz, one of the productions by the company ended with actors entering the auditorium dressed as riot police, an event that provoked the audience to attack the actors. Without any clue to distinguish theatre from reality, the audience assumed that the police had come to arrest them for being affiliated with such a radical group of performers.[59] In 1969, Ninagawa staged the young playwright Kunio Shimizu’s Sincere Frivolity, a work that established his reputation as a director. During this phase Ninagawa was mainly attracted to contemporary plays by radical Japanese playwrights.

While he read some Shakespearean plays as an actor, he never consciously ‘thought of directing translated plays’ or performing Shakespeare. At age 39 he started directing Shakespeare, because he was attracted to the wide range of social strata portrayed in Shakespeare’s plays. He moved from small productions to large-scale commercial theatre in 1974 thanks to a meeting with Tadao Nakane who was looking for a director to produce Romeo and Juliet for the Nissei Theatre, an ‘intellectual but entertaining’ production that was ‘not for snobs but for ordinary people.’ Nakane has become one of Ninagawa’s most important Japanese producers. For the large-scale production of Romeo and Juliet (staged by Toho Company), Ninagawa’s first commercial version of Shakespeare, the director brought in Elton John’s music into the opening scene and torches in a dance scene.[60] He also experimented with a variety of aesthetics. However, throughout the years Nakane has played an important role in Ninagawa’s engagement with Shakespeare. Ninagawa continued to work with a diverse repertoire with great success. He received the Grand Prize at the Art Festival in Japan for his production of Matsuyo Akimoto’s Suicide for Love at the Imperial Theatre in Tokyo, 1979.

Ninagawa went on to establish a number of other companies and groups including the Sakura (Cherry Blossom) Company with Kunio Shimizu in 1972 (which was unfortunately dissolved in 1974) and the Saitama Gold Theater in 2006, a theatre project on personal histories for people over 55 years of age. He was politically active in the early stage of his career. The Contemporary People’s Theatre was succeeded by his new company called Sakura-sha (Sakura Company), and Ninagawa moved from treating drama as ‘purely literary texts’ to a more ‘stage-oriented’ visual dramaturgy.[61] The story behind his Sakura Company (Sakura-sha) is particularly compelling. Ninagawa founded the Sakura Company to commemorate the United Red Army (Rengo sekigun, or the URA) activists, or those whom Shoichiro Kawai calls sympathetically ‘left-wing martyrs,’ who were arrested and killed in 1972.[62] One of the most radical political groups of the time, the short-lived Japanese armed communist movement has been compared to Italy’s Red Brigades. The URA has been labeled a terrorist group, heroic martyrs and patriots in various literary narratives, documentaries, and films. The United Red Army eventually collapsed under its own weight due to its own uncontrolled form of extremism and factions that included anti-American and internationalist fronts. Some Japanese intellectuals were critical of the violent methods, if not ideologies, of the URA. The philosopher and literary theorist Kojin Karatani (1941- ) wrote an essay entitled ‘On Macbeth’ in 1973 in response to the rise of the United Red Army. Karatani drew parallels between Macbeth’s and the URA’s ideologies, arguing that ideologies often grasp people’s hearts, not the other way around. Under the control of certain ideologies, people can be driven to commit heinous acts.[63] The foundation of the Sakura Company drew upon the association between sacrificial death and cherry blossom. The URA and the politically charged era of the 1970s never faded from Ninagawa’s works. Ninagawa brought in sounds of riot police, tear-gas grenades, and demonstrators in initial versions of The Ninagawa Macbeth to express his support of the left-wing URA. Toward the end of the Ninagawa Macbeth, he introduced recordings of ‘exploding tear-gas canisters from student demonstrations at Tokyo University in 1969.’[64] Indeed Ninagawa confessed, ‘I imagined the warrior chieftains who shed so much blood as members of the terrorist Red Army faction.’[65] He reminisced that ‘Macbeth could be a story of my ancestors or even of myself,’ because ‘the warriors who repeatedly committed carnage could be our ancestors or even what I might have been.’[66]

During the year Ninagawa founded Sakura Company, he had a revelation, thanks to a curious incident which he related in his book A Thousand Knives, A Thousand Eyes. A young man threatened to kill Ninagawa with a knife if the director was not fully committed to theatre. Ninagawa wrote later that the incident has left an everlasting imprint on his mind, propelling him on a bold artistic trajectory. Ninagawa expects ‘a thousand knives’ in the auditorium ‘if there are a thousand young men’, and often reminds himself that he has to ‘produce performances for those thousand knives.’[67]

While Ninagawa is not known primarily as an activist, he came of age during the politically conscious underground theatre movement. As a result, he has emphasized metatheatricality throughout much of his directorial career. He has also returned to the subjects of war, political turmoil and student protests in some of his Shakespeare productions. The aural and musical landscape of his dream-like 2003 Pericles (National Theatre in London) was a nod to Gower’s prologue about ‘man’s infirmities’ and victims of war. Ninagawa opened his tale of death and rebirth with the sound of aerial bombardment. It is ‘a dream dreamt by modern people in the period of distress immediately after [an unnamed] war.’ In this floating dream world detached from geographical identities, the costumes do not bear traces of any specific culture or period except for, as Shoichiro Kawai points out, ‘the traditional Shinto costume worn by maidens at Diana’s temple.’[68]

Over the next decades, he worked toward integrating the hitherto separated traditions of Kabuki, Shingeki, underground theatre and commercial productions, each being appreciated for their respective defining characteristics: stylization, text-centric dramaturgy and speech, politics and actors’ star power. In general, he does not participate in the ‘realist’ practice of Japanese actors impersonating Caucasian characters by wearing wigs and prosthetic noses or by replicating every detail of an English production (as, for example, when a 2010 Shingeki Hamlet in Tokyo attempted to copy Peter Hall’s 1965 RSC production including its ebony-walled set). Ninagawa drew upon Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais to engineer a popular revival of Japanese theatre during the early 1970s. In developing a hybrid Japanese performance style, Ninagawa has also successfully created what has come to be known as his signature aural and visual landmark: exquisite beauty. Another notable feature of his trajectory is a shrinking cast and increased collaboration with actors. His initial engagement with Shakespeare was through large-scale commercial theatre, in partnership with Tadao Nakane. His 1978 Hamlet boasted a cast of 77, but his 1988 production of the same play had a cast of 32 which was, in relative terms, very small. His 1999 King Lear had a cast of 24.

Ninagawa has been touring internationally since 1983 when he brought his open-air Medea to Athens with the beautiful translation by Harue Yamagata and with Hira Mikijiro in the title role. In 1987 he toured his Kabuki Medea with an all-male cast to Central Park, New York. The performance at the open-air Delacorte Theater had such drawing power that audiences sat through thunderstorms. Touring has played an important role in the development of his aesthetics after 1985, and so has widespread discussion of his eclectic mingling of different cultural elements from different historical periods. Ninagawa bursts onto the international Shakespeare scene with a nomination for the Laurence Olivier Best Director Award for his Macbeth at the National Theatre in London in 1987. Michael Billington, one of the most respected and demanding theatre reviewers, wrote in the Guardian on September 19, 1987, that the Ninagawa Macbeth is the most ‘achingly beautiful’ production he has seen ‘in his whole theatre-going lifetime.’[69] After overcoming severe artist’s block and depression in the late 1980s that led to his brief contemplation of retiring from directing, Ninagawa bounced back to what would become the most creative and internationally active phase of his career. His 1987 Tempest dramatized in a metatheatrical frame a group of actors rehearsing the play in the penal colony on the island of Sado. The significance of the Sado lies in the fact that the island is where the Noh playwright and founder Zeami was exiled during the fifteenth century. The local echoes of Prospero’s role as an auteur is never gratuitous or forced. The production received critical acclaim.

Ninagawa has gone on to become a household name in Japan, in the U.K. and in international theatre circles. Some of his most memorable Shakespearean productions in Britain include A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in a Zen rock garden in Kyoto (1996), Hamlet (1998; 2004), a major production of King Lear (RSC, 1999-2000) starring Sir Nigel Hawthorne, Pericles (at the National Theatre on the invitation of Trevor Nunn and RSC, 2003), Titus Andronicus (RSC’s Complete Works Festival, 2006), Coriolanus (2007), and Twelfth Night (2009). While his international reputation is largely connected to his stagings of Western classics, Ninagawa has also produced Japanese plays abroad, a continuation of his ongoing interest in modern and contemporary Japanese drama since his time as a young actor. His production of Tango at the End of Winter at the Edinburgh Festival (1991; starring Alan Rickman) was very successful and marked the beginning of a long relationship between Ninagawa and the British producer Thelma Holt. Together with Nakane, Holt produced Ninagawa’s English-language futuristic version of Peer Gynt in 1994 with a mixed cast of Japanese, Irish, Norwegian and Welsh performers.

It is useful to note that fame did not translate into a smooth path for the director in financial and artistic terms. Obstacles sometimes led to innovation. When he decided to produce A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1994 in a 150-seat venue, no producer would support him because they did not see any commercial viability in the project. Ninagawa relied on his own money, donations and free meals during rehearsals provided by Nakane. Theseus’ palace in Athens was transformed into a replica of a Zen rock garden in Kyoto, and the fairyland was framed by illuminated streams of sand falling in invisible hourglasses. Designed as an intelligent response to Peter Brook’s version (1970-3) that fascinated Ninagawa, the Japanese production opened up a new vista by bringing such basic and versatile elements of rocks, sand and light together to activate the theme of contrasting social norms and times within Shakespeare’s play. Beijing opera martial clown (wuchou) actor Lin Yung-biau’s Puck performed acrobatics on stage. In contrast to the typically saturated color symbolism in Ninagawa’s other productions, A Midsummer Night’s Dream experimented with an aesthetics of minimalism, thanks in part to budget constraints.

A director with an international profile, Ninagawa has impacted many areas even though he had not traveled extensively abroad until the 1980s, preferring to ‘read about the Adriatic than to swim in it.’[70] Since then, he has toured to Greece, Italy, France, the U.S., Canada, Hong Kong and many other parts of Asia and Europe. In the U.K., Thelma Holt Ltd.’s partnership with Ninagawa since 1990 has benefited both sides and made the Japanese director a mainstay on the English stage. In 2004, Thelma Holt, who had already been awarded a CBE, received the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays and Rosette at the Embassy of Japan in the UK in recognition of her contribution to cross-cultural understanding through theatre exchange.

Ninagawa has a keen eye for international politics as well. In addition to collaborating with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Ninagawa has recently revisited his earlier experiment with international casts. In December 2012, he directed a trilingual production of Euripedes’ The Trojan Women (presented by Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv in collaboration with the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre). Performed in Hebrew, Japanese and Arabic by an international cast, the production is part of Ninagawa’s effort to reconcile cultural differences. Indeed he had high hopes for change, as he stated in a recent interview: 

We are gathering together Jews, Palestinians and Japanese in one place and putting on a play. Each group has its own political views and inevitably there’s going to be some friction. I know that staging a play may be a small gesture, like adding a small pebble to a heap of stones. It might not have a grand meaning, but these pebbles can accumulate. It’s a way of expressing hope.[71]

Reception of Ninagawa’s productions at home and abroad is informed by contrasting domestic and international frames of reference and expectations, even though he has focused on a coherent visual and allegorical language throughout his career. His audiences at home and abroad alike are drawn to his understated but effective visual language and leitmotif as framing device, and to his use of star performers (pop stars Toshiaki Karasawa as Macbeth and Shinobu Otake as Lady Macbeth in New York). He was awarded the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) by the British government in 2002, and is currently dean of the Toho Gakuen College of Drama and Music in Japan.


Hearing the Play

A keen ear is an ear with keen hearing, an ear that perceives differences. … It is the ear of the other that signs.

Jacques Derrida[72]


It is not an overstatement to say that one goes to the theatre to hear Ninagawa’s production, for he is as much a visual director as a sound engineer. Both the visual and sonic elements make important contributions to his signature metatheatrical framing devices. When interviewed during rehearsals for The Tempestin 1987, he emphasized the significance of soundtrack and music in his work. He regarded himself as a ‘listener’ to foreign cultures.[73]Over the past decades, he has used atmospheric, classical music and strong visual motifs in many of his productions to blend elements of familiarity and strangeness. His theatre thus offers both visceral and intellectual experiences.

In the Ninagawa Macbeth, the first thing the audience heard were sounds of the gongs typically heard in temples. The gongs initially gave an impression of coherence between visual and aural motifs around the Buddhist altar. Christian music soon joined the scene. The three-minute ‘Sanctus’ of Gabriel Fauré’s (1845-1924) Requiem accompanied the appearance of the two elderly women in ragged clothes praying at the Buddhist altar. An eclectic mix of music from different eras and cultures echoed Ninagawa’s hybrid visual strategies. The opening scene featured temple bells and Fauré, and later on a lone flute accentuated Macbeth as he persuaded the assassins to go after Banquo. Some British theatre critics found the Ninagawa Macbeth ‘intensely religious’[74] and appreciated the effect of the ‘specifically Christian music.’ Michael Ratcliffe believed the music ‘made an effect of heart-breaking pathos against the dark and glittering splendor on stage.’[75]

In fact, Sanctus opened and closed Ninagawa’s production and framed the visual framing device on stage. Following Macbeth collapse silence ensues. The Sanctus swelled softly as the two old women proceeded to close the shutters. Based on the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, the Requiem introduced new religious elements into the otherwise Buddhist landscape, as the chorus sang:

Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth

Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua Hosanna in excelsis.

Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Hosts


Full are the heavens and earth with the glory of you, hosanna in the highest.

In contrast to Verdi’s Requiem and other compositions that are accompanied by strong vocal and instrumental expression, Fauré’sSanctus is simpler and more intimate in form. The musical minimalism foreshadows the simple visual beauty Ninagawa offers in the production. Sanctus opens with a dreamy, minimalist soft harp figure and violin, and the sopranos sing in a rising and falling melody of only three notes which is repeated by male singers. The sopranos and male singers engage in a duet, responding to each other and building to the forte on ‘excelsis’ and the triumphant ‘hosanna.’ Toward the end of the piece, powerful major chords are joined by a horn fanfare, before the sopranos answer in diminuendo as the music softens. The dreamy harp arpeggios reemerge to close the piece.

As an agnostic suffering from post-traumatic disorder from his experience of active service in the Franco-Prussian War,[76] Fauré and his Sanctus play an important role in The Ninagawa Macbeth, especially when the production went on tour. During an interview in 1902, Fauré elaborated on his view of death as deliverance:

It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience. As to my Requiem, perhaps I have also instinctively sought to escape from what is thought right and proper, after all the years of accompanying burial services on the organ! I know it all by heart. I wanted to write something different.[77]

The gentle and shimmering Sanctus echoes Ninagawa’s visual motif of cherry blossom. Inspired by Motojiro Kajii’s (1901–1932) widely circulated phrase, ‘dead bodies are buried under the cherry trees’, the production associated death with a cherry tree in full blossom. The cherry blossoms symbolize both beauty and death (and the repose of the soul), something which may not register in the minds of British audiences, but Ninagawa’s decision to use a direct translation rather than a localized adaptation of the script of Shakespeare’s Macbeth also introduced unfamiliar narrative patterns into the Japanese audiences’ horizon of expectation. Ninagawa’s rehearsal notes for 5.6 usefully sum up the significance of the Requiem and cherry blossom as the dominant visual and sonic frameworks: ‘memories of cherry blossom at night [morph into] a sensuous invitation to death.’[78]

Silence is also an important element in Ninagawa’s work. Komaki Kurihara’s Lady Macbeth is a tour de force. A great silence envelops her sleepwalking scene as her high-pitched hysterical laughter fades into sobbing and as she rubs her hands in an imaginary stream. A profound silence frames the moment when she dies, only to be punctuated by Macbeth’s remorse: ‘She should have died hereafter. / There would have been a time for such a word.’ On the other hand, as Daniel Gallimore has observed, the volume of music cues the audience in the same ways as film scores or operas do. In Ninagawa’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ‘we hear the organ getting louder and assume that either Oberon and Titania are about to do something significant.’[79] The audience listens for not only the actors’ style of delivery but also to what the music is saying.

Ninagawa uses the musical landscape of Sanctus out of context in order to contrast with the eastern spirituality represented by the butsudan altar visual metaphor. His strategy undermines both the postwar Japanese emulation of Western high culture and the stereotypical motif of ‘lost’ Westerners finding peace in Buddhism. Ninagawa tends to use slow, atmospheric music in his productions, such as pipe organ, choral music and Hollywood soundtracks. There are of course exceptions; his Richard III used rock music. Such archetypal sonic signatures of Western music as harp and the harpsichord have appeared again in other productions, including The Ninagawa Twelfth Night (2007). The opening scene of his 2003 Pericles featured Barber’s Adagio for Strings that, along with the presence of war victims and sound of aerial bombardment, highlighted the themes of death and postwar rebirth. Western and Japanese music often share the stage. Gower the medieval narrator was transformed into a pair of musicians playing a Japanese lute. In the beginning of his Twelfth Night, three children are singing a Japanese version of the Christmas carol ‘Emmanuel’ when a white-faced Count Orsino arrives. Ninagawa is in a privileged position. He now has his own in-house composers to work with him on incidental music and soundtracks for his productions.

Another way Ninagawa uses music is to create varying pathways to language and sonic relations between the soundtrack and the lines delivered by his actors. In Romeo and Juliet, the first Shakespearean play he directed in 1974, he used music as a tool to address the shortcomings in his commercial actors who could not remember their lines and, when they did, delivered them without authenticity. Ninagawa reminisced about how he used Elton John’s music to form a visual rhetoric:

When they read a line, it sounded like stereotypical samurai speech. The lines just didn’t mean anything. So I thought I should submerge them under Elton John’s music. Then you wouldn’t hear anything when the play started, only sound. I wanted strong contrasts, such as people running, with music coming from everywhere—a short of visual rhetoric. Otherwise, it would need a rhetoric that comes from Europe or Greece that we don’t have naturally. I still feel that way about it now; I’m still struggling with this disadvantage in our culture—we don’t have a definite ‘self,’ ‘self’ as an agent, an assertive, aggressive self. The core of my artistic struggle is actually to discover such a self.[80]

In the final scene of his Richard III, Richmond’s concluding remarks on ‘unit[ing] the white rose and the red’ in a ‘fair conjunction’ were again drowned by a visual and sonic chaos. Animal carcasses were dropped onto the stage from above, echoing the same spectacular moment at the start of the production and creating strong visual and aural contrasts with Richmond’s speech, suggesting strongly that chaos would continue to reign despite the union of the Houses of Lancaster and York. Tetsuo Kishi and Graham Bradshaw are critical of Ninagawa’s strategy, complaining that the directorial bravura of overemphasizing the sonic dimension—against which actors had to battle while delivering their lines—shortchanged talented performers such as Nigel Hawthorne as Lear in the storm scene.[81] Daniel Gallimore is more sympathetic to Ninagawa, for ‘the subordination of language and [human] voice’ in relation to music is ‘typical of an era of production in which directors have succeeded translators in importance.’[82] In commercial productions of Shakespeare as practiced by Ninagawa, there is some risk of marginalizing actors’ voice as the actors compete with the soundtrack to sculpt the characters they are playing.

Music plays a role in characterization in Ninagawa’s theatre. Deafening sound effects representing a storm dominated the opening speeches of his Tempest. Before the ‘rehearsal’ began, music from a synthesizer played by the actor who would become Trinculo filled the auditorium. The Director / Prospero figure picked up a wand to direct the play, signal company members and conduct the musicians. Ninagawa’s score almost always serves programmatic and aesthetic functions. In his 2000 Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck was played by a Beijing opera actor in tandem with a Japanese actor who delivered his lines and wore an identical costume except for a black veil over his face. Puck’s presence was not only signalled by his extraordinary acrobatic performance but also by Beijing opera percussion instruments, but his mischievous character and identity of liaison between different worlds were framed by the simultaneous presence of Chinese and Western music. In act 2 scene 1 for example, drums and woodblocks typically used in Beijing opera percussions played against synthesized organ music in the background.

Ninagawa’s sonic strategy is always part of his visual strategy, and I shall now turn to his visual framing devices.


Seeing the Play

If you can look into the seeds of time,

                    And say which grain will grow and which will not,

                                             Speak then to me.


By considering the possibility of parentless children and revenge on the inevitable passing of generations through one’s offspring, Macbethas a historical tragedy dramatizes attacks on the order of time. How might one go about staging this discourse about time?Like Peter Brook who regarded theatre as iconographic art and Kurosawa who combines Noh, American Western and Japanese scroll-painting in his Throne of Blood, Ninagawa often worked from a set of compelling images for each production as if he was a designer.[83] As Shoichiro Kawai, chair of the Sai no Kuni Shakespeare series executive committee, astutely observes, one of Ninagawa’s goals is to ‘electrify the audience within the first few minutes of a performance so that they are instantly carried into the play-world.’[84] A strong example would be his Richard III that opened with animal carcasses dropping onto the stage from above against loud pop-rock music, after which a life-size replica of a horse galloped across the stage.

This factor of surprise is certainly part of the success of many of his works. The Ninagawa Macbeth was the first Shakespearean play the director transposed to feudal Japan. His producer Tadao Nakane initially suggested the Azuchi castle as a possible setting, for it was built by a warlord who unified Japan in the sixteenth century. Ninagawa then found inspiration from scenes from Japanese daily life:

When I went back home and opened up our family butsudan [ancestral altar]to light a candle and pray for my father, at that moment, I thought, ‘this is the right image [for Macbeth].’ I had two overlapping complex ideas: ordinary people watching Macbeth, and a Japanese audience looking at the stage and seeing through it to our ancestors.

He elaborated on his synaesthetic experience of a trans-temporal dialogue across different spaces:

When I was in front of the butsudan, my thoughts were racing. It was like I was having a conversation with my ancestors. When I thought of Macbeth in this way, I thought of him appearing in the butusdan where we consecrate dead ancestors. Then we could change the setting when the witches appear, as in the Japanese expression, ‘To be tempted by time.’ We could create a setting like dusk, neither night nor day, when, according to a Japanese tradition, one often meets with demonic beings.[85]

Ninagawa was quite specific about his vision of this dialogue not only with the dead in general but with the spirits of his father and brother. The Ninagawa Macbeth is on some level deeply personal, as the director confided:

While I was praying [at our family altar] I recalled my dead father and elder brother and I felt as if I was conversing with them. At that time it occurred to me that if the drama of Macbeth were a fantasy which developed from a conversation with my dead ancestors, then this could really be my own story. Those warrior chieftains who shed so much blood could so easily be my ancestors, or they might even be what I might have been.[86]

This imaginary conversation informs a set that is evocative of a sense of spirituality. Giant sculptural warrior-god figures serve as the backdrop to Malcolm and Macduff’s meeting. A family Buddhist altar the size of the proscenium greeted the audience as they walked into the theatre. The screen doors were still closed. Larger shutters further divided the audience and the dimly lit stage. While the visual framing device suggests a Buddhist interpretation of Macbeth, the aural landscape is more complex.

Accompanied by the Requiem, two mysterious old crones hobbled onto the stage to pray to the altar and to open the shutters (and the play) in full view of the audience. Throughout the performance, they sat on either side of the altar that served as a stylized curtain. They watched the play with the audience. They served as stagehands and as mostly detached gatekeepers. They ate, drank, sewed and even nodded off. One of the roles they play is in fact a silent chorus. They wept when Macbeth said ‘my way of life / Is fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf’ and at his ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ speech.

The two anonymous women may be praying to comfort their ancestors, to appease evil spirits like those in the ensuing performance contained within the altar, or to find spiritual shelter from their traumatic past. They may be hallucinating or dreaming, bringing us what amounts to an old wife’s tale or even a tale of their ancestors. They serve as witnesses, in a similar fashion to the character of the waki in Noh theatre, to the heinous acts on stage and mediators between the audience and the play. Given that most actions are confined within the Buddhist altar, Macbeth could be seen as dreams based on their memories or divine revelations to them. Their utter disregard of the Requiem and their aloofness served as an important contrast to the earnestness and gravity of actions inside the screen doors of the altar. As Malcolm delivered the play’s final lines, the old women began to close the shutters. However, they did not close the play. They merely separated the worlds of Macbeth and the audience and returned the performance space to the same state it had had before the show started. Their existence outside the play’s narrative time parallels Macbeth’s attacks on the order of time.

In conjunction with the lighting, the sliding shutters and the screen doors separate the stage into two venues for physical and allegorical actions. Action that is farther removed from the mundane takes place behind the screens. The witches initially appear behind the semi-transparent screen doors, visible through lighting and lightning. Banquo is murdered there and that is where  the apparitions are seen. When Banquo’s ghost appears at Macbeth’s banquet, it replaces the warrior-god statue on a pedestal upstage, and the entire banquet scene, including the courtiers, is encased behind the screens. Jolted by Banquo’s ghost out of the semblance of guilt-free peace he works so hard to maintain, Macbeth opens the screen doors and steps ‘outside’ and therefore downstage. Fleance escapes the assassins to this area that seems disconnected from the violent world behind the screens. Intimate scenes and casual discussions also take place in front of the screen doors; Lady Macbeth follows Macbeth here and urges him to return to the banquet to entertain his guests: ‘You do not give the cheer: the feast is sold.’ (3.4.32).

One of the most striking visual strategies is the use of candles in act 5 scene 5, which opens with a single flickering candle on a dark stage, reminding the audience of Lady Macbeth’s candle in her sleepwalking scene. As Macbeth mourns the passing of Lady Macbeth and the passing of time, more candles are lit on the stage floor, accentuating Macbeth’s important moment of self-discovery. Macbeth lights the candles around him methodically in order to, according to Ninagawa, ‘conquer his fears’,[87] only to engage in futile attempts to extinguish the ever-burning candles later on. This circle of inextinguishable candles creates an ironic distance between redemption and Macbeth’s speech: ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.’ He is encircled by the candles as he speaks ‘Out, out, brief candle! / Life's but a walking shadow’ (5.5.23-4). Evident here again is Ninagawa’s signature approach to creating a sense of estrangement through what would otherwise be quotidian objects. The candles may represent lost souls including the Macbeths, soldiers who will die in the next scene, and those Macbeth has already killed. Ninagawa elaborates on Macbeth’s feverish collection of the candles: ‘His behavior appears just like that of a child who cannot feel at peace until he gathers all his toys around him.’[88] The visual arrangement of the candles also evokes the thousands of stone statues of Budda at Adashino Nenbutsuji Temple, an eighteenth-century Buddhist temple on a hill overlooking Kyoto. From the Heian (794-1185) to Edo (1603-1868) periods it was the site where those who could not afford proper burial rites dropped their dead. The stone Buddas tend to the dead without graves and pray for their souls.

There was something for everyone in this production when it was staged in Japan and abroad, but it also challenged audience members to grapple with their limitations. Self-motivated audiences may gain a passing acquaintance with a wider array of performance idioms and cultural themes when enough clues are available, but audiences may also force new meanings on the works that cannot be ignored. The framework of Macbeth offers spectators who are familiar with the play some semblance of control over the exotic performance event. On the other hand, the sheer grace of a backdrop of cherry blossoms can serve up shocking twists and contrasts to the dark tragedy and blood. Playgoers who are unfamiliar with the connotations of cherry blossoms might see the set as an expression of beauty and a marker of Japanese identity. Macbeth thus becomes a twice-told and doubly removed story: framed by what some critics have called unabashed self-Orientalism anda problematic departure from Shakespeare despite Ninagawa’s attempts to ‘upset the European Orientalism of Peter Brook and Ariane Mnouchkine.’[89] The production has garnered praises for its creation of a contact zone to emancipate Japanese and Shakespearean aesthetics and, at the same time, been criticized for its Occidentalist or Orientalist penchant. The divided, trenchant views about his works reflect ongoing anxieties about globalization and the challenges it poses to cultural policy and products.[90]

Visual framing devices shoulder a large part of the burden to surprise the audience with delight and unexpected spectacles. Ninagawa’s aspiration as a visual artist before he ventured into the theatre circle informs many of his stage works even though he has changed career paths. For example, his 2012 production of Cymbeline in London featured Roman scenes with a painting of the Capitoline wolf statue and Japanese courtiers. His 1985 Macbeth and 2001 Macbeth are likewise full of visual surprises and symbolism, with many photogenic scenes cut for perfect painterly moments. Peter Barnes (1931-2004), whose adaptation of Kunio Shimizu’s (1936 - ) Tango at the End of Winter was produced by Ninagawa in Edinburgh and London in 1991, compared the Japanese director to Bergman, Strehler and Brook, writing that his ‘directorial trademark is spectacularly choreographed stage effects—snowstorms, cherry blossoms, rivers, peacocks, and great chariots flying across the heavens.’[91] Japanese directors and scholars tend to agree with this assessment regardless of whether they think positively or negatively of Ninagawa’s signature approach. His 1999 King Lear, an English-language intercultural work co-produced with the Royal Shakespeare Company in England, featured a rising sun in the backdrop, techniques from noh and kabuki styles, Nigel Hawthorne in the title role, and Hiroyuki Sanada as an androgynous Fool. The scene of the blinded Gloucester being led by his disguised son Edgar evoked a Japanese watercolor.

Metatheatricality is at the core of many of Ninagawa’s productions. He prepares the audiences to take on the play-world through pre-show action (e.g. in The Tempest and Titus Andronicus) and through creative visual framing devices (Hamlet). Before curtain time for Titus, audiences rubbed shoulders with actors in Roman costumes who were warming up and walking in the aisles. The storm scene in The Tempest was framed by two pine trees that cordoned off a playing space for a play-within-a-play. Miranda watched the storm and the ship from the branch of one of the trees. Like his Twelfth Night but on a larger scale, the tempest in this production featured stylized presentations of a ship on the high sea, symbolized by a large blue blanket manoeuvred by the actors. The production itself had a provocative subtitle that signalled its metathatrical links to Ninagawa, Zeami and artistic creativity: A Rehearsal of a Noh Play on the Island of Sado. Just like the 1995 Hamlet, the production of The Tempest began with a conceit of scripted rehearsal. Actors and company members including Ninagawa himself milled about the stage as the audience walked into the auditorium. The audience then witnessed the on-stage transformation of the ‘director’ of the Noh theatre company from a businessman in suit and tie into an actor. Once the director picked up his wand and inhabited the role of Prospero. The seamless but conscious blending of the figures of director and Prospero is further signalled by his use of the wand. After he reappears onstage in a black robe which is Prospero’s costume, he gathered the actors around him and waved the wand to, like Shakespeare’s Prospero, trace a magic circle on the stage with his staff while wearing his magic robe.

In the 1995 Hamlet, the audience saw actors busy preparing for the performance in cubicles in the dressing rooms on stage before the show started. Ophelia followed the Japanese custom of arranging ornate hina dolls—a pastime for ladies at the court and now part of the Dolls’ Festival in March celebrated by Japanese families. The dolls would eventually be set afloat to carry misfortunes away so that the family’s daughters can grow up healthily and happily. Since the dolls represent hope, Ophelia’s giving away dolls rather than flowers in her mad scene carried with it a grave tone. The metaphorical connection between drowning—dolls adrift—and despair was also evident. In the play-within-a-play scene, performers sat on a tiered platform resembling a hina dolls cabinet. They formed a human tableau and drew attention to the artificiality of the performance. The audience’s attention was redirected away from the representational aspect of theatrical realism to the presentational aspect of Ninagawa’s metatheatrical narrative.


A Shattered Mirror

A single mirror will no longer suffice to reflect our complex world. My production of The Tempest can be likened to be crossing and intermingling reflections of a shattered mirror.

(Yukio Ninagawa)[92]


In his 2005 Twelfth Night the back of the entire stage was lined with floor-to-ceiling mirrors. As devices that allowed the actors and even audiences to see themselves through the eyes of the other, the mirrors highlighted the themes of doubling and mirroring in Shakespeare’s play. Throughout his career, Ninagawwa has been in search of a definable cultural self-identity, ‘an agent, an assertive, aggressive self’ in his own words.[93] Through the physical and metaphorical mirrors he has found some answers, and he draws attention to the multilayered relations between the spectator and the performer, and between seeing and being seen.

Ninagawa’s signature metathratrical framing and use of exotic stylized Kabuki, Noh, and Bunraku techniques may seem radical, but his works shed light on the often-overlooked aspect of English Shakespeares: the naturalized filtration through realism and naturalism. Both stylized Asian theatres and Western realist techniques are governed by their respective stage conventions, but from a Western perspective the conventions of realist theatre can sometimes seem so transparent due to their familiarity that one is no longer able to see how realistic the stage presentation really is.

Ninagawa’s unrelenting pursuits of spectacular framing devices have allowed him to stay very close to Shakespeare’s scripts in translation with little cuts or transposition while extrapolating artistically interesting messages from the text. He explained:

I had to find a technique which would connect with the thought-patterns of Japanese people by rearranging the play to use visual images in a Japanese style, without changing the words from the original [in translation] except to take some proper nouns out of the play. This is why I get angry if somebody describes my plays as ‘Japanesque.’ I have attempted to introduce to a Japanese audience my impression of Shakespeare.[94]

He has mostly worked with direct translations of Shakespeare’s plays (in many instances keeping proper names intact, in Japanese transliteration) rather than adaptations or rewritings. This faithfulness to Shakespeare’s text should be qualified. Even though Ninagawa does not tend to alter or rearrange the play text, he does impose Japanese frameworks upon the play. As he explains:

When I direct a Shakespeare play, I basically present it as it was originally written by the author. However, as far as what is not written is concerned, I think I am free to behave in whatever way I like. It is for this reason that I put into the production more than is actually written in the original text.[95]

The distinction between verbal and non-verbal signs in theatre works is an important one, one that has empowered modern directors, and particularly Ninagawa, to engage in meaningful conversations with classical drama.

I wish to thank Ryuta Minami, Daniel Gallimore and Shoichiro Kawai, chair of the Sai no Kuni Shakespeare series executive committee, for their generous assistance with obtaining obscure research materials and for lending their expertise on Ninagawa. William Quiteriohas provided unfailing research assistance at George Washington University. I owe special thanks to Kendra Leonard for lending her musical ears and for sharing her immense knowledge of all things musicological.


[1]Video clips of scenes from this and selected productions by Yukio Ninagawa, together with reviews, interviews, a glossary and full information for each performance, are available on the website of Alexa Huang and Peter Donaldson, eds., Global Shakespeares open-access digital performance video archive, http://globalshakespeares.mit.edu/#search%5B%5D=Ninagawa,+Yukio

[2]According to Haruo Shirane, the Azuchi-Momoyama period refers the time when two powerful generals, Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, ruled over the country before ‘succumbing to Tokugawa Ieyasu’ in 1600.See  Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1660, ed. Haruo Shirane (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007),567. Some Japanese Shakespeareans including Akihiko Senda have made an error regarding the Azuchi-Momoyama period, which this authoritative anthology defines as 1573-1598.

[3] Ryuta Minami, ‘Macbeth under the Cherry Trees’, unpublished essay, University of Warwick, 1991, p. 10

[4]Yasunari Takahashi, Tetsuo Anzai, Matsuoka Kazuko, Ted Motohashi, and Ian Carruthers, ‘Interview with Ninagawa Yukio’, Performing Shakespeare in Japan, ed. Minami Ryuta, Ian Carruthers, and John Gillies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 208.

[5]‘I felt released to realize that I [too] could do anything I liked in stating Shakespeare.’ Quoted in Dennis Kennedy, Looking at Shakespeare: A Visual History of Twentieth-Century Performance, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 315.

[6] Akihiko Senda, among other scholars, has noted how ‘the intensity of theatrical expression that characterizes Ninagawa’s directing indicates the influence Kurosawa’s cinematography’ upon the stage director who is an ‘ardent admirer of Kurosawa.’ Akihiko Senda (trans. Ryuta Minami), ‘The Rebirth of Shakespeare in Japan: From the 1960s to the 1990s’, Shakespeare and the Japanese Stage, ed. Takashi Sasayama, J.R. Mulryne, and Margaret Shewring (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 22-23.

[7]In his review, Mel Gussow compares Ninagawa Macbeth which ‘holds firmly to Shakespearean intention while stressing the timelessness of the story’ with the more ‘radical’ Hamlet by Ingmar Bergman. Mel Gussow, ‘Universality of Macbeth in Japanese’, New York Times, October 22, 1990, p. C20.

[8]He has yet to direct All's Well That Ends Well, Henry V, Henry VIII, Julius Caesar, King John, Measure for Measure, Richard II, Timon of Athens, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.


[9]Indra Levy, ‘Introduction: Modern Japan and the Trialectics of Translation’, Translation in Modern Japan, ed. Indra Levy (New York: Routledge, 2011), 1-12; see p. 1.

[10]Yo Zushi, ‘The NS Interview: Yukio Ninagawa, Theatre Director’, New Statesman, June 13, 2012; http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/culture/2012/06/ns-interview-yukio-n..., accessed March 20, 2013.

[11]Alexander C. Y. Huang, ‘Shakespeare and Translation’, The Edinburgh Companion to Shakespeare and the Arts, ed. Mark Thornton Burnett, Adrian Streete, and Ramona Wray (Edinburgh University Press, 2011), pp. 68-87.

[12]George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.4; see also 1-20.

[13]Ibid, 24.

[14]Yasunari Takahashi, Tetsuo Anzai, Kazuo Matsuoka, Ted Motohashi, and James Brandon, ‘Interview with Suzuki Tadashi’, Performing Shakespeare in Japan, 196-207; quoted from 205.

[15]Engelbert Kaempfer, De beschryving van Japan, 3 vols. (Amsterdam: Jan Roman de Jonge, 1733).

[16]Dennis C. Washburn, The Dilemma of the Modern in Japanese Fiction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995); Stephen Vlastos, ed., Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions of Modern Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

[17]Anzai Tetsuo, ‘Is a Japanese Shakespeare Possible?’ Shakespeare Worldwide: Translation and Adaptation, vol. XII (Tokyo: Yushodo Shoten, 1989), 127-138.

[18]Yushi Odashima, Shakespeare Yugaku (Tokyo, 1982), p.12; translation by Adrian James Pinnington, ‘Hamlet in Japanese Dress: Two Contemporary Japanese Versions of Hamlet’, Shakespeare Worldwide: Translation and Adaptation, vol.11 (Tokyo: Yushodo Shoten, 1986), 51-72; quoted from 55.

[19]For the regional ‘transculturation’ of Japanese literature, see Karen Laura Thornber’s Empire of Texts in Motion: Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese Transculturations of Japanese Literature (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009).

[20]Aragorn Quinn, ‘Political Theatre: The Rise and Fall of Rome and The Sword of Freedom, Two Translations of Julius Caesar in Meiji Japan by Kawashima Keizo and Tsubouchi Shoyo’ in Alexander C. Y. Huang, ed., ‘Shakespeare and Asia’, a special issue of Asian Theatre Journal 28.1 (Spring 2011): 168-183.

[21]Masahiko Masumoto, Yokohama Gete-za: Meiji Taisho no Seiyo Gekijo (The Yokohama Gaiety Theatre: The Western-Style Theatre in the Meiji and Taisho Eras), 2nd ed. (Yokohama: Iwasaki Kinen Press, 1989); Kaori Kobayashi, ‘Touring in Asia: The Miln Company’s Shakespeare Productions in Japan’,  Shakespeare and His Contemporaries in Performance, ed. Edward J. Esche (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), 53-72.

[22]Ryuta Minami, Chronology, Shakespeare and the Japanese Stage, 258; Yoshiko Kawachi, ‘The Merchant of Venice and Japanese Culture’, Japanese Studies in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, ed. Yoshiko Kawachi (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1998), quoted from 50-51.

[23]Basil Hall Chamberlain, Things Japanese, Being Notes on Various Subjects Connected with Japan for the Use of Travellers and Others, 5th Ed. (London: John Murray, 1905), p. 1. First edition published in 1890. Chamberlain arrived in Tokyo in 1873.

[24]Ibid, 290.

[25]Ibid, 9.

[26] Bjarke Frellesvig, A History of the Japanese Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 403-412; Mark Irwin, Loanwords in Japanese (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2011); Lydia Liu, Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity--China, 1900-1937 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995); Gang Zhou, Placing the Modern Chinese Vernacular in Transnational Literature (New York: Palgrave, 2011).

[27]Tetsuo Kishi and Graham Bradshaw, Shakespeare in Japan (London: Continuum, 2005), 91.

[28]Yo Zushi, ‘The NS Interview: Yukio Ninagawa, Theatre Director’, New Statesman, June 13, 2012; http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/culture/2012/06/ns-interview-yukio-n..., accessed March 20, 2013.


[30]Dennis Kennedy, Looking at Shakespeare, 319.

[31]Dennis Kennedy writes, ‘Turning the tables on Mnouchkine, [Ninagawa] raids Western culture for tis tendency to hybrid art, and thereby forges a new eclecticism. … Ninagawa may be the ideal director.’ Dennis Kennedy, Looking at Shakespeare, 315. Tetsuo Kishi and Graham Bradshaw, on the other hand, are more critical of Ninagawa. They do not believe ‘making Shakespeare visually familiar successfully solves the problem of the linguistic difficulty which is essentially aural.’ See Kishi and Bradshaw, Shakespeare in Japan, 91.

[32]The Japan Times, October 6, 2002

[33] ‘Interview with Ninagawa Yukio’, Performing Shakespeare in Japan, 211.

[34]Maria M. Delgado and Paul Heritage, eds., In Contact with the Gods? Directors Talk Theatre (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996), 193.

[35]Tetsuo Kishi and Graham Bradshaw, Shakespeare in Japan, 84.

[36]Charles Osborne, Review of The Ninagawa Macbeth, The Weekend Telegraph, 19 September 1987.

[37]Stephen Orgel, ‘The Authentic Shakespeare’, Representations 21 (1988): 1-25; quoted from 13.

[38]Leonard C. Pronko, ‘Approaching Shakespeare through Kabuki’, Shakespeare East and West, ed. Minoru Fujita and Leonard Pronko (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), 24.

[39]Introduction, Performing Shakespeare in Japan, p. 2.

[40]Tsubouchi Shoyo, Shakespeare kenkyu shiori (Introduction to Shakespeare Studies) (Tokyo: Waseda University Press, 1928).

[41]Natsume Soseki, ‘Tsubouchi Hakase to Hamlet (Dr. Tsubouchi and Hamlet), Tokyo Asahi Shimbun, 5-6 June, 1911; reprinted in Soseki Zenshu vol. 11 (Tokyo: Iwanami shoten, 1965).

[42]On the tension between Shinpa and Shingeki, see Brian Powell, Japan's Modern Theatre: A Century of Change and Continuity (London: Routledge Japan Library, 2002), 18-19.

[43]Koreya Senda, Engeki hyoron shu (Collected Theatre Criticism) vol. 2 (Tokyo: Miraisha, 1980), p. 230; Dennis Kennedy and J. Thomas Rimer, ‘Koreya Senda and Political Shakespeare’, Shakespeare and the Japanese Stage, 53-70; esp. 60.

[44]Ninagawa recalled the impact of seeing Senda as Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor when Ninagawa was a young actor. ‘Interview with Ninagawa Yukio’, Performing Shakespeare in Japan, 208.

[45]Aragorn Quinn, ‘Political Theatre: The Rise and Fall of Rome and The Sword of Freedom, Two Translations of Julius Caesar in Meiji Japan by Kawashima Keizo and Tsubouchi Shoyo.’ Asian Theatre Journal 28. 1 (Spring 2011): 168-183.

[46]Robert Tierney, ‘Othello in Tokyo: Performing Race and Empire in 1903 Japan’, Shakespeare Quarterly 62.4 (2011): 514-540.

[47]Ayako Kano, Acting Like a Woman in Modern Japan: Theater, Gender, and Nationalism (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 107.

[48]Shoichiro Kawai, ‘Kabuki Twelfth Night and Kyogen Richard III: Shakespeare as a Cultural Catalyst’, Shakespeare Survey 64 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011): 114-120. ‘Shakespeare as Cultural Catalyst’ was the theme of the 2010 International Shakespeare Conference in Stratford-upon-Avon, August 8-13.

[49]Izumi Kadono, ‘The Kabuki Version of Hamlet: Hamlet Yamamoto No Nishikie’, Shakespeare Yearbook: Shakespeare in Japan 9 (1999): 105-121; 108-109 and 117.

[50]Kuniyoshi Munakata Ueda, Noh Adaptation of Shakespeare: Encounter and Union (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 2001), viii-ix. His Noh Hamlet toured as a solo performance to Britain, Sweden, Denmark, and Canada in 1990. I thank Ueda for sharing his knowledge of Noh and for his book.

[51]Dennis Kennedy, Looking at Shakespeare,314; Ryuta Minami, Chronology, Shakespeare and the Japanese Stage, 328-331.

[52]The Tokyo Globe re-opened in 2004 under new management and moved away from a Shakespearean repertoire. Michiko Suematsu, ‘The Tokyo Globe Years 1998-2002’, Shakespeare in Hollywood, Asia and Cyberspace, ed. Alexander C. Y. Huang and Charles Ross (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2009), 121-128.

[53]Tadashi Suzuki, ‘Culture is the Body’, Interculturalism and Performance: Writings from PAJ, ed. Bonnie Marranca and Gautam Dasgupta (New York: PAJ Publications, 1991), 241-248.

[54]‘Interview with Suzuki Tadashi’, Performing Shakespeare in Japan, 196-207; quoted from 196-197.

[55]Tetsuo Kishi and Graham Bradshaw, Shakespeare in Japan, 90.

[56]Hiroshi Hasebe, Interview with Yukio Ninagawa, August 18, 2005, Performing Arts Network Japan (The Japan Foundation), http://performingarts.jp/E/art_interview/0508/1.html, accessed March 20, 2013.

[57] Nicholas De Jongh, ‘Noh Way Out’, Evening Standard, November 1992, 116.

[58]John Whittier Treat, Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995);

[59] Arthur Horowitz, Prospero's ‘True Preservers’: Peter Brook, Yukio Ninagawa, and Giorgio Strehler--Twentieth-Century Directors Approach Shakespeare's The Tempest (Newark: Associated University Presses, 2004), 129.

[60]‘Interview with Ninagawa Yukio’, Performing Shakespeare in Japan, 208-209.

[61]‘Interview with Ninagawa Yukio’, Performing Shakespeare in Japan, 209.

[62] Shoichiro Kawai, ‘Ninagawa Yukio’, The Routledge Companion to Directors’ Shakespeare, ed. John Russell Brown(London: Routledge, 2008), 271.

[63]Kojin Karatani, ‘On Macbeth’, in Sickness as Meaning (Imi to iu yamai) (Tokyo: Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 1975).

[64]Dennis Kennedy, Looking at Shakespeare, 316.

[65] Yukio Ninagawa, Programme for The Tempest, trans. Stefan Kaiser and Sue Henny, Edinburgh International Festival, 1988.

[66]Yukio Ninagawa, Sen no Naifu, Sen no Me (A Thousand Knives, a Thousand Eyes) (Tokyo: Kinokuniya Shoten, 1993), 107. Quoted in Akihiko Senda (trans. Ryuta Minami), ‘The Rebirth of Shakespeare in Japan: From the 1960s to the 1990s’, Shakespeare and the Japanese Stage, 23-24.

[67]Yukio Ninagawa, Sen no Naifu, Sen no Me (A Thousand Knives, a Thousand Eyes) (Tokyo: Kinokuniya Shoten, 1993), 55; English translation by Shoichiro Kawai, ‘Ninagawa Yukio’, 270.

[68]Shoichiro Kawai, ‘Ninagawa Yukio’, 279-280.

[69]Michael Billington, Review of Ninagawa Macbeth, The Guardian, September 19, 1987.

[70] ‘Tempesto: Sadoshima no rehasuru’, anonymous interview with Ninagawa, Marie Claire (Tokyo), January 1987, translated by J. Thomas Rimer, quoted in Dennis Kennedy, Looking at Shakespeare,315.

[71]Yo Zushi, ‘The NS Interview: Yukio Ninagawa, Theatre Director’.

[72] Jacques Derrida, The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation, trans. Peggy Kamuf and Avital Ronell, ed. Christie McDonald (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988), 50-51.

[73] ‘Tempesto: Sadoshima no rehasuru’, anonymous interview with Ninagawa, Marie Claire (Tokyo), January 1987, translated by J. Thomas Rimer, quoted in Dennis Kennedy, Looking at Shakespeare, 315.

[74]Peter Whitebrook, Review of The Ninagawa Macbeth, The Scotsman, 23 August 1985.

[75] Michael Ratcliffe, Review of The Ninagawa Macbeth, The Observer, 25 August, 1985.

[76] Jessica Duchen, ‘Fauré: Requiem for a Dream’, The Independent, 19 March 2010: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/faur--requiem-for-a-dream-1923526.html, accessed 2 April 2013. See also Duchen, Gabriel Fauré (London: Phaidon, 2000).

[77] Fauré was interviewed by Louis Aguettant on July 12, 1902; English translation by Robert Orledge, Gabriel Fauré (London: Eulenberg, 1979).

[78] Yukio Ninagawa, Note 1969-1988 (Tokyo, 1988), trans. Ryuta Minami; quoted in Ronnie Mulryne, ‘From Text to Foreign Stage: Yukio Ninagawa’s Cultural Translation of Macbeth’, Shakespeare from Text to Stage, ed. Patricia Kennan and Mariangela Tempera (Bologna: Cooperativa Libraria Universitaria Editrice Bologna, 1992), 136.

[79] Daniel Gallimore, Sounding Like Shakespeare: A Study of Prosody in Four Japanese Translations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Hyogo: Kwansei Gakuin University Press, 2012),

[80] ‘Interview with Ninagawa Yukio’, Performing Shakespeare in Japan, 211.

[81] Tetsuo Kishi and Graham Bradshaw, Shakespeare in Japan, 80-81.

[82] Daniel Gallimore, Sounding Like Shakespeare, 174-175.

[83]Peter Brook, The Shifting Point, 1946–1987 (New York: Harper Collins, 1987), 78.

[84] Shoichiro Kawai, ‘Ninagawa Yukio’, The Routledge Companion to Directors’ Shakespeare, 277.

[85]‘Interview with Ninagawa Yukio’, Performing Shakespeare in Japan, pp. 208-219.

[86] Yukio Ninagawa, Programme for The Tempest, trans. Stefan Kaiser and Sue Henny, Edinburgh International Festival, 1988.

[87] Yukio Ninagawa, Note 1969-1988 (Tokyo, 1988), trans. Ryuta Minami.

[88] Yukio Ninagawa, Note 1969-1988 (Tokyo, 1988), trans. Ryuta Minami.

[89]Tetsuo Kishi and Graham Bradshaw, Shakespeare in Japan, 80-81; Yeeyon Im, ‘The Pitfalls of Intercultural Discourse: The Case of Yukio Ninagawa’, Shakespeare Bulletin 22.4 (2004): 7-30; Dennis Kennedy and Yong Li Lan, ‘Part IV: Intercultural Politics’, in Shakespeare in Asia: Contemporary Performance, ed. Dennis Kennedy and Yong Li Lan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 217.

[90]J.R. Singh, Globalized Arts: The Entertainment Economy and Cultural Identity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), i-xiii.

[91]Peter Barnes, ‘Working with Yukio Ninagawa’, New Theatre Quarterly 8.32 (1992): 389-390; quoted from p. 389.

[92] Yukio Ninagawa, quoted by Nobuo Miyashita, ‘Ninagawa Yukio, Theatrical Pacesetter’, Japan Quarterly 34 (1987): 400-404.

[93] ‘Interview with Ninagawa Yukio’, Performing Shakespeare in Japan, 211.

[94]‘Interview with Ninagawa Yukio’, Performing Shakespeare in Japan, 211.

[95] Kazuko Matsuoka’s interview with Yukio Ninagawa in ‘Shakespeare, the Directors’ Age’, Theatre Arts (Gekijo geijutsu, 4 (May 1989); English translation by Akihiko Senda (trans. Ryuta Minami), ‘The Rebirth of Shakespeare in Japan: From the 1960s to the 1990s’, Shakespeare and the Japanese Stage, 22.

No comments