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Remembering Yukio Ninagawa

May 13, 2016

Acclaimed Japanese theater director Yukio Ninagawa passed away on Thursday. He was 80. Ninagawa devoted his life to the stage, blending the best theatrical traditions of East and West.

From classic foreign drama to modern plays and kabuki, Ninagawa's repertory was broad. During a lifelong career, he directed 300 plays.

He brought his own unique interpretations to Greek tragedies and Shakespeare. On stage, he used thrilling directing and sets to bring his worldview to audiences.

The Barbican, in London, where many of Ninagawa's pieces were performed, led the tributes.

"He mixed aesthetic of East and Wes -- a complete master, an artist, a genius," said Toni Racklin, head of theatre at the Barbican. "It is a terrible loss not to have his input into the creative landscape."

Ninagawa was known for transforming Kabuki and Edo drama into compelling modern plays. Freely transcending boundaries of time and genre, he shook up the stagnant world of Japanese theater.

Seven years ago, he suffered a stroke and had to use a wheelchair. But his passion for the stage never waned.

Director Hideki Noda expressed his sadness at Ninagawa's death, calling him an inspiration.

"Ninagwa was my hero. I'm really shocked. I might be going too far if I say he was my rival, but at the bottom of my heart, when he put up a good play, I wanted to make something even better," Noda said.

Shoichiro Kawai, a professor at the University of Tokyo's Graduate School who was friends with Ninagawa, joined anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Beppu: It was known that he was not feeling well for some time, but his condition was said to be improving and he was said to be looking forward to working for his next play. So when you heard this news, what was your reaction?

Kawai: Well it came as a great shock to me. I still can't believe it. Well actually his new production of "Measure for Measure" is to be opened this month and I heard he gave directions from his bed. Although he was in a wheelchair throughout last year, he gave very vigorous directions from his wheelchair, like for instance in the rehearsal room for "Hamlet," for which I was the translator. And he had such vigor, more vigor than you would expect in a normal, ordinary person. So it came as a great shock.

Shibuya: Professor, please stay with us. We'll have more questions for you later. Now, let's take a look at how Ninagawa became an internationally famous director.

A Look Back at Ninagawa's Life

Yukio Ninagawa was born in 1935 in the city of Kawaguchi, just north of Tokyo.

He joined a theater company as an actor in 1955, and debuted as a director in 1969.

In 1974, he directed his first play in a major theater: "Romeo and Juliet."

He made his overseas debut in 1983. His productions have been performed in countries such as Britain, Italy and Greece.

"Ninagawa Macbeth" was performed in the National Theatre in London in 1987. It was nominated for the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Director.

Newsroom Tokyo interviewed Ninagawa last September, when the play was performed in Tokyo for the first time in 17 years.

"Ninagawa Macbeth" is an ambitious undertaking that transports the story to 16th-century Japan.

A huge Buddhist family altar occupies the stage. The audience watches as the stories of those who were once alive unfold from behind.

"As I've grown older, I've thought about revisiting the work I did as a younger man. I wanted to confirm that it really was good," Ninagawa said at the time.

Cherry blossoms reinforced the connection with Japanese aesthetics.

"We Japanese have spent many sleepless nights learning about Europe. However, Europeans still know very little about Asia. I want to do what I can to balance the scales," Ninagawa said.

His production of "Kafka on the Shore," an adaptation of Haruki Murakami's novel, was performed in Japan after London and New York.

The main character is a 15-year-old boy named Kafka Tamura. He runs away from home in Tokyo and ends up on the island of Shikoku. Through his encounters with a librarian and a woman with a mysterious past, he is able to come to terms with his own deep despair.

Ninagawa guides the audience smoothly through two parallel storylines and eventually combines them, using mobile acrylic cases.

In the opening scene, Kafka curls up inside a case like a fetus in the womb. His eyes are closed, and his expression is serene. This image reflects Ninagawa’s main message in the play.

"The boy looks for his mother and curses his father," Ninagawa said. "However, I want to tell him that he should move on from these feelings after all the hardships he endured. He should forgive his parents a bit and ease up."

The fetal position also appears in "Ninagawa Macbeth," but at the very end.

"In this play, I wanted to tell him that he’s lived his life fully and that now he can rest. The fetal position is how I tell people to take it easy. The 2 plays are somewhat connected in that sense. I was insistent about that," Ninagawa said.

"I don’t want to end up working on household dramas like those of the European masters. I want to continue to create works that show the way of the world more coarsely," he said.

"So you don't think you've reached the summit yet?" the interviewer asked.

"I like to think of Yukio Ninagawa as always becoming a bit more spectacular than before," Ninagawa said.

Shibuya: Ninagawa incorporated Japanese or Asian elements into western screenplays. How do you think his style contributed to the world of theater?

Kawai: Right. People tend to see Shakespeare and Greek tragedies as highbrow and difficult to understand, but Ninagawa changed all that, not only by incorporating Japanese and Asiatic elements, but also by offering visually sumptuous. And I think he was a genius to grasp the very essence of the text. And that's why from his 1985 Edinburgh production of "Ninagawa Macbeth" until last year's "Hamlet" and "Kafka on the Shore," not a single year passed without his overseas production. And that was amazing, I think.

Beppu: You talked about the incorporation of the Asian and Western elements. How about the combination that he pursued to combine very artistic elements together with very enjoyable, entertainment elements? And what kind of impact do you think this gave to the Japanese theater?

Kawai: He started his career as a revolutionist, or a one of the leaders of the so-called underground theater. He started to stage "Romeo and Juliet" in 1974 for a very big theater. And that's how he began to combine his artistic quality and also his visual, spectacular staging. He succeeded in that combination, so that's how he influenced Japanese theater so much. And his influence on Japanese theater was such that every aspiring actor, ambitious actor wanted to wanted to be involved in his productions.

Beppu: In the video we have just seen, he was saying that he didn't want to end up being a tame director, but he always wanted to be a challenger, and also he came up with these ideas one after another. What do you think was the source of his energy?

Kawai: I would say, in one word, that it was his passion for life. Well you could say that it was his passion for theater. But in his thinking, I think he combines life and theater together... and I think he has kind of embodied that spirit throughout his life. And he kept on challenging because for him, theater is a way to enrich life. That's what he kept on challenging, and encouraged us to broaden our views to live a better life.

Beppu: And I understand there was this aspect of anger, probably.

Kawai: His passion is expressed as an anger and frustration against those who tend to live languidly, people who tend to choose a more comfortable life. But he expressed that is not the right way to live. He wanted all of us to broaden our view and enrich our life. That's why he kept on challenging and kept on shouting at us.

Determined to make drama part of people's lives, Ninagawa put a lot of effort into promoting theater. Ten years ago, he became artistic director of the Sainoguni Saitama Theater in Saitama Prefecture.

He launched 2 companies, Saitama Next Theater, which mainly comprises young people, and Saitama Gold Theater, whose members are all 55 or older.

The Gold Theater performed in Paris and Hong Kong and received a passionate response.

A dramatization of Ninagawa's life titled "Nina's Cotton" was scheduled to open in February, but it was postponed due to his illness.

An up-and-coming playwright and director describes his view of Ninagawa's career and how he has tried to work them into a play.

Takahiro Fujita wrote the script at the request of Ninagawa himself. His company, Mum and Gypsy, is known for its unique style. It mixes the past and present by repeated refrains. It's been highly praised for the way it blurs the boundary between reality and the stager.

Fujita was born in 1980. He wrote the script based on stories he heard from Ninagawa and people around him. It took him a year to write the play.

Fujita wrote 2 scripts. He planned to direct one himself and have Ninagawa direct the other.

Fujita and his actors wanted to get a feeling for the legendary director's world. They visited Tokyo's Ueno district, where Ninagawa spent his university years, and his hometown of Kawaguchi.

They saw what had changed over time -- and what hadn't.

Kawaguchi has long been a center of industry. They visited an ironworks that Ninagawa remembered from his childhood. They felt the steam and heat, and noticed the foundry's distinct smell. It helped them understand the world where Ninagawa grew up.

Fujita got some ideas for his stage sets.

"Steel is an interesting thing. Work continues every day in this place, making it dirtier. But it's not possible to show this on stage," Fujita says.

They also went to the neighborhood where Ninagawa's parents had a tailor's shop. Fujita and his troupe met a woman who'd known Ninagawa as a child.

"I'd never thought Yukio would be such a famous director," she says.

They went to the riverbank and looked into the setting sun. It was from this spot that Ninagawa saw Tokyo in flames after a US air raid during the war. The director found the sight horrifying, and beautiful.

It's still not known when Fujita will stage "Nina's Cotton." It's now up to Fujita and his actors to find a way of expressing the depth of Ninagawa's life.

Beppu: We understand that Ninagawa had a strong attachment to his hometown, its land and its people, including the seniors. Why was this? And what can we learn from this approach?

Kawai: We'd have to ask him the reason for that. But I believe that he loved people of the place he belonged to, especially what he has taught us throughout his theater career is that we should be truthful in our life, not only our life on the stage but also in our daily life or real life. And that's why he involved many local people into a drama, because a drama, as I said, is to broaden our view and enrich our life. And I think it was known that he was very sever in his directions, but I think it was a way of expressing his love towards people. He loved the theater, because he wants the people to live a better life. That's why he encouraged people to come to the theater, to watch the theater, but also he was very severe because he loved the people. That's why he was never satisfied with himself, and that's why he kept challenging, I think.