Yukio Ninagawa returns to S'pore with samurai drama

Ryo Katsuji (left) as Kojiro and Tatsuya Fujiwara (right) as Musashi in the 2010 production directed by Yukio Ninagawa.

The living giant of Japanese theatre, legendary director Yukio Ninagawa, cuts an unassuming figure.

Sitting at a corner of a conference table in the Esplanade office, the wiry and slightly stooped 78-year-old is clad conservatively in a black cardigan over a crisp white shirt with a mandarin collar.

He says disarmingly of his return to Singapore: "After 20 years, my impression of the city has completely changed. The theatre is completely new and different - so I feel a little bit nervous."

Beneath that gentle, grandfatherly visage is a razor-sharp intellect steeped in decades of theatre- making experience and years spent rewriting the norms of theatre of the East and West.

The straight-shooting but soft-spoken director, known for his sumptuous reinventions of Shakespeare and the Greek classics, dispenses pointed remarks in soothing low tones. He spoke to Life! through a translator, who often seemed both amused and disconcerted by his statements, punctuating her translations with nods of reverence.

Ninagawa often employs traditional Japanese art forms, such as Kabuki and Noh theatre, in his work.

"In terms of Kabuki and Noh theatre, I don't think they are effective forms right now, in this context, what they are doing right now in Japan. So what I do is I use the style of Kabuki and Noh, not the content.

"When you see Shakespeare's plays, there are a lot of things that are not realistic, like you cut off the head and someone dies immediately or you mix people up, which won't happen in real life. But by introducing the style of Kabuki and Noh into this play, it can be possible. These unrealistic things can be smoothly produced to the audience."

When he first began to watch Shakespeare in the United Kingdom, however, he was not particularly impressed. He thought to himself: "How come it's so boring?"

To his credit, his takes on Shakespeare are the farthest thing from dull. The set of the critically acclaimed Macbeth featured a grand Buddhist altar and thousands of paper cherry blossoms cascading softly onto the stage. His production of Titus Andronicus represented Japan at the Royal Shakespeare Company's Complete Works Festival of 2006 to 2007. He is also a member of The Shakespeare's Globe Council and was awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2002.

He is back in Singapore for the first time in more than 20 years to present the samurai action-comedy Musashi at the Esplanade Theatre today and tomorrow. It is sold out.

Musashi is part of the arts centre's 3 Titans of Theatre series, jointly presented with the Singapore Repertory Theatre, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year with this triple bill. The series opened with Complicite's Shun-kin in August and will conclude with Peter Brook's The Suit at the end of the month, which is almost sold out.

Ninagawa's productions of Medea and Macbeth at the 1992 Singapore Arts Festival still reverberate in the minds of theatregoers today.

Theatre critic Hannah Pandian's 1992 review of the ancient Greek tragedy Medea, published in The Straits Times, was rapt in awe.

She wrote: "Ninagawa's Medea received seven curtain calls, and the audience raised an exultant voice, while winking back furtive tears. It is at such moments when you remember that theatre was once reserved for the gods."

Musashi, which premiered in Tokyo in 2009 before touring to London and New York, has also been well received by critics and audiences.

The New York Times described it as "a ravishing dialogue among forms of storytelling and theatre, enacted with delicate precision and robust humour", proclaiming Ninagawa "a master of artful eclecticism", and The Guardian called it an "extraordinary theatrical event".

Written by the late Japanese playwright Hisahi Inoue, whom Ninagawa consulted before the dramatist died in 2010 at the age of 75, the play focuses on the rivalry between legendary 17th-century Japanese swordsmen Musashi and Kojiro, but also looks at the futility of revenge.

The rollicking work stars head-turning Japanese actor Tatsuya Fujiwara, 31, as the titular Musashi. Fans might recognise him from the popular Death Note and Battle Royale film series.

Fujiwara has also worked extensively with Ninagawa. His credits include performing in an adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet (2003), as well as in a take on the Japanese Noh play Shintoku-Maru (1997). He tells Life! in an e-mail interview: "I met him (Ninagawa) for the first time when I auditioned for Shintoku-Maru. I was there simply out of curiosity and didn't know really who Mr Ninagawa was. To be honest with you, I didn't even know how to pronounce his last name."

Fujiwara adds: "Because I didn't have any previous acting experience and didn't know anything about show business, all I could do was to strictly adhere to his stage direction. Although I was scared and ended up crying on my way home after every rehearsal, I felt his passion in how hard he worked along with me for his production and for me."

Young Japanese actor Junpei Mizobata, 24, who plays Kojiro, says over e-mail: "My first impression of Mr Ninagawa was, though he is affectionate, he has a very sharp insight and is calmly seeing people's minds and true intentions even when he is smiling gently."

Ninagawa is a known perfectionist. He has directed six different versions of Hamlet, including one that starred famous Japanese actor Ken Watanabe, because he does not think he has gotten it right - yet. He says: "Every time I try to put on the show, I think there are certain failures. So every time I do a new production, I try to fill in these shortcomings.

"Hamlet is written with a very beautiful language, the words are very philosophical. But at the same time, it's also comedic."

He is also particularly interested in the three figures connected to the loss of a father figure: Hamlet, Laertes and Polonius, and the dynamics between them. The play, he feels, "is a mountain you need to climb".

Hamlet is his favourite Shakespeare work, and Oedipus The King his favourite Greek tragedy.

When it is pointed out that both plays are connected by the theme of the loss of the father figure, he nods in agreement, saying: "The father is a figure who is a giant for his sons. The loss of a father can be read as a loss of logic. After the loss of the father, chaos ensues. It may be the reason I'm interested in these two works."

When asked about his parents, he sidesteps the question gently, saying they were "just" tailors and "ordinary people".

His introduction to Shakespeare was, in fact, by way of director Peter Brook, who is also coming to Singapore later this month. He watched Brook's incarnation of A Midsummer Night's Dream in the 1970s.

He says of the production: "It was very good. However, it was too stylishly done and it eliminated all the 'noise' - that unsettling feeling inside is completely eliminated from the show. It was very logically done, but I didn't agree with that because Shakespeare's works are more of a show of lots of people. The masses play a crucial role."

When asked if he knows that Brook is also part of the 3 Titans series, he laughs and interrupts: "So desu ne!" (A popular Japanese expression of confirmation or affirmation.)

Ninagawa has charted his own path in the theatre, blending his grounding in the Western model of theatre with the traditions of Japan. He believes the Japanese people are no longer interested in the ancient tradition of Noh theatre today because it has been over-protected from innovation and evolution.

His translator laughs nervously at his statement and says: "If the people in the Noh society heard about this, they would be quite upset."

Ninagawa, who was born in 1935, first became interested in the theatre when he was in high school, particularly after seeing a visceral Japanese show titled I Hate The War shortly after World War II.

He failed his university entrance examination, which was a blessing in disguise, because it confirmed his career path in the theatre. He joined the Seihai Theatre Company as an actor in 1955 and made his directorial debut in 1969.

He currently resides in Tokyo and has two grown daughters, a photographer and an editor, with his actress wife, who is also in her 70s.

And it seems that even today, his drive to push boundaries has not ceased - particularly when it comes to his own opinions, which are refreshingly direct. He says bluntly of a well-known director: "His work used to be very exciting. But not anymore."

His translator, whose voice has trailed to a whisper, is quick to declare: "This is off the record, off the record!" Ninagawa grins, and there is a glint of mischief in his eyes.

corriet@sph.com.sg

Tickets to Musashi are sold out. Yukio Ninagawa will be at the Esplanade Theatre tomorrow from 1.30 to 2.30pm for a public talk. To register, go to inconversationwithyukioninagwa.eventbrite.com/

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