Iain Grant finds out why theatre in the Edinburgh Festival is turning Japanese. And then talks to Koichi Kimura. director of Chijinkai. about how he hides behind his actors, almost.
he Edinburgh Festival’s recently established tradition of offering prime slices ofJapanese theatre continues unabated. It is partly Festival Director Frank Dunlop and his enthusiasm for things Japanese that we have to thank for this and partly. one suspects. the economic and. increasingly. cultural power ofJapan. which makes bringing reputable Japanese companies over such an attractive proposition. ‘We’re bringing over the three companies.’ says Dunlop. ‘to demonstrate the range of new Japanese theatre. We are trying to build up an interest in Japanese drama.‘
Three companies are set to perform in the Festival. as well as the various others on the Fringe. These offer three very different insights into the state of the theatre in contemporary Japan. Frank Dunlop contrasts the Japanese approach to theatre to our own. ‘I’m just intrigued by Japan.‘ he says. ‘I love the way oflife there. They‘re so dynamic. When you try to do things here you have to fight all the time. There they just get together and do it.”
It was Yukio Ninagawa’s Macbeth which really caught the public‘s imagination in 1985. Its vivid use ofcolour and traditional Japanese dramatic techniques made it one of the hits of that year’s Festival. Since then we have had one Festival with a Japanese theme. and Ninagawa has returned with Medea and The Tempest. and met with a similar degree ofacclaim.
Ninagawa is back. for the fourth time, this year. His company is performing Yukio Mishima’s Sotoba Komachi. one of a clutch of plays written by the novelist and would-be revolutionary.
Soroba Komachi. like much ofMishima’s theatrical oeuvre. is firmly traditional in style. It draws on the No tradition. the most rigorously formal of traditional Japanese theatre styles, which. whilst you might be transported by its stylised beauty. even Mishima would have thought it nothing to lose your head over in a rush ofexcitement.
Mishima‘s plays have been neglected since the author‘s ritual suicide in an abortive right-wing coup attempt because Mishima. even at twenty years remove. is still a very touchy subject in Japan. It is typical of Ninagawa‘s boldness that he has chosen to stage this work and. whatever the prpduction looks like. the one thing for certain is that. when we are deciding whether the neglect of Mishima could have been justified on artistic grounds. he could have had no better advocate than Ninagawa.
If Ninagawa‘s previous productions are anything to go by. we should expect a very precise. very detailed piece of theatre with an added dash ofvisual spectacle and. in its own way. a great deal of power.
At the other end of the theatrical spectrum in Japanese theatre is Hideki Noda. His company. Yume no Yuminsha. has also been to the Festival before. though only once.
Where Ninagawa is sophisticated and meticulous. Noda‘s style is youthful and dynamic. Though he is still only in his thirties. Noda is one of the most successful directors in Japan. His shows are enormously popular. especially with theatre-goers in the 18—35 age group. A couple of years ago his production of the Ring Cycle. a nine-hour marathon. filled a 3().()()()-seat stadium
and kept the audience enthralled. “They are just extraordinary.’ says Frank Dunlop. ‘I saw their Ring Cycle— it's very funny and witty. You saw all these youngJapanese laughing at Wagner!‘
His company has grown out of a student drama club formed at Tokyo University in the late 70s and. though the personnel has changed. even now his performers are all in their mid-twenties.
Yume no Yuminsha‘s performances are fast. physical and frenetic. The actors work out for several hours a day in preparation. liven the name of the company (it connotes dreaming — yume. and activity —yumin) betokens their dynamism.
The performances are also funny. Sue Henry. the Assistant Director of the Japan Foundation. which has had a role in bringing the production to Edinburgh. has been a fane of Yume no Yuminsha for years.
‘There is a lot of physical clowning.‘ she says. ‘but there is also humour derived from situations and word-play.‘ This is remarkable when you consider the subject matter of the current production Hanshin: the parents of Siamese twins are forced to decide which of them should live and which should die.
Notwithstanding all this energy. Noda and company also make use of traditional theatrical techniques. They will. for instance. at times adopt kabuki stances like Mie (arms folded. feet splayeLJ
5The List 10— 16 August 1990