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Director Ninagawa Fuses Classical Theater from East and West (August 11, 2005)

Ninagawa Yukio (Jiji)
Kabuki, a traditional form of Japanese theater, began about 400 years ago. At around the same time in Britain, William Shakespeare was turning out the plays and sonnets that would become a cornerstone of English literature. Now Ninagawa Yukio, a theater director known for his Japanese productions of Shakespeare's works, has fused the two classical styles together. The result is a unique staging of Shakespeare's romantic comedy Twelfth Night. Titled Ninagawa Twelfth Night, the production was performed in July at the Kabukiza in Ginza, one of Japan's best-known Kabuki theaters.

A New Kabuki
One reason the production has attracted attention - apart from the marriage of two such distinctive genres from East and West - is the man behind it. Ninagawa has enjoyed an illustrious career staging Shakespeare and other works, not just in Japan but throughout the world.

Born in 1935 in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, Ninagawa made his professional debut in 1969. Throughout the 1970s he staged epic productions, earning him accolades and putting him at the top of Japan's theatrical world. His fame spread overseas after he began making annual tours of Europe, the United States, Canada, and other countries, beginning with his staging of the Greek classic Medea in 1983, which received enthusiastic acclaim. Another favorite of the critics was his Midsummer Night's Dream in London in 1996, while his King Lear performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company enjoyed a long run in London and elsewhere in 1999 and 2000.

Ninagawa has picked up a collection of prestigious awards along the way, including the Minister of Education's Award for Fine Arts. In 1992, the University of Edinburgh awarded him an honorary doctorate. Ninagawa has also worked on films, including Ao no Hono (The Blue Light) and serves as president of the Toho Gakuen College of Drama and Music.

His Kabuki version of Twelfth Night, a quintessential Shakespearean comedy, is one of his boldest projects to date. Although Ninagawa's production is based on a faithfully translated script, the story is set in Japan with all the characters having Japanese names.

One of the lead performers in Twelfth Night - and the person who first suggested this venture to Ninagawa - is Onoe Kikunosuke, a popular young Kabuki actor. "I wanted to do something new with kabuki," says Onoe. "I'd been wondering what new works could be added to the Kabuki repertory. I chose Twelfth Night because it's a Shakespeare play with a history about as long as Kabuki's that also contains comedy, which I can do." It is not the first time that Ninagawa and Onoe have worked together. Onoe performed in a contemporary adaptation of a Greek tragedy directed by Ninagawa in 2000.

Twelfth Night requires a complex performance from Onoe, who switches quickly between two different roles, those of a twin brother and sister. It is a complex feat for the actor, known for his ability to transform himself to play the roles of beautiful women. In the production, he also performs alongside his father, Onoe Kikugoro, who has been designated a "living national treasure."

Tradition with a Twist
The production, while in the spirit of Kabuki, adds three-dimensional flourishes, such as an entire side of the stage covered in mirrors. Ninagawa fuses East and West, and melds the beauty of Kabuki with Ninagawa's production values.

"There's nothing worse than someone who hardly knows anything about Kabuki trying to get involved. I never thought I would try my hand at directing Kabuki," says the director. In the end, Onoe's enthusiasm for the project won the director over. "It was good to add something new to a classical orthodoxy. I wanted to direct Kabuki this one time," Ninagawa comments.

Following the success of Twelfth Night in Tokyo, Ninagawa says that he is keen to take the production to London in the future.

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Copyright (c) 2005 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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