“Chapter 3: Yukio Ninagawa.” 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


EXCERPT from the chapter. Full text available on my website


Chapter 3

Yukio Ninagawa


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.[i] 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/ or http://globalshakespeares.mit.edu/). 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. 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.[i]

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.[ii] Brook’s production prompted Ninagawa to take an even more remarkably auteurist approach to stage work.[iii] 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,[iv] 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.[v] 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 Hamlet six 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.[vi] 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.[vii] 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.’[viii] 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.[ix] Shakespeare’s plays often exploit the instability of words, or what George Steiner calls ‘a duplicity of ambience.’[x] 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.’[xi] 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 – ).[xii] 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.


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[i]


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 Tempest in 1987, he emphasized the significance of soundtrack and music in his work. He regarded himself as a ‘listener’ to foreign cultures.[ii] 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’[iii] 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.’[iv]

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’s Sanctus 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,[v] 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.[vi]


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.’[vii]

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.’[viii] 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.[ix]


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.[x] 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.’[xi] 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. (Macbeth)


By considering the possibility of parentless children and revenge on the inevitable passing of generations through one’s offspring, Macbeth as 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.[xii] 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.’[xiii] 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.[xiv]


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.[xv]


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’,[xvi] 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.’[xvii] 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 and a problematic departure from Shakespeare despite Ninagawa’s attempts to ‘upset the European Orientalism of Peter Brook and Ariane Mnouchkine.’[xviii] 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.[xix]

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.’[xx] 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.



[i] 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.

[ii] ‘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.

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

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

[v] 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).

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

[vii] 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.

[viii] 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),

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xviii] 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.

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

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




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

[ii] 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.

[iii] ‘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.

[iv] 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.

[v] 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.

[vi] 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.

[vii] 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.

[viii] 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-ninagawa-theatre-director, accessed March 20, 2013.

[ix] 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.

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

[xi] Ibid, 24.

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

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 Quiterio has 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.


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