In 2016 the Japanese master of stagecraft Yukio Ninagawa died at the age of 80, leaving behind an enormous theatrical legacy. Here's a look at what sets apart his staging of one of Shakespeare's most popular plays.
Making the "Scottish Play" a Japanese One
Ninagawa was deeply inspired by the auteur Akira Kurosawa's film adaptation of Macbeth, Throne of Blood (1957), which transplanted the Scottish play—a blood-soaked tragedy about Macbeth's political ambition to seize and retain the Scottish throne—to feudal Japan. Ninagawa's Macbeth is also set in 16th-century Japan, in the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568–1600), the final, turbulent decades of the country's "age of warring states."
Ninagawa rarely alters Shakespeare's scripts, neither does he change character names or places. But his productions always feel extraordinarily specific to Japanese history, with their attention to detail in costuming, and their celebration and subversion of noh and kabuki conventions. It's a testament to Shakespeare's masterful storytelling—and to Ninagawa's ability to reveal different aspects of these beloved characters through a clever cultural shift.
The Cherry Tree and the Passing of Time
Ninagawa's imposition of a Japanese context and identity over the Shakespearean canon has produced some of his most searing images. In Macbeth, a cherry tree weeping petals over the stage might be one of his most-cited centerpieces. The cascading tree evokes springtime and new beginnings in Japan, but is also a symbol of death and mortality—"Dead bodies are buried under the cherry trees!" goes the popular opening line of Motojiro Kajii's short story Under the Cherry Trees.
The brevity of the tree's bloom goes well with Macbeth's famous soliloquy in the final act of the play: "Life's but a walking shadow,…a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing."
The Death of a Father, the Duty of a Son
Ninagawa's relationship with his late father and brother inspired another of the striking images in Macbeth—the traditional Buddhist altar (butsudan) that occupies the entire stage and in which the play is set. One day, while praying at a butsudan in his parents' home and recalling his late father and elder brother, "the idea crossed my mind that Macbeth could be a story of my ancestors or even of myself, if it originated as a fantasy from my dialogues with the dead. The warriors who repeatedly committed carnage could be our ancestors or even what I might possibly have been."
Ninagawa references the series of murders Macbeth feels forced to commit to consolidate power—but also establishes a connection with the play through a stretch of ancestry that precedes his own immediate family, examining historical trauma through a personal lens.
Working with Popular Japanese Television and Film Actors
Ninagawa didn't care much for the divide between the "high culture" of the theater or the "low culture" of crowd-pleasing television serials or J-Pop. He often cast popular Japanese actors and singers in his productions.
This production of Macbeth features Yuko Tanaka as the scheming villainess Lady Macbeth; Tanaka played the title character in Oshin (1983–84), one of Japan’s most-watched television dramas of all time.
All the World's His Stage
Ninagawa's Macbeth was the world's introduction to a Japanese theater legend. The production premiered in Japan in 1980, but made its international debut at the Edinburgh International Festival five years later, to the breathless praise of critics. Singapore theater critic Hannah Pandian raved: "It is at such moments that you remember that theater was once reserved for the gods."
Ninagawa directed at least 20 of Shakespeare's plays, and his love for the Bard drew the affection of the western theater world, with productions of Shakespeare "so beautiful it brings tears to your eyes" (The Observer).
Corrie Tan is associate editor and resident critic with Arts Equator, a Southeast Asian arts platform based in Singapore. She has also written about theater and performance for The Guardian, The Stage, Exeunt Magazine, and BiblioAsia.
This article was commissioned by Esplanade — Theatres on the Bay, Singapore for the 2017 presentation there of NINAGAWA Macbeth, and first published on www.esplanade.com/learn. Reproduced with permission courtesy of Esplanade — Theatres on the Bay.