Yukio Ninagawa’s production of Kafka on the Shore at Lincoln Center in July—a surreal play that mixes slices of contemporary Japanese life with a ghostly spirit world, based on the 2002 novel by Haruki Murakami—was a brilliant example of Japan’s modern theater tradition. The words “modern” and “tradition” may appear contradictory, but in this case they are not. Since the 1960s, Japanese playwrights and theater directors have, in many variations, developed a style that is new and yet derived from an unmistakably Japanese idiom.
Murakami deliberately avoids allusions in his novels to traditional Japanese culture. In tune with modern Japan, most references are Western: jazz music, fast food, Hollywood movies, and so on. Kafka on the Shore splices two tenuously linked stories together: about a young man who runs away from his father’s home in search of his lost mother and sister, and about an older shell-shocked eccentric who tracks down lost cats for a living. Ninagawa’s stage adaptation of the novel is a collage of modern, neon-lit, commercialized, glitzy Japan, haunted by dark, mostly unspoken memories of World War II, including the atom bomb, shown in what looks like a stylized advertising logo.
The play’s main characters—the young drifter, the old cat-catcher, a transgender librarian, and a woman who may or may not be the young man’s long lost mother—all seem traumatized, people who no longer know who they are. This may have something to do with the catastrophic war, or possibly with the helter-skelter Westernization of Japan since the late nineteenth century.
But even without traditional references, the production—perhaps more than Murakami’s novel—is still unmistakably Japanese: stylized, poetic, comical, violent, full of spectacular effects, and often exquisitely beautiful to look at. The setting jumps at lightning speed from a bus station, to a library, to a sleazy bar area. Various characters emerge and disappear, like memories or scenes from a dream, in an assortment of moving transparent boxes.
Ninagawa borrows some elements from traditional Japanese theater: one of the most moving scenes echoes Noh, including the typical trilling sound of a bamboo flute. But he avoids the common trap of pastiche, either of Japanese tradition or the Western avant-garde. Instead, he manages to enrich both. (If the production has a flaw, it has more to do with Murakami than Ninagawa. Especially in the second half, the play gets verbose, full of rather otiose profundities about the meaning of life, or death. A pair of scissors would have done the text much good.)
This theatrical style, refined by Ninagawa, took quite a long time to develop. When Japan decided in the 1860s that wholesale Westernization was the only way to avoid being dominated by Western powers, traditional artistic forms, such as Noh or Kabuki, quickly hardened into an official museum-like art, still fascinating but stuck in an increasingly remote past. The first efforts to create a modern Japanese theater did away with those stylized, often fantastical genres. European plays were performed in an attempt to be realistic, with Japanese actors wearing blond wigs and even with long Caucasian noses stuck onto their faces. Gradually the “new theater,” as it was called, tackled more Japanese subjects, often with a left-wing political slant. The extraordinary richness of classic Japanese cinema developed from this.
In the 1960s, however, Japanese directors, who often wrote their own plays, broke away from naturalism to develop a type of theater that had the original rebellious spirit and dynamism of Kabuki without adopting its forms. Figures like Shūji Terayama (1935-1983), a poet and filmmaker, as well as the leader of his own theater troupe, were deeply aware of the Western avant-garde, and sometimes influenced by it, but their main inspiration was Japanese low-life: fairground entertainers, striptease dancers, whores and gangsters, as well as comic book characters, advertising jingles, pop music, and so on. Turning against the stilted classical tradition, as well as highbrow Western theater, they loved what Japanese call “the reek of mud.”
Some of these new theater troupes performed around the country in circus tents, or in the streets, like travelling players used to do. Their plays were never realistic, either in the manner of performance or narrative style. The plots were like lurid dreams, frequently featuring characters in search of themselves, or perhaps of their culture. Some directors, such as Jūrō Kara, were deliberately outrageous; others, like Tadashi Suzuki, the son of a Noh actor, were more intellectual. But all of them tried to reconnect with a Japanese theatrical spirit by digging under the many layers of twentieth-century Westernization.
Ninagawa, who began his career in the same fizzing period as Kara and Terayama, directing various theater troupes of his own, was asked in 1974 by one of the major Japanese entertainment companies to direct Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet on a commercial stage. But he didn’t lose his radical edge. Even with Western plays, he adapted and further perfected the exuberant manner of new Japanese theater for the mainstream stage. Although slicker than the rough and tumble of Kara’s plays, or Terayama’s surreal fairground fantasies, the production of Kafka on the Shore retains the wild visual imagination of the underground theater at its best. The sudden downpour of fish from the sky could have been in one of Kara’s productions.
Ninagawa’s freshness is remarkable. For the danger in Japanese culture is that methods, once they are established by great masters, get endlessly imitated by acolytes and become mannered. This has happened to certain forms of modern dance, as well as theatrical styles that were once new. One way he has avoided this trap is through his eclecticism. Ninagawa does not write his own plays. His art is to take a wide variety of works and reimagine them in his peculiar way. His 1996 production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with an ancient Japanese rock garden being transformed into the forest filled with spirits dressed in kimono, is considered even by some British cognoscenti to be one of the most original interpretations ever staged. He has also tackled ancient Greek tragedies, Bertolt Brecht, Henrik Ibsen, Tennessee Williams, as well as plays by such Japanese playwrights as Kara and Terayama.
Still, it would be a mistake to put too much stress on Ninagawa’s nationality. Though his talent is rooted in a great Japanese tradition, his art, like Murakami’s, has a universal appeal. If there is a pantheon of modern theatrical gods that includes Peter Brook, Peter Stein, Robert Wilson, or Ariane Mnouchkine, Yukio Ninagawa is right up there with them.