You first directed Shakespeare in 1974, with Romeo and Juliet. What is it about his work that appeals to you?
At that time, original Japanese plays were in a slump. Shakespeare tackled the whole world and included everyone in his plays, from the people at the bottom of society to the rulers at the top. That’s what initially attracted me.
Your recent Japanese-language production of Cymbeline is very cross-cultural – scenes in Rome juxtapose a painting of Japanese courtiers with the Capitoline wolf statue.
Yes. I come from a generation that has always been very interested in Europe – but we’re also deeply aware of the importance of studying our own country. So, from the beginning, we have been blending elements of Japanese culture and European culture. Also, Cymbeline is a translated work and there’s a limit to what you can do with words alone. I used visual effects that draw on my country’s cultural memory and sense of style to help bring Japanese audiences closer to Shakespeare. Then I transferred the production to England with no changes at all. Hopefully, it expressed a Japanese understanding of Shakespeare to its British audience.
What draws you to Hamlet, which you’ve directed six times?
Depending on my own age, my reading of that play changes. It deals with the world’s vastness and depth. Every time I do it, I end up leaving something out!
You make use of filmic devices. In Cymbeline, for instance, the actors perform a battle scene in slow motion.
I have been very influenced by certain works of theatre but film, too, has made a deep impression on me, almost to the extent that I think of the cinema as a kind of school.
Which film directors do you admire?
Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti . . . There are so many.
You’ve staged plays by Yukio Mishima, a writer associated in the west with martial values and tradition. Where would you place yourself politically?
Mishima was a key figure in Japanese arts. Like many people, he learned a lot from Europe – yet, at the same time, he was very much against the way the Japanese were absorbing so much from the west at the expense of our own identity. As for myself, one of the reasons I work in theatre is that I want to understand better the people of the world. I appreciate Mishima as an innovator of theatre but I disagree with his deeper philosophies and some of my stagings of his work reflect this.
Do you vote?
There are so many ridiculous politicians and sometimes I want to abandon them all. But as bad as it gets, we still have the power to choose – and this is something that we must cherish. So I vote.
In December, you’re directing an international production of The Trojan Women by Euripides in collaboration with the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv. What do you hope to achieve?
We are gathering together Jews, Palestinians and Japanese in one place and putting on a play. Each group has its own political views and inevitably there’s going to be some friction – I have seen it myself at our preparatory workshops. In a way, it’s a microcosm of real life. I know that staging a play may be a small gesture, like adding a small pebble to a heap of stones. It might not have a grand meaning, but these pebbles can accumulate. It’s a way of expressing hope. For me, this is how to do it.
What do you think about the call for a cultural boycott of Israel? There were protests [in May] at the Israeli Habima Theatre’s staging of The Merchant of Venice at the Globe in London . . .
I think it’s a futile action. However much your opinions differ, you have to allow the work to make its case. Disrupting things before this can happen is a mistake, because you’ll lose the opportunity to share your ideas about what you believe in.
Do you have any regrets?
Yes. I worked as an actor for too long!
Was there a plan?
Forks in the road come suddenly. I usually take the more dangerous route. That’s my character.
Are we all doomed?
If you think about the world today, there’s little reason to be optimistic. But to keep on living, we have to cling to any small hope, any small idea. In one area [of Fukushima Prefecture], there used to be many pine trees. The tsunami washed almost all of them away. Thousands fell and just one remained standing. And we know that it will soon die. So seeds were taken from it and planted. These “children” – these saplings – have kept life going. For the Japanese, the pine tree has become a symbol of hope. I included this symbol in Cymbeline [Ninagawa’s version of the play replaces Shakespeare’s “cedar” with a “pine”]. During the Japanese run of the production, many members of the audience wept when they saw it.
1935 Born in Kawaguchi, Japan
1955 Joins Seihai theatre troupe as an actor
1969 Makes directorial debut with Shinjo Afururu Keihakusa by Kunio Shimizu
1974 Romeo and Juliet – his first production of a play by Shakespeare
May 2012 Brings his version of Cymbeline to Barbican Centre in London
December 2012 His interpretation of Euripides’s Trojan Women will open in Tokyo and Tel Aviv