I make myself Oriental at times. Not by widening my almond eyes or sweeping my raven-colored hair or giggling softly into my left hand—I won’t do that. If I’m honest, it’s equal degrees can’t and won’t: I’m built less like an orchid or porcelain doll and more like a French horse, with thick dancer thighs and a slapping neigh of a laugh. When I was a teen growing up in Tokyo, I wondered what it would be like to be seen as that breed of woman whose name ended in “-ko”—the muse of poets, Jack Gilbert’s Michiko, James Merrill’s Ayako, “kimono’d in red gold, swirls before pine,” the kind of lovely that made you deserving of metaphors and white space. I imagined it to be a certain look, a slight lift of a shoulder paired with a wide-eyed glance, and I tried it on my sister. She leaned in and asked whether my contacts were stuck behind my eyeballs. The look was not for me. So when I make myself Oriental, I think it’s not through sight, but sound. I realized early on that I was going to be a child of shrieks instead, a -ko like Fumiko Hayashi, Akiko Yosano and Yoko Ono, women who demanded not to be seen, but heard.
That is to say, there’s a certain feeling I get, when I can sense I’m about to get stretched into a neat projection screen for an American’s Knowledge of Japan. After enough time living in the States, this feeling launches damage control, well-oiled in my case by laughter and gin. I take control of the chrysanthemum driving wheel by talking about my favorite self-Orientalist. When a white man starts offering their humble, lengthy thoughts on Kurosawa, I say, okay, let’s play: Can you name another Japanese Shakespearean? A silence, a wrench in the script. What about Yukio Ninagawa, the late, legendary theater director? No bells?
I was thinking about this—how I used to call Ninagawa my favorite self-Orientalist—when I went to go see his Macbeth at Lincoln Center in the summer of 2018. It was the last work he had directed in his lifetime, a restaging of the performance that had launched his international career at the Edinburgh Festival in 1985. Critics hailed it as the ultimate fusion of “East and West,” and Michael Billington proclaimed that it was the performance that changed Western perceptions of Japanese theater. I walked in alone, drifting among the usual Lincoln Center crowd—mink stoles and slow-moving tweed, lanky younger limbs brisk and chic in linen and Rachel Comey—and I wondered what kind of quiet nerve and brio it must’ve taken, to bring over a “samurai Macbeth” to a white public in 1985, when something like Charles Osborne’s reaction in the Daily Telegraph—“there is something faintly ridiculous in a Japanese company attempting to grapple with Shakespeare”—was still fairly kosher.
Ninagawa died a household name in Japan in 2016, having adapted much of Shakespeare and numerous Greek tragedies over his fifty-year career, staging Hamlet alone eight times. He achieved international renown as one of the titans of Shakespeare, often mentioned in the same breath as directors like Peter Brook and Robert Lepage. But as I took my seat, I couldn’t help imagining Ninagawa standing in the wings in 1985, unsure how his Macbeth would be received by a foreign audience.
The play started when two old crones hobbled on stage and opened the screens of a gigantic Buddhist altar, establishing themselves as fellow spectators to the tragedy. They keened and wept and shielded their faces as the Weird Sisters twisted in with their tongues blue, trilling their prophecies in kabuki ensemble. I’d only seen this production online, in a grainy video that wouldn’t expand bigger than the length of my forefinger. The first time I saw it was as a college sophomore, on a post-Said high. I scoffed, thinking the whole deal ridiculous. Shakespeare in kimonos? Please. Weren’t we over sanctifying Shakespeare already? And my god, the hushed reverence about the Japaneseness of it all. I was anti-reverence at the time. I leaned forward in my seat, looking at the waving cherry blossom trees. I still was.
Lady Macbeth took the stage. I sat back. I knew what was coming: she was going to play a Schubert sonata on her cello. What I didn’t expect was the irritated violence with which she flicked her sleeves back to play, the odd angle at which she had to twist her head so that her headpiece wouldn’t hit the scroll. It wasn’t easy, her body said, to play a cello in a kimono. A deliberate moment of difficulty was introduced to this supposed sleek union of East and West: a slight fizzle, an incongruence. It moved me. Ninagawa had made her practice this motion again and again, demanding it look exactly like this: not easy.
Ninagawa would’ve hated being called my favorite self-Orientalist. He would’ve thrown an ashtray at me, if the stuff of legends is true. He did not brook critiques that hinted at his dabbling in the “Japanesque.” Ninagawa’s audience—his only audience, he maintained—was the Japanese, his aim “to produce a Shakespeare play that could be understood by ordinary people.” He said this with an air of finality, as if slamming a door shut, but I always wanted to jam a foot in before he did. I needed definitions—for “ordinary” and “Japanese”—his full-throated definitions, though he’d died before giving them. Because seeing his art had taught generations to stretch the bounds of those two words beyond imagining. No, here’s a more honest, selfish reason than that: I needed to know whether he was speaking to people who found them both comforting and troubling. I needed to know whether he was speaking to people like me.
We were called returnees, as though we were soldiers returning from a war. There were thirteen of us in our grade of two hundred, twelve girls and one boy. What we’d returned to was a junior high in a thirteen-story building on expensive real estate between Harajuku and Shibuya, and where we’d returned from was some English-speaking country, where we’d lived for an impressionable amount of time before the age of twelve. Duration and region depended entirely on our parents—usually a father, assigned to a foreign arm of a Japanese company—who had taken us along and back, like migrating birds. We tested into our school, and the few other schools in the country that had such programs, answering interview questions wan with jet lag.
We looked just like everyone else, Japanese schoolgirls at the brink of teenagehood, tripping up flights of stairs in our French plaid skirts, arms full of notebooks and purple-gel plans. But only returnees got to go to the top floor. This made us special, so our teachers told us, adding that only adults were allowed to use the elevator. When my mother said our name, she couldn’t pronounce the R. On her lips, we sounded like litanies.
Sometimes, as we hauled ourselves up thirteen flights of stairs, one of us would call out the first five syllables of a poem—konotabiha—and we’d yell the rest back, stamping out the 5-7-5-7-7 rhythm on the gray linoleum stairs, because we needed to know all one hundred poems for a quiz next period. One hundred, that is, of a Japanese poetic canon anthologized by some industrious monk in the fourteenth century. Rhythms and lines that any ordinary Japanese person would know, a hundred poems that we all had to memorize from childhood. But when we reached the top floor we’d shut up. We were entering the one room in the entire building where Japanese was strictly forbidden, where there were dog-eared copies of Beowulf and Sweet Valley High stacked in neat little piles in the back, where a white man—always a James or a John, with a philosophy degree from a UC—stood, waiting for us to settle down.
With the beats of the seventh century still clamoring in our ears and feet, we’d clip forward a thousand years, from island to island, and open our Folger Shakespeares. This was different, this wasn’t ordinary. One time, the teacher asked us to each pick a sonnet to recite: “Choose one you like.” I remember thinking how strange that was, as a question, as I practiced on the subway on my way to school, swaying in iambic pentameter to avoid businessman back-sweat. Or I shall live your epitaph to make.
Once class was done, we’d barrel down the stairs to our regular classroom, Anglo-Saxon rhythms still thumping in our heads. We would quietly slip into our desks, just in time for the captain of the basketball team to drawl kirrrriiitsu and for us to stand up and bow to the teacher, who was covering his yawn with a chalky elbow and already handing out the quiz to the kids in the front. I would look at the clock, then out at the yellow urban sky, and blink. It took a moment, to disentangle E-F-E-G-G from a 5-7-5-7-7 beat, to forget the joys of an English daffodil spring and ease into a Japanese plum summer. To switch from Elizabethan declarations of passion to the crushed scribbles of a Heian love. It took a little more than that.
We were the fruits of cosmopolitanism plucked back before we grew too wild, too American. We spoke English without hesitation or accents, but we were young enough to be trained, in manner and in deference, to be completely Japanese. A century, a colonial genocide and quite a few war crimes ago, we would’ve been expected to grow up and traverse between worlds as ambassadors and the face of the expanding Japanese empire. In the 21st century, our purpose was far less clear, couched in the amorphous virtues of globalization and Japanese overseas soft power. At age twelve, we were to clip past culture shock quickly, and to assimilate—not to whiteness, but to Japaneseness. We were told to balance between two-millennia-old literary and artistic traditions, and pledge allegiance to one without forgetting the other. By simply returning, we stretched the definition of the word.
But we learned to be quiet about it. This quiet wasn’t institutionally mandated: our principal was a renowned educator who gathered the student body—twelve- to eighteen-year-olds—for a lecture, six times a year, to talk about Rousseau’s Confessions. No, we learned to be quiet from our peers, because we weren’t dumb. We could sense the resentment. How could we not, when English was a required subject in the national college examinations, when a few years abroad during a time we barely remembered gave us a leg up in applying to the best universities. The empire of English took up so much of their time, memorizing a thousand vocabulary words a summer, conjugating Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8er Boi.” The ease with which we spoke American smacked of a privilege they did not have, even though—or perhaps because—most everyone in the school occupied the same large slice of the comfortably affluent, post-bubble middle class.
When I was thirteen, I had a not-real relationship with a Japanese boy who had never stepped foot off the island—not-real because all we did was text, everything from “hey” to “I like you,” buzzing from one chipped blue flip-phone to another. Here was its end: Eigohayoshite. Can you not with the English. A seven-syllable fragment of a break-up poem. No matter how I translate it now, it doesn’t sound as cutting in this language as it did to me then, a girl who couldn’t control herself from being blindly bilingual, who saw her entire architecture of being constructed with the stuff of two languages, not just one. I recounted the incident to my best friend, also a returnee, the next day on our way to school, expecting immediate sympathy. “He’s not wrong,” she said, and she switched her bag to another shoulder and into Japanese. “We shouldn’t show off. I mean, we shouldn’t flaunt something we don’t even remember working for. We’re here—might as well adapt to it, right?”
I stopped speaking in English from that day on, except during class on the thirteenth floor, and life seemed much easier. I embarked on that rite of passage for introverted, slightly-singed girls, replacing boys with boys in books. My local bookstore didn’t stock any English literature, naturally, except for Shakespeare. He sat on a shelf next to shonen manga and soft porn. He was expensive. So every day after school, for a year, I stood reading, sandwiched between pimply boys flipping One Piece and businessmen examining sailor girls coming on horses and swings.
The summer before Lincoln Center’s Ninagawa Macbeth, I visited the Saitama Arts Theater, where Ninagawa staged most of his productions. It’s in a quiet suburban prefecture bordering Tokyo. When I told my mother where exactly I was going in Saitama, she looked at her phone, narrowed her eyes and fetched her extra-strength sunscreen, sun hat, sun gloves and parasol. A couple of elderly women and I got off at the station, all bundled like beekeepers. It was a long, slow, hot walk to the theater, winding past small, sensible homes.
The theater was neither sensible nor small. I had to arch to take in its soaring expanse, the glass ceiling, all of its granite and chrome. There was a turquoise slab on the wall bigger than me with Ninagawa’s face on it, and an inscription with his signature. A solemn, clunky translation was offered: “Take risks in creativity, and stay at top speed / So I wish as a man of theater.” The Japanese is ruder, and far more idiosyncratic. It says something more like: “I’m going to be a geezer that just keeps on running.” I’m struck by just how easy it is to translate heroes into banality.
Right next to it, there was a long glass case full of knickknacks: soft blue colored pencils stuck into a Shakespeare mug, a sturdy pencil sharpener, his wiry round glasses, a half-filled orange box of lens-cleaner wipes, lazy doodles of sets on scripts, a Camus quote from Caligula scrawled on a Post-It. It was a summation, a slice of an artistic life: a man through the objects he had touched, and left behind.
In 1974, Ninagawa is in Kyoto, lying with his eyes closed on a hotel bed, on break from shooting a TV show. He gets a call from Tadao Nakane, a producer with the powerful Toho company. He asks him to direct Romeo and Juliet in Japanese. Ninagawa refuses. He doesn’t do commercial theater.
Shakespeare was first translated into Japanese in 1868, after the Meiji revolution brought an influx of Western texts into Japan. When it was performed, the Shingeki (New Drama) movement in the early twentieth century took it as a corrective to Japanese theater, so that they could catch up to modern European realism. Japanese actors tucked themselves into tights and put on blond wigs and prosthetic noses. They intoned the Bard in a very correct fashion.
By 1974, Ninagawa has already made a name for himself as one of the founding members of the Little Theater movement, renowned for its resistance: anti-Shingeki, anti-establishment, anti-elite. He’s famous in the underground theater scene in Shinjuku, which has been experimenting with showing the body in all of its grotesque sexual expressiveness, and for intertwining popular entertainment with experimental art. He is also 38, and a little broke.
When Nakane calls again, Ninagawa decides to meet him in a café. But, still turned off by the idea of doing commercial theater, he thinks up a polite excuse. “I’ve never been to Italy.” In fact, he’d never even been off the island. Nakane convinces him to sign on for the production, and tells him he has to visit Europe. Ninagawa doesn’t go to Verona, though he’d been told to, by Toho. He doesn’t go to London or the Globe, either. He rollicks around Florence for ten days instead.
His task: to make Shakespeare for ordinary people, not for snobs. Ninagawa’s ideas: 1) Begin with Elton John. 2) Flaming torches, lots of dancing. 3) Dwarves.
During rehearsals, Ninagawa herds his actors into a screening room and shows them, instead of a pasty English rendition of Shakespeare, Fellini’s Satyricon. He glories in its sweaty dissonance, the attention to the gyrating body: this will be part of it. The actors sit primly, eyes wide. They don’t get it. He throws ashtrays at them, at times, chairs. We’ll be ordinary Japanese people, he says, speaking to ordinary Japanese people. It’s a story of two young unreasonable people in love. The heroes fall in love, marry and die in just a few whirlwind days. They start getting it.
The first run of Ninagawa’s Romeo and Juliet is a success. It launches his decades-long relationship with Toho, and convinces him to continue experimenting with adapting non-Japanese classics for Japanese audiences. In 1978, he would create a regal, cross-dressing Medea, tightly wrapped in a robe made out of dozens of old obi belts. Two years later, he would start work on Ninagawa Macbeth.
In his autobiography, Ninagawa recalls an incident from a couple years before his career turned to Shakespeare. A teenager called out his name and approached him outside a movie theater in Shinjuku. The kid had a question he needed to ask: “Can you name any unfulfilled aspirations?” Ninagawa smoked silently. “None worth mentioning,” Ninagawa said finally. “I don’t name aspirations.” “Oh,” the teenager said, “I’m glad,” pulling out a jackknife from his pocket and showing it to him. “I’ve been watching your plays for a while. I was going to stab you if you told me you’ve started to aspire to things, instead of doing them.” Ninagawa would write that the boy’s voice never left his mind when he directed; that if there were a thousand teenagers in the audience—a thousand eyes—they could hold a thousand knives. He had to create a theater that roused enough feeling that it would make a teen want to wield a knife for Japanese theater.
During the first rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet in 1974, Ninagawa can’t stand how his actors read their lines: they’ve had a hard time getting used to his style, and it doesn’t sound like the lines mean anything. So he amps up the volume of the Elton John score. He wants his young audience to see his actors running at each other. For the first few minutes, all he wants them to hear and feel is Elton.
We’re sixteen, and R notices the triangle marks imprinted red on the backs of my thighs. He asks me where they’re from, and I say, the carpet of the sixth floor of the Shinjuku Kinokuniya bookstore. He knows it. How pretty, he says. No one had noticed before.
We meet at a busy fair for American colleges. I’ve already heard of R, the piano prodigy raised in Australia, the returnee boy they sent this year from the best boys’ school in Osaka. He isn’t how I expect him to look, the way I expect smart Japanese boys to look: meek and milky, lassoed to a mother in a floral skirt. R’s hair is peak Sandra Oh, and everything on him is crumpled. When he talks, people walk away looking like they couldn’t decide whether to be terribly entertained or scandalized. He sees me, bows his head and comes over, introducing himself in Japanese. He says he’s heard of me, then moves closer, switching into English, that slow drawl. You can stop worrying. I’m the only competition in the room you have to worry about.
We always look for models of love. That was how I consumed Shakespeare when I was a teen: I didn’t want Romeo and Juliet. I wanted Beatrice and Benedick, Kate and Petruchio, Viola and Orsino. I wanted the story of the woman who saw herself as a cathedral—Lady Disdain—undone by the unexpected, by wit. The narrator shouting in the Thunderdome: Reader, she has finally met her match! I wanted what they had, to speak as they did—not only in English but in all the different rhythms I felt I contained. Until we met, R and I had grown up feeling that our dual languages and literatures were never meant to merge, not if we wanted to be comprehensible to those around us. We were different—he was irony, and I was earnestness—but we’d both taken time to form our compartmentalized selves, only to find our walls collapse around each other. After that college fair, we would have seven-hour-long Skype sessions in which he’d tell me that I was naïve and square, and I’d tell him that he thought he knew what he was talking about. We were both right. We shook underground cafes with our laughter. Middle-aged Japanese men would smoke and stare, trying to compute what we were. They could try, we said.
As R and I grow closer, we fight. The subtext: How do I articulate how I feel? Sharing two cultures didn’t ease the awkwardness of being arrogant and sixteen, but it would help us be precise in our cruelty to each other. When we write our application essays for colleges on the East Coast, our arguments move to higher ground: how we use Japan. We can see the white faces on some admissions team looking at our applications, side by side. We accuse each other of dipping into cherry-blossom razzle-dazzle, of being mercenary with our five hundred words. R and I circle each other, sharpening our blades: You think they will fall for it? The larger fear, of course, was that they would fall for it. What do you even know about Japan? And our greatest fear of all: that we were diluted. Perhaps we were not as complex as we wanted to be, perhaps we’d used too much energy in our crossings from one world to another.
I wonder what we were more afraid of, then: our ignorance about the island we were leaving, or the ignorance that we would find where we were going. I want to be wise and worldly and say that question that scythed above us—which Japanese kid will they take?—is an immature, youthful one, but we still live in a world in which that question is relevant, in theater festivals, on prize committees. So I want to be true to the sharp instinct of those kids, who understood, from experience, how much place matters in a splintering—or a layering—of a self. We were scared, I think, of being generalized; that in allowing this, we would never be able to share the particular splinters of ourselves, not even with each other.
In front of the rehearsal studio in the Saitama Arts Theater, I was greeted by Hiroshi Watanabe, who worked with Ninagawa for decades as his producer. We walked to the theater’s auditorium, where Watanabe pointed at the rafters. “That’s where they would drop things,” he said. Unlike Tadashi Suzuki or Hideki Noda, other prominent Japanese Shakespeareans who changed the script to suit their visions, Ninagawa rarely altered translations; he was a visual director, and often the surprise of his work was in the staging. This often involved falling objects. In Richard III, when Richard cries, “My kingdom for a horse,” Ninagawa demanded that a life-size horse be dropped from the ceiling, which dented the theater floor. And in an English production of King Lear in 1999, Ninagawa called for a storm of stones—gigantic wooden boulders, covered with lead paper. Nigel Hawthorne and the English cast pled with the director to cut the stones. Ninagawa didn’t budge.
In interviews Ninagawa pointed out that Shakespeare not only operated in another language but had completely different rhetorical frameworks and points of reference. He claimed that through improvising with the visual—or what lies outside of the script, with Shakespeare’s convenient lack of stage directions—he could catapult over those divides, and bring Shakespeare closer to the modern Japanese audiences.
One simple approach was through choreography. Ninagawa had a thing for giant staircases in his productions, and, Watanabe added, “having his actors roll down them, again and again—imagine the bruises.” A simple step up or down would result in a subtle shift of a triangular stair formation, representing hierarchies of power, or even the collapse of alliances. But like the shock of a life-size horse dropping from the ceiling, Ninagawa’s visual imagination elicited a visceral response.
Ninagawa often experimented with nonverbal time; the start of a play, for example, when the audience hushes and a certain quiet balloons. “He would often spend at least four or five days of rehearsal tinkering with those first three minutes,” Watanabe told me, as he guided me through a labyrinth of gray hallways behind the auditorium. He thought those three minutes were important for a Japanese viewer to enter a non-Japanese world. In one performance, Ninagawa chose to highlight the transformations of Japanese actors to Shakespearean characters; in Hamlet, the play started with the entire cast on stage, putting on their wigs, climbing into their costumes, and dabbing on finishing touches of makeup. With a clap, the cast stood to attention, bowed deeply to the audience, then walked off the stage.
Watching Ninagawa in college, I had a single wish: that someone would clap and it would all suddenly be clear to me: the characters I transform into, what I transform from, who I am performing for. There were moments of inanity in everyday American life when I wanted to pull a Ninagawa and make things giant and absurd—drop a life-size horse on someone’s head—so that I didn’t feel obliged to be a cordial translator for “my” culture. When I watched Ninagawa, I felt a sense of security: I wanted to swallow his assurance in a stable idea of a Japanese person, who he wanted his audience to be, because I didn’t have it. Most of all, I wanted him to put a framing device on my world. After losing R, I wanted to be legible to someone again.
On lush Cambridge grass, R and I lapse into our old rhythms. We both got into Harvard, and continue to circle each other, like magnets, forever drawn to and repelled by one another. He doesn’t understand what I like about school in the States, he’s miserable, everyone is a frat boy, ignorant, dumb, fake. He tells me I’m just like the rest of them, for liking it here, for not missing home. He says these things in a light tone, as though he is about to float away.
I tell him I’m sorry he’s no longer a little king of an island, that he’s missing the pandering that Japanese people give bilingual men. As for me, for the first time in a long time, I feel like I can breathe. I’ve made friends who like to get drunk and stamp and recite Alice Oswald when it snows. Of course they don’t get my Japanese side, I tell him. But what was that—what does a Japanese side even mean? Suddenly, I need R to like it here too.
A few months later, R texts me. I don’t remember the words, just that it sounded off, in the way that erases the stuff of a dozen fights. I’d heard from friends that he wasn’t doing okay, and I walk through a campus piled quiet with snow to get to his dorm. When I enter his room, I see a giant, bulbous orange bubble perched on top of a twin bunk bed. He’s ordered himself a tent, I think, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at his sheer determination to shut out this world. Electric cords and charging cables snake out of its fully zipped entrance. I climb up and start unzipping, and the lump moves. He’s curled up on his side. I nudge and push him over, and after a bit of resistance, he does. I lie on my back next to him, looking up at the hot, orange sky.
He’s listening to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” and I ask him to put the music on louder. I know how it comforts him. I know you of old. What language could be enough, before this chasm? I start twisting my arms, snapping my wrists to the music. After a minute, he raises both of his arms too. We punch the tent ceiling, laughing at the stupid plastic. Off and on the beat, elbows akimbo. He would leave, take years off and return to Japan, and we would never be this close again. But what did that matter, in that moment, in that movement.
“There really isn’t anyone like him,” Watanabe said, his hand resting on a door. “We have no successor.” We entered the theater’s archival library, where Watanabe sat me in front of a four-inch screen. He handed me headphones, and spoke at length to the librarian, who hurried to the back and returned with a very tall stack of DVDs.
Around the fifth video, Watanabe gently asked me to put on both ears of my headphones. I’d been watching the recordings with one muff off, to catch Watanabe’s murmurings: “Ninagawa-san sure liked…” Mirrors. Aquariums. Putting actors in aquariums. Tangos. Watanabe paced behind me, rubbing his hands. I fastened my headphones.
It was Hamlet, Ninagawa’s seventh. After “to be or not to be,” when Hamlet goes full-on-nuts on Ophelia after she confronts him about the hypocrisy of his love letters. On screen, the couple—him in plain black shirt and pants, her in a simple white dress—had a single light on them.
Ikunda, amadera he, Hamlet shouted. Get thee to a nunnery. Then they collapsed on the floor.
Then, I heard a shamisen, signaling the start to an enka song, or a sentimental ballad. A blue light flooded the back of the stage, and two elderly women in sparkling kimonos appeared, holding mics to their chests. It was the Komadori Sisters, the forgotten, beloved pop-singer icons of the early Sixties. They slowly floated toward Hamlet and Ophelia, singing about what every enka song is about—wanting to be happy.
Every Japanese person has a mode of listening to enka. It triggers. It reminds me of my grandmother humming to herself as she makes breakfast, because it’s the kind of music every person who grew up in the postwar period sings while making food. It’s not a mode we associate with watching theater, least of all Shakespeare. But as the Komadori Sisters sang over Hamlet and Ophelia, I finally understood what Ninagawa meant about staging a Shakespeare that was legible to Japanese audiences. A non-Japanese viewer would see only two eighty-year-old Asians singing on stage. But we have a nostalgic mode of listening to enka; we know when enka songs end, the precise moment when we should clap. It’s like cultural muscle memory. For the length of their song, Ophelia’s young despair was shadowed by the Komadori Sisters’ powdered, wrinkled hands, as they sang about trusting men, and the difficulties of youth and happiness.
Although Ninagawa interpreted Shakespeare for a modern Japanese audience, his focus on the nontextual—the choreography, the visual sets, the music—led to a peculiar side effect: that they were, somewhat, legible to non-Japanese audiences. A rival Shakespearean, Tadashi Suzuki, would point out that Ninagawa’s productions were legible to overseas audiences because of his power as a metteur en scène: “Whether one is accepted in foreign countries or not greatly depends on whether one can fill the space with energy and create striking visual effects.” In other words, legibility is simplicity.
But are stone horses thrown from the ramparts simple? I resist the idea that there’s such a thing as a formula for “foreign” acceptance, as though there was something uncomplicated about Ninagawa’s endeavors. Ninagawa’s refusal to alter the text made him a more conventional director, in some respects. But each performance was a master class in the act and art of translation. He demanded from the viewer a similar vigilance, an ethics: to try and communicate to people who may not have the same backgrounds or tastes. He understood the risks of this. He understood that this often fails. But he kept on, and even at the height of his fame, he never wavered from his tremendous ambition: to offer a Shakespeare that would shock and delight an ordinary Japanese girl.
Ninagawa once commented in an interview: “The British will often say something like, ‘Oh, we sense pathos in the falling petals of your cherry blossom trees,’ and I would think: that has nothing to do with it. But I’ve come to say, eh, let them think that. Let them misunderstand.”
In Henry V, Henry meets his new French wife, Katharine. She speaks little English and talks almost entirely in French, and Henry tries to woo her nonetheless, saying he’s actually glad they don’t share a language. If they did, he says, she wouldn’t love him, because she would discover he’s a plain and simple king. Katharine says to him, “Your majesty shall mock at me; I cannot speak your England.”
I’ve always found such weight in this misunderstanding. To be unable to speak a country. The futility of it is built into the sentence. The point, I think, is that we don’t see this futility until we try doing it. And Shakespeare had Henry keep on with his doggedness, talking to her, joking at her, despite her sure resistance.
Ninagawa was a person who believed in an act of singular artistic transformation: the moment in which at turns into with. He believed in it so strongly that he made nearly ten plays a year for ten years, even when he was confined to a wheelchair, carrying around an IV. There’s a surety to this belief—an acceptance of how the rest of the world might generalize him, and misunderstand—that I wish I could’ve transmuted to R and me so many years ago. But perhaps we too had to experience this for ourselves, had to find our own inarticulations, our fumblings, in speaking our terrains of feeling.
In Act Four of Ninagawa Macbeth at Lincoln Center, the subtitles suddenly stop working. There’s a gentle titter as the black rectangle shows a restart sign, then goes blank. For a minute, twenty-five hundred people in the theater are left without Shakespeare’s language to guide them. Though I still understand the dialogue, I stop paying attention to it, focusing instead on the deliberateness of Malcolm and Macduff’s movements, the details of the stage. Seven giant Buddhist statues—gods of war, gods of peace—surround the two men, their faces and arms illuminated by slits of moonlight.
The subtitles reappear just in time for the non-Japanese audience to follow as Macduff learns of the slaughter of his wife and children. “All my pretty ones?” he cries. “Did you say all?” Malcolm urges him to dispute it like a man, to which Macduff replies, in anguish—“I shall do so, but I must also feel it as a man.”
As Malcolm counsels him, Macduff turns his face to the right and slowly rests his hand on the hilt of his sword, mirroring the statue behind him. For a moment, man imitates god, and the futility of men resolving to turn grief into revenge occupies a corner of Ninagawa’s stage. It requires no translation.
Photo credit: Stephanie Berger, courtesy of Lincoln Center.