Five things that set apart Yukio Ninagawa’s Macbeth
By Corrie Tan
The Japanese master of stagecraft Yukio Ninagawa died at the age of 80 in 2016, leaving behind an enormous theatrical legacy. But he’s returning in spirit: his sumptuous production, NINAGAWA Macbeth, will run at the Esplanade Theatre from 23 to 25 Nov, exactly 25 years after it was first staged in Singapore.
Here’s what sets apart his staging of one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays.
Making ‘The Scottish Play’ a Japanese one
Nothing quite captures the universality of the Shakespearean experience like a hyper-local adaptation—especially one that is adamantly, unabashedly Japanese.
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 Sengoku period, the “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 blossom tree weeping petals over the stage might be one of his most-cited centrepieces.
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, after he finds out that Lady Macbeth has died:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
The death of a father, the duty of a son
Ninagawa was fascinated by the relationship between fathers and sons—one of the reasons why Hamlet is his favourite Shakespeare play and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex his favourite Greek tragedy—and it was his relationship with his late father and brother that 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.
He spoke about this in an interview in 1993, “One day, at my parents’ home, I opened the doors of a Buddhist altar to offer sticks of incense for prayer. While praying with my hands folded before the altar, I recalled my dead father and elder brother and found myself conversing with them. At that moment 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.”1
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, intimate lens.
Working with popular Japanese TV and film actors
Ninagawa didn’t care much for the divide between the “high culture” of the theatre or the “low culture” of crowd-pleasing TV serials or J-Pop. He often cast popular Japanese TV and film actors in his productions: audiences might have recognised Musashi actor Tatsuya Fujiwara from his appearances in the wildly popular Death Note and Battle Royale franchises, or J-Pop singer Naohito Fujiki in Ninagawa’s adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore.
This production of Macbeth features Yuko Tanaka as the scheming villainess Lady Macbeth; Tanaka played the title character in Oshin (1983-1984), one of Japan’s most-watched television dramas of all time, and the serial that would make her a household name.
All the world’s his stage
Ninagawa’s Macbeth was the world’s introduction to a Japanese theatre legend. The production had premiered in Japan in 1980, but made its international debut at the Edinburgh International Festival five years later, to the breathless praise of critics that immediately made the Ninagawa Company a fixture on the international touring circuit. Macbeth was also Singapore’s first encounter with Ninagawa at the 1992 Singapore Arts Festival, together with his production of Greek tragedy Medea. Former Straits Times theatre critic Hannah Pandian joined the chorus of plaudits. She seemed to be writing her review in rapturous tears, “It is at such moments that you remember that theatre was once reserved for the gods.”
Ninagawa directed at least 20 of Shakespeare’s (at least 37) plays, and his fierce love for the Bard drew the affection of the western theatre world, with productions of Shakespeare “so beautiful it brings tears to your eyes,” wrote English theatre critic Michael Ratcliffe in The Observer. He received an honorary order of chivalry—essentially a present-day knighthood—in 2002, where he was made Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his cultural contributions.
Corrie Tan is a freelance writer and reviewer. She was previously theatre critic and arts correspondent at The Straits Times, where she covered the performing arts and cultural policy. Currently based in London, she also writes about theatre for The Guardian, The Stage and Exeunt Magazine.