劇評/Performance Reviews

[Performance Reviews]“The Tempest” / Hisao Oshima

The Tempest by Yamanote Jijosha
Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre: Theatre East, Tokyo, 15 January 2015

Suffering ‘a sea-change’ (I.2.400) in Japan, The Tempest has had a unique afterlife interculturally and intertextually linked with its traditional culture and history, especially theatrical traditions, just as Yukio Ninagawa’s The Tempest (1987), Tempesto Arashi Nochi Hare in the style of Bunraku (1992) and Yoshihiro Kurita’s The Tempest on a Noh stage (2009) well testify. [1]  Modern Japan, however, is also producing its new stage productions, reflecting various current social concerns and directors’ unique concepts and stage designs. As 2014 was the four hundred fiftieth anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, major theatrical companies staged his plays in their different styles; The Tempest was not an exception. [2]  In early 2015 when we still felt the remnant fever of the anniversary, Yamanote Jijosha, a theatrical company in Tokyo, staged a quite modern production of The Tempest (14–18 January), focusing on the protagonist’s memory and mind. Rejecting its traditional serene happy ending of reconciliation and regeneration, this adaptation, directed by Masahiro Yasuda and performed in about ninety minutes without a break, is a story about a man who can never forgive.

  The first shipwreck scene represented by a group dance is a typical example of choreographed performance of the actors trained by the company’s unique Yamanote Method. [3]  This focus on the actors’ bodies and the directorcentered modern conceptual design seem to have much in common with those of Tadashi Suzuki, Yasuda’s mentor. In fact, the company, officially founded in 1984, started from ‘a student theatre in Waseda University (the birthplace of Tadashi Suzuki’s SCOT and many other theatrical companies in Japan)’. [4]  Now, as one of the representative ‘experimental’ theatrical companies in Japan, it has won acclaims abroad: Titus Andronicus (2009) and Oedipus Rex (2010) at Sibiu International Theatre Festival, for instance.

  In the production programme, Yasuda notes that the traditional interpretation of the play’s providential scheme little satisfies him. Instead, modern anxiety and fear permeate his production. What the main characters remember and fear is not only expressed in their speech but visually represented by mimicking faeries on the magic island. They are completely different beings from the human characters, hopping like monkeys, and despise human values and emotions, uttering contemptuous jeers against them. To emphasize the darker side of Shakespeare’s play, Yasuda adds a symbolic character: an agonized half-naked man with his hands and legs bound, writhing on a bed on the right side of the stage. [5]  With the groaning man always in our view, the play’s action on stage, in a sense, appears to be his nightmare. Since the 3.11 tsunami and nuclear disaster in Fukushima in 2011, the myth of safe Japan has collapsed, making nightmares common realities. The suffering man reminded me of the shocking news, reported everyday then, about the two Japanese journalists who were taken hostage but later found killed by the terrorist group IS. Yasuda’s production certainly belongs to our modern world where we live oppressed with anxiety and fear, daily facing what we can never forgive.

  Like in a nightmare of black comedy, the characters with whitened faces and stylized movements and elocution look like caricature puppets. After the tempest scene, Prospero appears with his head under Miranda’s skirt. The eyeglassed punkish girl seems to have received an unusual education from her father; she later shows her courtesy to Ferdinand, letting him do the same. While Julie Taymor surprised us with the female protagonist, Prospera, in her film (2011), Yasuda transforms the King of Naples into Queen Giovanna, emphasizing the so-called ‘mother-complex’ relationship between mother and son.

  Prospero’s books are ingeniously used for various stage-props; when a character opens a book, there appears a kanji character like ‘sword’ or its picture on the pages. Ferdinand tries to fight against Prospero in vain with this bookish sword and later carries books of ‘log’ while Caliban is intoxicated drinking from a book of Japanese ‘sake’, which seems to signify that everything on the island is fabricated by Prospero’s magic. Prospero’s masque for the young couple becomes a deconstructive phantasmagoria of anxiety and fear. Following his command, Ariel and faeries appear as an army and performs a scene of killing battlefield where victims have their throats cut and women are raped. They enact what he fears and can never forgive: Giovanna is assassinated, Prospero and Miranda are brutally banished, and he is attacked by Caliban’s group and then stabbed to death by Ariel! This show of grotesque horror seems to represent Prospero’s spiritual collapse leading to his death at the play’s end.

  Half waking up from the nightmarish fantasy, Prospero sits in a coffin and begins his famous speech ‘Our revels now are ended. [...]’ (Ⅳ.1.148–58) collaged with Hamlet’s famous lines: ‘To die, to sleep; | To sleep, perchance to dream’ (Ⅲ.1.64–5). Collaging lines of different Shakespearean plays might have some danger because well-known Shakespearean lines are inseparably linked with the characters who speak them and the situations where they are spoken in the audience’s mind, but this collage sounded natural as a part of the director’s concept and dramaturgy. After all, Prospero does forgive and reconcile with his enemies, but not from his heart, for the audience hears the agonist’s desperate groans again. With the background music of Momoe Yamaguchi’s nostalgic popular song ‘A Good Day for Starting a Journey’ (1978), he frees Ariel, but Yasuda’s adaptation does not end in the departure for a happy voyage home. In the middle of his epilogue, Prospero has a stroke and suddenly dies as the simple accompanying coda for death, conducted by a faery, suggests.

  In conclusion, Yasuda achieved a quite difficult balance between the canonical providential plot and his deconstructive outlook and endowed his production with strong contemporary relevance, amplifying the darker side that exists in the original play. A younger generation of directors has started challenging the old masters and finding a ‘brave new world’ (Ⅴ.1.183) in Shakespeare. We are waiting with great expectation to see what new modern productions of Shakespeare will be staged in Japan in 2016, the four hundredth anniversary of his death.


[1] Hisao Oshima, ‘The Tempest and Japanese Theatrical Traditions: Noh, Kabuki and Bunraku’, in Critical and Cultural Transformations: Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ — 1611 to the Present, ed. by Tobias Döring and Virginia Mason Vaughan (Tübingen: Narr Verlag, 2013), pp. 149–72. All quotations from Shakespeare are from William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. by Peter Alexander (London: Collins, 1951; rpt. 1988).

[2] The New National Theatre, Tokyo presented The Tempest, directed by Akira Shirai (Middle Theatre: 15 May–1 June). In spite of his modern stage design of Prospero’s island as a logistics ‘stockyard of packages of his memory’ and Ariel on a wheelchair, Shirai aimed at a canonical ‘praise of humanity, the goal where Shakespeare finally arrived’ as publicized on its website (<http://www.nntt.jac.go.jp/play/tempest/> [accessed 10 September 2015]).

[3] See the short highlight film of this production at <https://youtu.be/7eLHRLuUufk> [accessed 14 September 2015]. The DVDs of the company’s Romeo and Juliet (2008), Titus Andronicus (2010), Troilus and Cressida (2012), The Tempest (2015), and others are available from the company.

[4] Yamanote Jijosha 1984 (Tokyo: Yamanote Jijosha, 2004), p. 2. Further information about the company and the Yamanote Method can be found in this twentieth anniversary book and on its informative website (<https://www.yamanote-j.org/> [accessed 14 September 2015]). For a scholarly analysis of its Shakespearean productions, see Mika Eglinton, ‘Performing Constraint through Yojohan: Yamanote Jijosha’s Titus Andronicus’, Shakespeare Studies (Japan), 49 (2011), 12–28.

[5] Tetsuya Motohashi offers a postcolonial interpretation about the groaning man in ‘An Unawakened Nightmare, the Repetition of a Written Language, or the Bermuda Triangle: A Review of Yamanote Jijosha’s The Tempest’ in Theatre Arts (<http://theatrearts.aict-iatc.jp/201501/2510/> [accessed 10 November 2015]).

The Tempest

‘They are both in either’s pow’rs [...]’ (I.2.450-52). Ferdinand (Takeshi Kawamura), Prospero (Yoshiro Yamamoto), Miranda (Junko Kurashina), and Ariel (Koki Ura) in Yamanote Jijosha’s production of The Tempest. Photographer Hiramatsu Toshiyuki. Courtesy of Yamanote Jijosha.


Reprinted and translated by permission of the Shakespeare Society of Japan from ‘The Tempest by Yamanote Jijosha’ in Shakespeare Studies, volume 53, pp. 75-78.