The Korea Herald


Yukio Ninagawa stages ‘Musashi’ in Seoul

By Claire Lee

Published : March 18, 2014 - 20:27

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Yukio Ninagawa, a Japanese theater director best known for his Japanese adaptations of Shakespeare plays and Greek tragedies, is presenting his Japanese Zen comedy-drama “Musashi” in Seoul this month.

“I guess I am known as the director who interprets Shakespeare plays in a very Japanese way,” the director told reporters during a press conference in Seoul. “But with ‘Musashi,’ I wanted to do something that does not rely on Shakespeare (and his scripts).”

The upcoming show is Ninagawa’s second piece to be staged in Korea after the 2011 Seoul run of “Antonio and Cleopatra,” his adaptation of the Shakespearean tragedy. Set in 17th century Japan, “Musashi” features Japanese martial arts and crafts. 
A scene from Ninagawa’s “Musashi.” (LG Arts Center) A scene from Ninagawa’s “Musashi.” (LG Arts Center)

Written by the late Japanese playwright Hisashi Inoue, “Musashi” deals with the legendary samurai Musashi Miyamoto and his famous 1612 duel with Kojiro Sasaki, a well-known swordsman.

The plot of the play develops as they meet again six years later at a remote Buddhist temple, and Kojiro asks for a rematch. As Musashi and Kojiro’s paths never crossed after 1612 according to historical records, their reencounter in the play is purely fictional.
Japanese theater director Yukio Ninagawa speaks during a press conference in Seoul on Monday. (LG Arts Center) Japanese theater director Yukio Ninagawa speaks during a press conference in Seoul on Monday. (LG Arts Center)

“Inoue and I belong to the same generation,” the 79-year-old said. “He was about 10 when the war was over. Writers in that generation know what violence is like. They are very opinionated about what society should not be. One of the major themes of this play is how to prevent unnecessary killings and violence.”

Ninagawa, who started off as a small-scale theater director in 1955, broke into Japan’s theater scene after directing Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in 1974. He has since devoted his life to creating Japanese adaptations of Shakespearean plays, including “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” “King Lear” and “As You Like It.” Many of his works have been staged abroad, including at New York’s Lincoln Center and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in the U.K.

“You see all kinds of people of different classes in Shakespeare’s plays,” he said. “There is a king, a beggar, a nobleman and a commoner. His plays are like the mirror that reflects the audience (and their lives).

During the conference, Ninagawa recalled watching a British production of “Macbeth” with little joy. “I wasn’t touched by it,” he said. “I thought Shakespeare’s original script was better than the play itself. In the play, there was a scene where the forest begins to move. And I could actually see the people carrying the pine tree branches ― that were supposed to be the forest ― on the stage. So for my own production, I used large, fully blooming cherry boughs, so the audience couldn’t see the people who were carrying them. I wanted to make sure the forest looked like it was moving by itself, just as in the script.”

The director said there are about 10 Shakespeare plays he hasn’t worked on yet and he would love to direct them all in the next three years.

“And I’ve done Hamlet about three or four times, but I would like to do it again, and do a better job,” he said. “Directing Hamlet is like hiking a very challenging mountain. I would like to go for the challenge and make a better version as if I am on that hike again.”

Asked how he keeps his productions universal while fusing them with Japanese cultural elements and aesthetics, Ninagawa said he purposely does not watch the British productions of Shakespeare plays.

“It does not help me when I make my own productions,” he said. “And the other thing is this great sense of fear. I am terrified when I think about how the audience (regardless of their nationality) would react to my plays. I keep thinking about that while I create my work, and I guess that sense of fear somehow gives that universality to my plays.”

“Musashi” runs from March 21-23 at LG Arts Center in Seoul. Tickets range from 30,000 won to 70,000 won. For more information, call (02) 2005-0114 or visit

By Claire Lee (