Interview with Shun'ichirō Kanai / 金井氏との対談

Introduction to Kabuki Sets by Kanai Shun'ichirō
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Interview with Shun'ichirō Kanai, April 2006

Q. What is the Kanai family history in the kabuki world?

A. In the Edo period, the world of kabuki sets, starting with the three Saruwaka-cho theatres (fn), was monopolized by Hasegawa Odogu. When it became the Meiji period, Hasegawa's power declined and my father Yoshitaro, who was the set chief at the Ichimura theatre at that time, went independent with the support of Okami Kikugoro VI and set up Kanai Odogu. Kanai Odogu has been carrying on the tradition for over one hundred years. Since then, Kanai Odogu has handled the scenery for the Enbujo in Shinbashi and other theatres in Tokyo, among them the Meiji-za and the Shinbashi Enbujo, Tadajiro II having taken over from Yoshitaro, at which point the company became Kanai Scene Shop. In 1967, after Tadajiro died, I (Shun'ichirō) took over as president of the company and at present, we handle the sets for not only the National Theatre and the Enbujo, but also the Kanamaru-za in Kotohira, the Asakusa Kokaido, and the Sanyo gekijo, and every year we do the sets for the annual tour of kabuki at the Kyoto Minamiza, Osaka Shochikuza, the Fukuoka Hakataza, and others. Also, when Hasegawa Odogu Company, which did the sets for the Kabukiza theatre, closed for financial reasons in 1983, it was reorganized as the Kabukiza Stage Company, and I took on the responsibility of being its chief operating officer. On March 31 of this year, after 40 years as head of the company, I retired as president of Kanai Scene Shop and handed over the reins to my eldest son. I expect that the tradition of kabuki sets will continue on for a great while.

Q. How did a person traditionally learn the trade? And do these traditions continue on today?

A. In Japan, there are no schools or other institutions for learning to become a kabuki set artisan or any other stage technical art. Accordingly, to learn the techniques of building traditional sets, one must go to the actual place and learn in practice from the predecessors/masters. I myself learned the tradition starting out by sharpening saws and chisels, learning to make the tools, and then going on to build sets themselves. And even today, when so much is mechanized, one must still train for a long time in the necessary handcrafts of building sets. So to teach the young apprentices and maintain this tradition of kabuki sets, we have to overcome any number of difficult issues.

(Continues in right column)

Kanai Shun'ichiro on the short production schedule

Q. What proportion of kabuki sets and props are preserved as stock to be re-used?

A. In Japan, the various technical stage artisans--scenery, props, costumes, wigs, and so on--are each employed by a separate company. Since each company must do what is necessary to turn a profit, it is hard to give a single answer for all. With scenery for example, we only keep those pieces that are particularly difficult to construct, which is about 20% of the total. On the other hand, for props, there are many pieces that are troublesome to make, so perhaps 80% of the stock is preserved. For kabuki properties, Fujinami Properties Company has a monopoly on the supply and craft, and it is a good thing that they have preserved in their storehouse some very old props. Kanai Scene Shop currently has a 1000-square-meter construction shop in Tochigaya Shinagawa, and Kabukiza Stage Company also has one of the same size in Matsudo. While ideally, it would be nice to have archival storage at both, from the perspective of the companies we have to say that it is just not possible now. This is a problem that will continue to plague us.

Q. What sort of materials related to kabuki design do you think important to make available through the Internet?

Kanai Shun'ichiro on historical documents

A. Documents on the design of kabuki sets and scenery just do not exist at all. There are some old ukiyoe prints that depict the stage, but it is doubtful whether these show the actual stage as it existed. The most important matter to document is the change of the theatres. Kabuki theatres were completed in the Edo period sometime around the Genbun era (early 1700s). The Kanemaru theatre in Kagawa Prefecture contains some of the old features, and we have to note that the old theatres were completely different from those today. If one reads the old script books, one sees the phrase "on the main stage of three ken," which means that the main stage was quite narrow at just three "ken," or about five and a half meters wide. In the later part of the Edo period, the three theatres at Saruwaka-cho had a certain standardization, but then came the Meiji period with its world of "civilization and enlightenment" when the theatres were all Westernized.

Kanai Shun'ichiro: "Today's is the Meji stage"

That was when the shape of our present theatres appeared. We can say that Japanese theatres completely changed during the course of the Meiji period. So the theatre that was performed during the day in the Edo period became lit with electric lights and the the stage architecture changed rapidly such that a completely different theatre was created. And stage and set design also had to develop a new structure even while preserving the tradition of kabuki. If one is to really understand the play scripts of even present-day kabuki, they must come to understand the staging of kabuki. And in order to do that, it is necessary to study kabuki in depth. Without that understanding, there is no possibility of doing either kabuki design or the craft of kabuki staging. So first of all, we must make future generations study on what kabuki, the art itself, is at all.

Q. How does the design and construction of a set for a single kabuki production take place?

A. The production of a kabuki piece begins with the making of the design sketches (大道具帳). Of course, before the design sketches are used, the actors who will perform the piece have various comments on what should be used, and we must correct things in the design sketches according to those comments. So for revivals of old pieces or for newly-written pieces, we must sketch entirely new designs. [Note that the usual procedure is to adapt from a designer's portfolio of past productions.] For example, when Ichikawa Ennosuke performed the revivals of Oguri hangan and the full-length Yotsuya Kaidan Chūshingura, producing the design sketches was a big task because there were so many scenes, and we only completed the designs by repeated meetings with the directors and the lead actors. When the designs are done, they are handed over to the set construction people. Constructing the set happens within a twenty-day period [due to the production schedules of the kabuki theatres; see production/program schedules]. As this period is rather short, the construction manager (製作責任者) divides the work among the specialists, such as the carpenters, flat painters, painting crew (塗装), and backdrop painters. Once the sets are constructed, the stage designers and everyone in the production meet on the actual stage for a technical rehearsal (道具調べ), then a dress rehearsal (舞台稽古), and finally a "fix-it" meeting (駄目なおし), in which things in the set that do not work are reworked, before the opening day. In Japan, the usual schedule is a 25-day program, so in a given month, the time for the actual set construction on the stage is a mere five or six days. Hence, you can see that for a production to open well on the first day, it takes a great deal of intense work on the part of the technical crews.

Q. For future generations and current audiences, what type of information about kabuki set design or kabuki staging is important to make known?

A. Keeping a tradition alive is not simple a matter of leaving old things as they were. Of course it is necessary to preserve the great techniques and artistry that has been passed on from prior generations. However, more than that, it is only when those great techniques are taken up and used creatively that they are rejuvenated as great artistry and thus passed on to future generations. It is only then that the tradition is preserved. We must note that tradition can only become something to pass on when it is a continuing path to follow.

Kabuki is not a simple theatrical art form and has many layers to understand it well. For example, there are the aspects of the aragoto and the wagoto styles of performance, the difference between historical plays and domestic plays (sewamono), or the different historical styles of the writers, such as Chikamatsu Monzaemon, Tsuruya Namboku, Kawatake Mokuami and others. Each aspect has its own layer to understand and so we cannot give a single answer [to the question of what aspect is important to make known]. I would like people to understand that we work day in and day out in the difficult task of preserving this tradition by responding and adapting our work to all those layers.

Kabuki today is fortunate to be known throughout the world as a significant cultural heritage and a performing art of the first order. This has come about by way of the overseas tours, known as the "traveling diplomacy of kabuki." I myself have worked on over forty overseas performances starting with the 1961 tour to the Soviet Union. And I am somewhat proud to think that we have spread to the world some of the aesthetic of kabuki scenery.

[Interviewer's note: The 1961 Soviet Union tour of which Mr. Kanai speaks is documented in part by materials, including copies of set and scenery designs, in the JPARC Influence of Japanese Theatre on Russian Theatre Learning Module.]


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