Ninagawa Macbeth: A Japanese Rendition of Shakespeare’s Classic

Something about tragic literature has always fascinated me. Although the events are usually upsetting, I find some kind of strange beauty behind it. Take Elfen Lied for instance – it’s one of the bloodiest anime ever made and yet I find it gorgeous.

Because of my fascination with fictional tragedy, Macbeth is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, even though I am not the biggest fan of his work. Macbeth depicts the story of a noble who decides to kill the king in order to become king himself. But along the way, he starts to doubt his decision and begins to lose his mind. In my opinion, Macbeth’s story is well-written, the prose is superb, and the entire scenario is relevant, even in modern times. In fact, it’s so relevant that famous theatrical director Yukio Ninagawa (who is sadly deceased) felt he would be able to retell the story through a Japanese lens. And he did just that with his production Ninagawa Macbeth.

Ninagawa Macbeth Official Picture

Truly Japanese

The play is a retelling of Macbeth using traditional Japanese imagery. The setting is supposed to take place in 16th century Azuchi-Momoyama Japan (near the end of the Warring States era; think Inuyasha), and the characters are wearing traditional Japanese garb, including samurai armor during battle scenes. And to make it even more authentic, the production was performed entirely in Japanese, even though the performance was at at Lincoln Center in New York City. I was lucky enough to see Ninagawa Macbeth because my mom is on Lincoln Center’s mailing list (thanks Mom!). And it’s a good thing I did because it was apparently one of the show’s final performances – but hopefully that’s not true.

First things first, you might be wondering, “If the show was in Japanese, how could everyone understand it?” The answer is that there was a small screen above the stage that showed the translation as the actors spoke. And yes, the subtitles were Shakespearean. If I am not mistaken, the subtitles were simplified a little compared to the original play and some lines were omitted. It also seemed that not all of it was in iambic pentameter, bu they, I don’t have a photographic memory, so I am not entirely sure. But the language seemed easier to understand than regular Shakespeare and it makes sense for creators to do that – if the actors are speaking quickly or there isn’t an exact translation, they shouldn’t put the original long segments. As for the Japanese itself, it was traditional, formal Japanese, not the kind of slang-laden language we hear in anime.

Ninagawa Macbeth Weird Sisters

Photo credit: Takahiro Watanabe

Anyway, let’s get to the play itself. One of the very first scenes of the play is when the Weird Sisters, three witches, are introduced and confront Macbeth. The witches dressed in traditional kabuki outfits and even did the traditional kabuki voice: high-pitched with each syllable dragged out. Now, if you aren’t familiar with kabuki, the opening scene with the Weird Sisters might have been bit of a culture shock and be a little off-putting. And honestly, it is kind of hard to take seriously. But once the play dives into the story, it gets much more intense.

Incredible Acting

The actors and the play overall made the audience really feel the anxiety of Macbeth and his wife as they plan and try to cover up their evil deeds. From the very beginning, Macbeth’s actor, Masachika Ichimura, did a brilliant job of portraying Macbeth’s doubt, fear, and anxiety. He was extremely believable and never overacted, whether he was having a minor episode or a major one.

Although he was amazing throughout the whole thing, I had two favorite parts in this performance. The first was when he hallucinates and tries to clasp a dagger that wasn’t really there. This is toward the beginning, when he first starts having doubts. This moment and Ichimura’s acting foreshadow Macbeth’s oncoming paranoia. My second favorite part was toward the very end when Macbeth is standing under a giant cherry blossom tree. At this point, everything is falling apart for Macbeth and he just seemed so, so broken and so, so desperate. His performance was spot-on and it was just beautiful.

Ninagawa Macbeth Cherry Blossom

Photo credit: Lincoln Center

And then there’s Lady Macbeth. OMG, Lady Macbeth! She was played by Yuko Tanaka, and she was absolutely amazing. As much as I liked Ichimura as Macbeth, Lady Macbeth was my favorite. If you aren’t familiar with the characters, Lady Macbeth actually encourages her husband to kill the king and she contributes to the sinister plan. Although she seems innocent and meek on the outside, Lady Macbeth is really an unstable viper. And Yuko Tanaka represented this flawlessly. When she acted as Lady Macbeth, she looked so fragile and unsure, as if she were a beetle trying to turn itself inward and escape into its shell. And yet she was vicious and full of conviction. That is, until she also starts having doubts and slowly loses her mind – another thing that Yuko Tanka portrayed seamlessly.

Not So Great Actors

Those two really stole the show, but most of the actors were very good as well. There were some, however, that I thought overacted. In particular, Macbeth’s servant constantly overacted – he was always screaming! I understand that his boss (Macbeth) was insane and he was probably afraid of getting killed whenever he had bad news, such as enemies approaching Macbeth’s castle. But he yelled so loud, it hurt my ears and it was just too much. Maybe it was a cultural kiai thing. I also thought that Malcolm overacted a little and tried to be too macho. But he was better than the servant. Macduff was good, though 😀

Beautiful~!

Hmm, what else do I have to say? Overall, the aesthetic was wonderful. If you’re like me and love anything Japanese, you would have loved the set. The sides of the stage looked like a giant Buddhist altar. All of the buildings’ interiors had a Japanese vibe. With all this Japanese scenery, it obviously took place in Japan. But they still referred to the land as Scotland and also mentioned England and Ireland. I understand not changing the characters’ names because that would make things confusing. But keeping the original locations seemed just a tad odd. Anyway, the Japanese costumes were gorgeous, especially the long robes. And, of course, cherry blossoms were ongoing motif in the play.

Ninagawa Macbeth Lady Macbeth

Photograph Credit: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Overall, I greatly enjoyed the performance. I think Yukio Ninagawa was extremely talented, as were the two main actors and everyone else involved. Altogether, they were able to make the tragedy of Macbeth incredibly beautiful. As I said, hopefully the performance of Ninagawa Macbeth at Lincoln Center will not be the very last.

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