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American Journal of Philology 123.1 (2002) 1-34

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Ninagawa's Production of Euripides' Medea

Mae Smethurst


The Japanese theater director Yukio Ninagawa, known for expressing his opposition to repressive politics in his productions during the 1960s, claimed that he staged the Medea because he wanted Japanese women to know that they could be as strong, as straightforward, as the character Medea. Japan, which has been the largest consumer of his Medea, was and still is a male-dominated society. According to Ninagawa, it is a country in which for a woman to be demure and weak is considered a virtue. 1 And yet, if you look closely at Euripides' Medea you might conclude that Medea, although strong, is not an ideal role model for women. 2 (This was the view of Leda Geh of the Singapore Sunday Star, who reviewed Ninagawa's production in 1992.)

Ninagawa's Medea was enormously successful. It ran for more than 250 performances in Japan, in other parts of Asia, and in the West, even though all the performances were in the Japanese language. Between the first productions of the Medea in 1978 and the latest in 1999, Ninagawa played to oversold, sold-out, or virtually sold-out houses in Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, as well as in smaller cities throughout Japan. 3 The 1993 [End Page 1] production in Tokyo had a three-night run, in a theater with a capacity of eight hundred seats, which was on average 84 percent filled. 4 During a second tour to Athens in 1984, over a two-night run at the Herodes Atticus Theater (which has a capacity of six thousand people), fourteen thousand attended the performances. According to the producer Tadao Nakane (whom I interviewed in Tokyo on 15 March 1999), the audiences, including those sitting on the sides of the Acropolis, applauded so long and hard that tears came to his eyes. 5 In London, in 1978, Tokusaburo Arashi's performance of Medea brought him a nomination for an Olivier award 6 and, in the fall of 1999, Ninagawa served as the first non-English-speaking foreign director of the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of King Lear. Given these and other successes, it is clear that Ninagawa was able to bridge the gap between the West and East, on the one hand, by appealing to Western audiences with his Japanese productions and, on the other, by bringing a Western play to Japanese and other audiences.

In this article I will consider how Ninagawa was able to take this ancient Greek tragedy and make it popular, not only with other Asian or non-Japanese audiences but also with those in Japan. He based his Medea on the poet Mutsuo Takahashi's 7 line-by-line adaptation of Euripides' [End Page 2] Medea. Not all of Takahashi's lines are used in each production; however, Ninagawa's productions of Medea, like his production of Oedipus the King, do adhere to the words of the text much more closely and fully than do Tadashi Suzuki's Bacchae or Trojan Women. Ninagawa infused his productions of the Medea with a very strong Japanese presence, consisting of elements drawn from Japan past and present. And it is these elements that I believe have helped ensure his success with Japanese audiences who (like us) bring their own cultural baggage to the theater.

To demonstrate the Japanese content of the productions, I draw on a live performance of the Medea that I saw in Tokyo in 1993 and on my translations from the Japanese of both Takahashi's adaptation of Euripides' text and Tange Kazuhiko's translation from the ancient Greek. 8 I also draw on programs, playbills, the published notes of Ninagawa, and videotapes of productions. I hope to show how Ninagawa infused the Greek tragedy with a Japanese presence in the Tokyo production of 1993 and to note how that production differed from the version of his Medea performed in Athens in 1984. I place the Tokyo performance within its cultural context by pointing out the Japanese elements...


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