Japanese theatre doyen Ninagawa takes on Murakami

Shore (starring from left Mame Yamada, Katrine Mutsukiko Doi Vincent and Katsumi Kiba) is directed by Yukio Ninagawa.
Shore (starring from left Mame Yamada, Katrine Mutsukiko Doi Vincent and Katsumi Kiba) is directed by Yukio Ninagawa. PHOTOS: NEW YORK TIMES, NINAGAWA STUDIO
Yukio Ninagawa (above).
Yukio Ninagawa (above). PHOTOS: NEW YORK TIMES, NINAGAWA STUDIO

Theatre luminary Yukio Ninagawa takes on the difficult task of staging Haruki Murakami's Kafka On The Shore

Talking cats, fish falling from the sky, mysterious aeroplanes, pathways to another world and open-ended, philosophical discussions about destiny and the self - Japanese author Haruki Murakami's Kafka On The Shore is hardly the easiest novel to adapt for the theatre stage.

But Japanese director and theatre luminary Yukio Ninagawa, who has created magic with the works of Shakespeare and ancient Greek tragedy, has found a way.

Ninagawa, who turns 80 this month, read the novel three times when it was first published in 2002. He acknowledges that the stage version has been "difficult", to say the least.

He writes in an e-mail message: "At first sight, you find his words easy to understand, but they portray a deep, heavy theme. This is the point I am moved and surprised by."

The Ninagawa Company was last in Singapore in 2013 with the Japanese samurai drama with a noh twist, Musashi.

  • BOOK IT/KAFKA ON THE SHORE

  • WHERE: Esplanade Theatre

    WHEN: Oct 30and 31 at 8pm, Nov 1 at 2pm

    ADMISSION: $48 to $118 from Sistic (excludes booking fee, call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: The performance includes elements of sex and violence. Recommended for audiences aged 16 and above.

Kafka On The Shore will run at the Esplanade Theatre from Oct 30 to Nov 1. It was adapted for the stage by American writer-director Frank Galati, who also adapted and directed a stage version of two stories from Murakami's collection After The Quake for Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2007.

The novel follows two parallel storylines. In the first, 15-year-old Kafka Tamura runs away from home in an attempt to avoid an Oedipal fate and to find his mother and sister. He takes refuge in a library with a complex history.

In the second, a simple-minded old man, Nakata, who has the ability to converse with cats, takes off on a long journey that gives him a renewed sense of purpose.

Ninagawa says he will strive to "avoid (the) loss" of certain "beautiful parts in the novel".

One image came to him - that "everything (is) kept inside acrylic show windows, like the American Museum of Natural History". This is reflected in the production's set design.

He continues: "It was a challenge to think how I could visualise Murakami's writing style. But the big acrylic boxes that I mentioned helped to do it.

"Murakami's writing has detailed parts as well as big-scale narratives, so I thought the details can be expressed as what is inside the boxes, while a big-scale narrative can be expressed through the movements of big windows."

Kafka On The Shore, with its open-ended narratives and dense use of symbolism and metaphor, leaves many of its questions unanswered and unresolved.

It reaches the heights of Greek myth, but also dips its toes into the low kitsch of pop culture (figures such as Johnnie Walker and Colonel Sanders make an appearance), with haunting magical realism thrown in along the way.

When Murakami's Japanese publisher produced a website a few years ago to help readers understand the book better, he received more than 8,000 questions from readers.

Ninagawa reveals that the novelist had feedback for him after seeing an earlier incarnation of the production: "He said, 'Don't you drop the fish from above?'" Ninagawa confirms that, since last year, the fish-dropping has, in fact, been incorporated into the show.

Young actor Nino Furuhata, 24, who made his theatrical debut as the titular Kafka with this show, had the opportunity to meet Murakami once.

He writes in an e-mail message: "I was a bit reserved... I wanted to tell him that I was grateful to be part of his universe. You could say it felt as if my world was merging with his during that split second of our meeting."

Furuhata lives 20 minutes by bicycle from Kafka's neighbourhood in the novel.

He says: "If you travel south and head west from Nogata Station, there's an area that has a peculiar vibe that makes you feel as if the air is thicker, heavier and hard to breathe.

"It's quiet, peaceful and seemingly the opposite of a seedy neighbourhood. However, if you make a turn around the street corner, all of a sudden, you find yourself in alleyways that have a bleak, dim atmosphere."

He describes this "bizarre mix" of affluent houses and decrepit buildings, adding: "Also, there are many stray cats inhabiting that area."

When asked if he was fond of cats, Ninagawa responded: "Not really."

Popular Japanese actor Naohito Fujiki, 43, plays the part of Oshima, a gender-fluid librarian who offers Kafka help and shelter.

He says of the novel: "To be honest, Kafka On The Shore was different from the other novels of Murakami that I had read, so I was a bit confused, or found it difficult. But I thought Oshima was full of tenderness in that he would always stand by Kafka."

Fujiki and Ninagawa were drawn to the use of myth and philosophy in Murakami's novels.

Fujiki says: "The novels of Murakami do not necessarily give you the conclusion.

"I hope each audience member will appreciate the work in his own way, as Murakami himself suggests in his essays."

•Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 06, 2015, with the headline 'Talking cats and falling fish'. Print Edition | Subscribe