The living giant of Japanese theatre, legendary director Yukio Ninagawa, cuts an unassuming figure.
Sitting at a corner of a conference table in the Esplanade office, the wiry and slightly stooped 78-year-old is clad conservatively in a black cardigan over a crisp white shirt with a mandarin collar.
He says disarmingly of his return to Singapore: "After 20 years, my impression of the city has completely changed. The theatre is completely new and different - so I feel a little bit nervous."
But beneath that gentle, grandfatherly visage is a razor sharp intellect steeped in decades of theatremaking experience, and years spent rewriting the norms of theatre of the east and west.
The straight-shooting but soft-spoken director, known for his sumptuous reinventions of Shakespeare and the Greek classics, dispenses pointed remarks in soothing low tones. He spoke to The Straits Times through a translator, who often seemed both amused and disconcerted by his statements, punctuating her translations with nods of reverence.
He believes the Japanese people are no longer interested in the ancient tradition of Noh theatre today, because it has been over-protected from innovation and evolution.
His translator laughs nervously: "If the people in the Noh society heard about this, they would be quite upset."
Ninagawa is back in Singapore for the first time in more than 20 years to present the samurai action-comedy Musashi at the Esplanade Theatre on Nov 8 and 9. It is sold out. Musashi is part of the arts centre's Three Titans series, jointly presented with the Singapore Repertory Theatre, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year with this triple bill. The series opened with Complicite's Shun-kin in August and will conclude with Peter Brook's The Suit at the end of the month.
Ninagawa's productions of Medea and Macbeth at the 1992 Singapore Arts Festival still reverberate in the minds of theatregoers today.
Theatre critic Hannah Pandian's 1992 review of the ancient Greek tragedy Medea, published in The Straits Times, was wrapped in awe.
She wrote: "Ninagawa's Medea received seven curtain calls, and the audience raised an exultant voice, while winking back furtive tears. It is at such moments when you remember that theatre was once reserved for the gods."
His production of Titus Andronicus represented Japan at the Royal Shakespeare Company's Complete Works Festival of 2006 to 2007. He is also a member of The Shakespeare's Globe Council and was awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2002.
For more, read Life! tomorrow.