幾原邦彦 ✖ 吉谷光太郎
Revolutionary Girl Utena: Commemorating the 20th Anniversary with A Special Conversation
    Supervisor Kunihiko Ikuhara X Director & Scriptwriter Kotaro Yoshitani

[Note: This interview was published in the 2018 Musical Utena ~ Bud of the White Rose program book, purchased at the musical for 3000¥. It has been lovingly translated by Nagumo, with editing done by a pen, purpleriot, and Giovanna. Giovanna's coded it to mimic the appearance of the interview pages. Thank you so much for your work, Nagumo, a pen, and purpleriot!!]

We've invited both Mr. Ikuhara and Mr. Yoshitani, respectively the creative mind behind Revolutionary Girl Utena and the scriptwriter and director of the musical adaption, to speak about the anime and the stage production.

Utena is a hard subject to adapt to stage (Ikuhara)

— What were your expectations for the musical adaption of this 20 year old anime?

Ikuhara: I've constantly been asked about adapting this into a 2.5 dimensional work and I have always refused.

Yoshitani: Ah, I see.

Ikuhara: In fact, I refused this time around too.

Yoshitani: What?

Both: (laugh)

Yoshitani: Oh my, what an explosive start this is. (laugh)

Ikuhara: I refused, but a producer encouraged me to think it over, subtly hinting how it would be great for younger people to experience an old work like Utena in a different format. I did want to see what a 20th anniversary style upgrade would be like so I went "Well then, I'll leave it to you," and gave my permission.

Yoshitani: I see, so that's how it is... And what were your reasons for refusing...?

Ikuhara: Basically, I feel that Utena is a hard subject to adapt to stage. Stylistically speaking, it has parts where it's as though it's a play being filmed. I felt that having that returned back onto stage would be very limiting.

Yoshitani: Limiting?

Ikuhara: In other words, when we adapt the theatrical parts, it isn't like the anime at all. It won't feel like the original work. Then, why not make it more anime-like? But if we just faithfully recreate it, we end up only appealing to those who liked it before. Won't that make it 'a limited work'? "If this is all I can do, why bother?" is how I felt previously. I've always loved the stage, so when I make films I'm strongly aware that simply imitating the stage is something to be avoided.

But I was convinced that I needed to spread the fruits of my imagination. It's just, I have my own style, and feel it would be wrong to impose that on those that work with the stage.

Also, as a creator, I know there's nothing more annoying that having the original author hovering close by. (laugh) Furthermore, the medium is different, so even though the title is the same, the end result will look completely different. Speaking self-deprecatingly as an original creator, it's too painful for us to make changes. The work has become like our own flesh, we're sensitive to changes and can't accept them. As the original director, I feel I've got no choice but to look on and to allow the production team to do their own thing.

Yoshitani: That's true. Many viewers commented how they thought Utena would look great on stage, though.

Ikuhara: Lots of people had that opinion. I held the exact opposite opinion. I thought it would be a pain to do.

Both: (Laugh)

Yoshitani: You're absolutely right. (laugh) The truth has set me free.

Ikuhara: As a director, I was given jobs to make something based on a previously existing work. There were countless works among these that made me think, "There's no way I can manage this." And here's the thing about these original works. These works, especially in the case of manga, are concluded as movies. You end up having to imitate the original to the extent that it's self-parody.

Yoshitani: You can’t create something that wasn’t in there in the first place.

Ikuhara: That's right. Because it's already a complete work. So on the producer side of things, there's "I know it'll be totally great if you make it move and add sound." But for me as someone who does animation, that's not animation! I wondered to myself, isn't that the same situation but me with the stage? "This would look great on stage," I'd say, but the answer back would be "What the heck?" (laugh)

Yoshitani: I understand. Previously when I had the chance to adapt a work called Star-Myu, it was a musical about a musical school. I certainly felt that I couldn’t just outright reproduce it without changing something.

Ikuhara: That's why in my case, if someone said "We can't put that onscreen, it's totally unadaptable," I'd answer "It is adaptable for me." (laugh)

Yoshitani: I know exactly what you mean.

Ikuhara: So I guess you could say, that’s what my expectations are this time? (laugh) When someone's gone and said it’s impossible and then you go "Ah, it’s done," it’s such a joy.

Yoshitani: It feels like you've overcome this great hurdle. (laugh) They said the same things to me too, like "It would suit the stage," or "It's a work that would suit Takarazuka." They say that but the real question is, is the stage able to communicate what the work wants to say. It's as Mr. Ikuhara says, essentially, this production we've created is putting back onstage a work that visually already has that theatrical spice mixed in to its setting and such. There were some parts I questioned if it was okay putting it back on stage. I felt that this was no simple matter.

For example, the Shadow Girls are presented as shadows but whether the result of leaving them to be seen that way is actually entertaining or not was something I had to consider. Would it really be successful on stage if I leave it as the original director had conceived it? These are the types of questions I had to think of while doing the stage adaptation.

At first I thought, this is going to take a lot of hard work and be very challenging.

It's fascinating to watch characters do the wrong things and then see how it hurts others. (Ikuhara)

Ikuhara: Personally, I always aim to surprise. When making anime, my first impulse is to surprise rather than make a good anime. I want it to surprise people. You could say that this desire to surprise is the starting point of my creative process.

This desire to surprise was definitely inspired largely by Terayama. After the Student Movement, theatre in the 70's suddenly changed. Theatre changed from supporting the Student Movement, to appealing to the general public, but Terayama refused to change and this left a strong impression on me. Terayama used theatre as a tool to communicate what he wanted to say. Lately I've started to think the reason he didn't change was because he was entertainment focused. I sensed that Terayama's style of theatre was to link it to daily life during the Student Movement.

(Note: The Student Movement was a radical political movement in the 60's in Japan, marked by student led riots and calls for 'revolution.' They wore special hard hats during riots to help identify one another. More information can be found here, and here.)

Rather than igniting a revolution up on the boards of the stage, it was to create it by having the audience suddenly realize while watching the play that this is my story, inciting a personal revolution. I was really drawn to this aspect. I was ten years old when I saw his work and though it might have been because of my age, I thought, "just who am I?" and it was such a shock.

So that's what I want the audience to experience. I'd be pleased if while watching the characters they think to themselves, "Ah, this is me," whether they're ten years old, twenty years old, or thirty years old.

Yoshitani: As for my thoughts on Utena's characters, they're really unique. There are so many interesting ones, and I get the feeling of I like this one while watching them.

Previously, I read an article about Ikuhara in a special edition of Eureka, and it noted that foolish characters are extremely intriguing. I like to personally pick on Saionji (laugh), his silliness is really fascinating.

(Note: Eureka magazine had a special feature on Ikuhara's works from Utena to Yurikuma, titled 'Revolutionary Girl Utena, Mawaru Penguindrum, Yuri Bear Storm ... Our Revolution and Survival Strategy.' It has more than 30 articles and clocks in around 240+ pages... You can download it off Empty Movement but it is in Japanese at this present moment in time. The specific article being discussed is likely 'Eulogy for the Fool - Ikuhara Kunihiko and Ohtsuki Kana Discussion,' which has been translated by why1758. It can be read here, on Empty Movement.)

Ikuhara: Yes, when it comes drama, I want to slap down and tell these characters, "No, you're wrong!"

Even if that character is trying to do what they think is the right thing, from the viewpoint of the audience they're obviously going about it the wrong way. Even when it's the main character, the hero, I love having them cut down to size. Now and then, we all make mistakes and need to be taken to task. I really enjoy that sort of thing, you have to regard these flawed and miserable characters with sympathy or you'll never like them.

Yoshitani: And it's really quite refreshing. There was a time when I thought that audiences would be more drawn to the cool character or the respectable character but when the audience sees how comical someone like Nanami is, they became extremely fond of them. It was a great discovery. It's interesting to see that when the audience goes "Ah, I like this character," they find that character relatable by recognizing those same flaws within themselves.

Ikuhara: Yes. Both Utena and Anthy are wrong at first. It's fascinating to watch characters do the wrong things and see how it hurts others.

Yoshitani: It's in the opening sequence of Utena. As the narration said at the beginning of the anime, "Was that really such a good idea?" I felt that that intro was quite good. But Utena's error isn't so out there. "I want to be a prince," is what she thought; you can understand and sympathize. I thought it was a wonderful introduction.

When watching this work you get the feeling that if you go "I like this character," you can recognize what sort of person you are. For me, I like Saionji and understand him, so I think there must be a part of me that's Saionji-like.

Ikuhara: That's right. This is my particular quirk but rather than continuing to say "I’m not wrong," I’d have an easier time in life by going "I’m totally wrong!" (laugh)

Yoshitani: You sure would! (laugh) Those who create had better take that tack, to realize that they could be wrong, or mistaken. That's how you reach that moment where you break your own shell. To admit that you’re wrong is a wonderful thing.

Ikuhara: It sure is, there are lots of strong-minded people out there creating and for those eccentrics, they need to come to that realization to be creative. Frankly speaking, they'll never come close to creativity without making that connection. (laugh)

Yoshitani: That’s true! (laugh)

Ikuhara: But even so, they individually have to recognize that they can be wrong and make that connection, or else they can't create anything.

It also means that others can't indulge in your errors, otherwise you won't be able to move forward. And so, for the characters of Utena, the concept of 'Revolution' is bound up in that. This is a tale of a crowd of flawed characters making mistakes in just a brief snippet of time. I feel that's what shines on stage and is so interesting.

Girls’ Revolution being this fantastical phrase found only in manga (Ikuhara)

(Note: Shoujo Kakumei Utena directly translates more accurately to this phrase, 'Girls' Revolution Utena', than 'Revolutionary Girl Utena.' It doesn't specify Utena as the Revolutionary Girl, and this translation has apparently always bothered Ikuhara.)

Yoshitani: This is a bit of a digression, but the word 'Revolution' was a bit traumatizing for me when I was a kid. When I was about twelve years old, I felt this need within me that said I want to change, so I got it in my head to write 'Revolution' as my first word of the New Year and put it up in my room. And when I did, my older brother made fun of me and went "So you’re going to start your own Student Movement, eh?" and really hurt my feelings. (laugh) Since then, 'Revolution' is a word that I have a small allergy to. (laugh)

I already knew it was there from the start in Utena, but since I had a bit of an allergy towards the word I tried to steer away from it during this interview.

Ikuhara: It’s a potent word.

Yoshitani: It truly is. Because I had that experience, I guess it was destiny I got to adapt and direct it. It felt like a chance for me to purge that memory.

It really is a potent word. Even the kanji for 'Revolution' is quite forceful. Did you derive inspiration from that?

Ikuhara: Perhaps. The word 'Revolution' has a starting point like every other word.

Yoshitani: It resonates with you?

Ikuhara: Yes, resonates. Let’s start with the title, Girls’ Revolution. This title is what pulled me in, made me create the details and story to go with it.

Depending on the era, the attraction of the word 'Revolution' differs quite a bit. 'Revolution' as popularized during the Student Movement died along with the movement and became this irrelevant fossil at the end.

In other words, rather than being a word that applied to reality, it was transformed into a word that only appeared in manga. When this title 'Revolutionary Girl Utena/Girls' Revolution Utena' appeared in the 90's era, it was clearly coming from the world of manga. But despite 'Girls' Revolution' being this fantastical phrase found only in manga, rather than being divorced entirely from reality it was an expression of the inner world of the audience.

We used the words "to Revolutionize the World," to represent a Revolution of Girls, or the Revolution of the World of Girls. This is about the heart. In other words, it was a story about the world within them, their inner world. And this inner world from the 90's is connected with the smartphone culture and social network culture of today, and I feel that Utena uncovered something within young people related to that.

Yoshitani: This is becoming quite fascinating.

Ikuhara: I feel that shoujo manga might be the only established medium that can discuss a true revolution of girls, whether it's wearing male clothing or a story about saving a fellow girl. In social media this is very easy to understand and spread. Right now, what we show of ourselves doesn't match up with our inner feelings. One of the distinct traits of social networks is that it allows me to share those feelings. In that sense, I feel Utena is really easy to understand. There's a difference between the world people see and the world inside you, and between the two of those, social networks are closer to the inner world. In a similar sense, it's one of the characteristics of the work that Utena's inner world and the world that everyone sees are running parallel to each other.

Yoshitani: I see. You mean, its time has come at last in this era.

Ikuhara: It's that part that makes the stage particularly interesting for me. Like if I want pure intense action, or seeing moving emotional scenes, movies would be better in my opinion. And why is that? Because I can see a close up of the character. On a stage, you're always looking from a distance.

If you think about the meaning of theatre within all of that, what makes theatre compelling is the connection you feel in the moment between yourself, sitting in your seat right there, and the physical stage before you. I feel like the essence of theatre is those countless moments when I can feel like my own life is being played out through what's happening on the stage.

Yoshitani: Truly. It's because of smartphones and diverse information that society can operate. When I come into contact with the audience, I ask myself why young people of this generation feel so passionate about the stage. But when I think about it, it's that connection as Ikuhara-san said.

Ikuhara: Yes, and the definition of entertainment has changed too. Smartphone-style expressions, presentation, and the viral spread of information has had a big impact on entertainment, and there's no way that entertainment could stay separate from that. Firstly Terayama-san's focus was on 'city plays', he would venture outside or explore the connection of the city and the stage all the time. This is something that the Student Movement attempted to promote previously, and now I get the feeling it's coming back around again.

(Note: 'City plays' are the concept was that the exterior affects and imbues the interior, and were a style of play Shuji Terayama explored as a satire of civic life. They are referenced in Terayama's wiki, and this article, which also explores the importance of Lemmings specifically, which is mentioned below.)

Yoshitani: I watched Lemmings (a Terayama work), and the biggest impact on me was that such an avant-garde work could be performed and staged at City Hall. It really emphasized its direct connection to society by using that location. Things are different now but I thought that was fascinating.

How am I going to present the cake box? (Yoshitani)

— When you were selected to make the musical adaptation, what were you thinking for the production?

Yoshitani: You heard our conversation just now, right? (laugh) It's not just Utena, typically there are things that I have to take into consideration. On stage, cuts between scenes aren't an option when everything must keep moving after starting. To keep going with the flow, how we change the scene is a subject of great importance. I am of the opinion that the process of scene changes has to be enjoyable.

It isn't like anime, as a 'theatre production,' showing the transition itself must be entertaining. We can't have people instantly change costumes, and there's a limit to what you can do with staging, like making someone magically come on from a different part of the stage. When Touga appears, walks from here to there, what are we trying to show about the world. It's vital to show that the world is moving along with him.

We had that conversation a moment ago, it's about that, the significance of what's permitted to be adapted. Showing something that the anime didn't have in it or did have in it, and how to convey that world's striking setting. If we have to do something during the production, then let's make it surprising or entertaining.

If I'm giving a birthday cake someone, the way I would give it them would be very theatrical and musical like. Handing over a cake and going "here you go" just so that they can eat it might make them happy but the process and the timing behind when to give it to them is extremely important. It's the same with an audience, surprise is a given and on the stage we build up to it, but I have to think about how to reveal that surprise. How am I going to present the cake box and will I let them open it themselves?

When we're talking about audience intimacy, I want to weaponize that intimacy. (Yoshitani)

— Previously, you went over the editing of the script and had it read out by the actors. What were your thoughts?

Ikuhara: It was the first script reading, and I wondered how things would go. Saionji’s voice was pretty spot on.

Both: (Laugh)

Yoshitani: It sure was. (laugh) I’m sure it’s the result of his research so he’s imitating him. He had such a Saionji-like vibe.

Ikuhara: As it stands now, how the play is going to go is something we can’t really say for sure.

Years ago, I watched and enjoyed a number of Terayama-san's plays. It's interesting how it sparked my imagination while I watched those works in the audience. Like when they did things such as blotting everything out in darkness. The stage was placed right in the middle like a sumo or boxing ring, and there was a tower about three meters tall. Around that tower were four stages where the actors would perform their acts. That tower in the middle wouldn't allow you to see one of those stages no matter the angle.

To see everything on all the stages, you were forced to watch the play at least two times. (laugh) From the audience's perspective, that would be disappointing. (laugh) So no matter what, only part of the stage was visible and that forced you to speculate what was going on elsewhere. After that I learned to enjoy stage directions that included elements that can't be seen. Being forced to imagine the unseen is fascinating. As well as being forced to watch something twice to understand it. (laugh)

Yoshitani: So you got your inspiration for the shadow puppets from there also?

Ikuhara: I did, I did.

Yoshitani: The fact you can’t see their face.

Ikuhara: That "who is that?" feeling.

Yoshitani: It certainly feels that way. You want to figure out who it is. The keyword there unseen is definitely attention grabbing. I tend to want to show off all sorts of things.

Ikuhara: Theatre was something that had two polarized extremes, though it isn't like that anymore.

But in the past it was something that was compartmentalized. Sort of what students do nowadays in the school auditorium and the gym. There was this distinction between those starting off from using the city stage venue and those going to the prestigious Kinokuniya Hall.

But at such an exalted venue, your characters movement is limited to the stage. Having the characters only go from right to left within the set Terayama constructed would have been extremely dissatisfying.

(Note: Kinokuniya Hall was founded in 1964 and is located in Shinjuku. It's a storied stage for small theatre groups and lends great prestige to those groups that manage to land an opportunity perform there. Its nickname is "the Koshien of new plays" to give you an idea just how prestigious it is. In fact, Terayama also performed there as well: the rock opera Shintokumaru in 1978 especially involved Terayama and J.A. Seazer.)

Either way I felt he was trying to bring in the chaotic sordidness of popular theatre. He wanted to bring as much as of that baseness you can get into the civic theatre halls. I think he was aiming to get that freak show circus feel. It may be good to think of it as part of the experimental nature of that era that they tried to constantly figure out what theatre should do to create entertainment that gets closer to the audience.

Theater's like that expression: You only get one shot. When we go and see it, there's a pleasure in seeing the familiar but there's also this pleasure knowing that we are going to see something that's only going to be seen this one time. So I think there's something to the idea of consciously presenting that as part of the show. You could maybe look at it like a 'happening.' I think you can distinguish between when you either feel disappointed that there was a 'happening' or you feel lucky that there was a 'happening'.

(Note: A 'Happening' is a partly improvised or spontaneous piece of theatrical or other artistic performance, typically involving audience participation.)

Yoshitani: I certainly can appreciate the idea of distilling the finer details until something jumps out but in theatre having a 'happening' out of nowhere is just something I feel that shouldn't be done.

Ikuhara: Some people might still do this but Terayama was known getting the gallery involved in the dialogue. But the gallery's definitely pulling a fast one on everyone. (laugh) There's no way that's real. But you also have normal audience members there too, so there's this feeling of uncertainty.

Yoshitani: So at Cirque du Soleil, they start off by grabbing an audience member and dragging them up on stage, but it's turns out that it was just a set up, a planned part of the show. (laugh) But at first, you wonder could it be real? There's definitely something from the audience you need...

Ikuhara: Intimacy, with the audience.

Yoshitani: That's right. We'll be performing on a stage that quite close to the audience.

Ikuhara: Yes, and I think that's a good thing. It's good to perform at a smaller venue.

Yoshitani: There are many limitations but if we're talking about audience intimacy, I want to weaponize that intimacy. I want to use that closeness. Also, I want to make them feel as though they've witnessed something that they shouldn't have. It's pretty rare to have something like that with a large theatre stage.

Ikuhara: Yes. Terayama's plays were underground theatre, but they also had Revue-like elements. He would create chaos from the combination of two things that absolutely don't belong together, revues, which are entertainment, and angura. That's why it was beautiful, within that he had sudden agitation and played with the audience. It's like, he'll do everything. I really liked that.

(Note: Angura - Reactionary Japanese underground political theatre.)

2.5 Dimensional plays are proper theatre plays. (Ikuhara)

Yoshitani: I feel I've leveled up by having this discussion with you. (laugh) I've got a better and deeper understanding. It’s easier to visualize in my head after this conversation about what has to be shown, and what we would like to show.

Ikuhara: Originally, theatre had an intimate connection with the social conditions and mores of society of that time. But now with the appearance of movies and TV, it’s become detached from that and has become more of a highbrow sort of thing.

I think that it's in the process of becoming entertainment again, and so the point of doing things this way is like we have these social mores, and isn't theater about adopting those cues and linking them to the present? I think that part's fun.

Yoshitani: 2.5 Dimensional plays are extremely popular right now. What’s your take on that?

Ikuhara: Personally speaking I’ve known about how popular it is for years. Twenty years ago, Utena was adapted for the stage at Hakuhinkan. So it was kind of a predecessor of 2.5 dimensional theatre. When I think about that, it’s impressive how it’s managed to evolve. Also I think the attraction of theatre has changed amongst younger people.

(Note: Hakuhinkan Toy Park is a famous Ginza toy store with a long history behind it, it was opened in 1899. Its mystique to kids is similar to say New York City’s FAO Schwarz. It’s a nine story building, with four floors dedicated to toys and a basement dedicated to dolls. It also has a performing arts theatre above the toy store on the 8th floor where the 1997 Utena musical performance mentioned actually took place there, at Hakuhinkan Theatre.)

Yoshitani: I think so too.

Ikuhara: It just goes to show how dedicated we are to the here and now of the circle of our daily life. Going to the theatre means going to some place, to watch something that is more or less unconnected with our usual existence. It doesn't matter one bit to us, if we see it or not. If that’s the case then, it would be better to watch TV or videos at home, but 2.5 dimensional plays do have something to say about our lives. It’s related to the current smartphone and SNS culture we have, in that sense 2.5 Dimensional plays are proper theatre plays. They have a connection to our lives.

Yoshitani: I see, it’s returned back to there.

Ikuhara: Yes, it’s returned. It’s quite exciting to see, but on the other hand, to me that’s only thing that has any value. Naturally I think 2.5 dimensional plays are still in the middle of evolving, so I wonder what will happen to them in the next ten years.

— Please give some parting words to our audience.

Yoshitani: I’d like you to be able to relate to the characters you like. Personally, I’d rather you enjoy the entertainment of theatre more than trying to learn something while watching theatre. Though this isn’t revolutionary, I wanted to make it possible for the audience watching the musical to relieve their troubles and stress by relating to the flawed characters on stage.

What impressed me most about this work was its gorgeous world and its venom. Like poison counteracting another poison*, I want to do everything I can to create a strong impact by having the poison within the audience revealed by watching that fatal poison on stage. I hope you enjoy the show.

* Japanese idiom equivalent to 'fight fire with fire.'

Ikuhara: The joy of the stage is having the physical body of the actor present. That before my eyes, there's actually someone right in front of me. The 2.5 of 2.5 dimensional plays is what it says on the tin: more than 2D but not quite 3D. I'm looking forward to seeing how it turns out on that vast stage. Having Revolutionary Girl Utena adapted without the creator's input is intriguing. I'm very interested in seeing how the audience takes it in and what they understand from it.

— Thank you very much for today.