Yūkichi Matsumoto, the head of Osaka-based theatre company Ishinha, has died at the age of 69.
Born in 1946 in Kumamoto, Kyushu, Matsumoto studied visual art at Osaka Kyoiku University and stayed in the city to form Nihon Ishinha (literally, Japan Restoration Faction) in 1970. He eventually assumed full writing and directing duties on all its productions. It changed its name to Ishinha in 1987.
His acclaimed work with the company became popular for its invention from 1991 of “Jan-Jan Opera”, an Osaka dialect-inspired chant of rhythmical fragments combined with ensemble movement, as well as bravado open-air stagings at remarkable locations. The company also developed a distinctive visual style influenced by mime and circus clowns: the large casts perform in white make-up, moving in unison.
For the outdoor performances, the company also often worked with musicians and others to build temporary wooden food stalls at the locations, forming an itinerant market. Regular collaborators include guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi, who has provided the music for many productions, and the artist Gaku Azuma, who creates arresting posters for the company.
Although the company was capable of organising its own ambitious stagings in remote locations, it also worked with established festivals. Ishinha twice presented work at Festival/Tokyo (in 2009 and 2011). Since 2000, Ishinha has toured internationally to Australia, Britain, Mexico, Brazil, and beyond. It staged Twilight last September in Soni, a mountain village in Nara, and a new work is scheduled for in Nara City this autumn, though Matsumoto’s passing may prevent this from happening.
Outside his work with Ishinha, Matsumoto also directed plays by the likes of Shūji Terayama as well as living dramatists. He directed Portal by Shinichirō Hayashi at Kyoto Experiment this spring, and Masataka Matsuda’s Fukushima-themed play Water Like Stone for the Festival/Tokyo 2013.
He was the recipient of many awards and honours, most recently the Osaka Culture Prize in 2015.
News of Matsumoto’s passing was broken by the Asahi Shimbun, though no details were available at time of writing. Ishina has yet to publish an official comment. Following the death of Yukio Ninagawa in May, Matsumoto is the second high-profile figure in the Japanese theatre world to pass away this year.
What next for Ishinha? The company has an established “brand” but was led exclusively by Matsumoto, a top-down structure typical of Japanese troupes. There isn’t really anyone to replace Matsumoto, meaning his loss will be felt gravely in the Kansai theatre community.
On a personal note, Ishinha was one of the first Japanese theatre I saw when I lived in Osaka. It staged nostalgia, which was part of a trilogy exploring twentieth-century emigration and travel, at a special venue in Osaka Castle Park in 2007, and I then saw the same piece the following year at a large proscenium arch theatre in Kyoto. The third time I saw Ishinha was on the shore of Lake Biwa, with the performance taking place partly in the water of Japan’s largest lake. By then I had moved to Tokyo, but I travelled back especially to see the performance.