Simanaitis Says

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THIS BOOK, PUBLISHED in 1985, is three decades old, but its stage and television set designs seem as fresh as today’s. Plus, from a bibliophilic point of view, it’s simply a beautifully executed art book that hopped out of my bookcase recently and brings me as much pleasure now as it did when I found it in the Kanda district of Tokyo back in the 1990s. Here are some tidbits.


Stage & Television Design of Japan II 1979–1983, compiled by Japan Stage & Television Designers Association, Keishosha Publishing, 1985.

Japanese puppetry, Bunraku, has traditions dating back to the late 1600s. Its plots are often the same as Kabuki’s, with one-third-scale characters operated by puppeteers dressed in black (and therefore invisible).


Botan-dōrō, puppets by Takeshi Hoshino. This and other images from Stage & Television Design of Japan II 1979–1983..

Botan-dōrō is a particularly scary tale of making love with a ghost. There’s a theatrical superstition that actors playing the ghostly roles in Botan-dōrō come to harm. In fact, this dates from a 1919 Imperial Theater production, when actresses playing the lead and her maid fell sick and died within a week of each other.

No puppets were injured in the Hoshino production.

Japan is renowned for its 11 cat islands. These are typically remote locales where cats were introduced by fishermen to control the mice population. Tashirojima, just north of Fukushima off Japan’s east coast, is also known as Nekojima, literally Cat Island. Its cat population outnumbers its mostly elderly folk by a factor of six.


Eleven Cats, a production by artist Toyomi Kanō.

A Japanese kids book, 11 Piki no Neko, 11 Hungry Cats, came out in 1967, and fostered a bunch of anime, puppet and stage spinoffs. My research yielded no direct connection, but perhaps Kanō’s Eleven Cats is another. For the record, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats had its first performance in London in 1981.

Rashōmon, Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 movie drama initially had mixed reviews among Japanese film critics. On the other hand, its tale of truth, reality and contradiction has achieved worldwide acclaim.


Rashōmon set designs by Takehisa Magofuku.

Takehisa Magofuku has worked as a designer at NHK, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation, that country’s national public broadcasting service. Expressive realism is recognized as a feature of his stage design.

Classical Western theater is popular in Japan, with local as well as visiting international opera productions.


Puccini’s Tosca. Below it at left, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro; to its right, Puccini’s La Bohème. Set designs by Senkichi Uchiyama.

Senkichi Uchiyama’s set designs have appeared at the Dance and Drama Theatre in Nagoya. The three shown here would not look out of place in any of the world’s great opera houses.

Japanese horse operas are popular TV fare, with Ieyasu Tokugawa and his court providing lots of samurai action.


Ieyasu Tokugawa TV sets by Masaichi Naitō, Minoru Makita and Fumiaki Ōshika.

These Tokugawa Era sets remind me of Kabuki stage settings made more elaborate for TV audiences. Missing are the musicians hidden behind screens.


Sketches for a collection of TV sets used on Shūhei Kido, Surgeon, by Teisuke Shiiba.

I can get lost in admiring elements of this book. Teisuke Shiiba’s sketches for a TV drama, for example, grow from a photograph of a street scene.


The 10th Japan Popular Song Awards, TV set design by Michiya Okada.

Even without being there, I know the sound levels would be too high for the likes of me. I admire the elaborate venue, though. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2016

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