Historical Perspectives: Zenshinza Company’s Hounen and Shinran

In AD583, Buddhism was introduced from Korea to Japan at a time when Buddhism existed in order for the imperial family and the aristocracy to pray for the peace of the nation and their prosperity.

Hounen (1133-1212) and Shinran (1173-1262) changed Japanese Buddhism to a religion for the common people. Hounen and Shinran, a play produced by the Zenshinza Company, describes the life of these priests and the creation of a modern day following of Jodo (Hounen) that numbers in the six millions, and Jodo Shin (Shinran) that is in the 13 millions. The show started touring Japan last November.

Founded in 1931, the Zenshinza Company has produced many Kabukis, costume plays and modern plays of Japan and abroad, and in 1970, the company started to produce historical plays of Japanese Buddhism. “It was over 30 years ago when I worked as lighting chief of Shinran,” says Yoshio Terada, lighting designer for Hounen and Shinran. “I was the assistant to Eiichi Hara, the lighting designer of that stage. I traveled all over Japan for five years with Shinran.”

Based on the tradition of Kabuki, the scenic design of the production is flat and looks almost two dimensional. The lighting, too, is flat, simple, and clear to recall Japanese paintings, in contrast to a more Western style using perspective. To correspond with the scenic design, Terada uses 12 Vari-Lite VL1000s, 20 ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, and eight Morpheus ColorFaders to supplement the existing rigs in each theatre (most of which consist of Fresnel spots and conventionals for backlighting).

For scenes of religious duels between Buddhist sects, Terada uses a series of lighting effects to mimic burning flames. The largest of these is a battle between Hounen’s father and his enemies at the beginning of the show. The main stage has a large red curtain as a backdrop, and Terada uses lighting in red, with gobos projected on the curtain and enhanced by smoke effects. Stagehands manually poke at the curtain from backstage to add action to the flames. “This effect is on all the versions touring Japan,” says Terada. “We planned to make it easy to set up in short time.

“The audience knows well the life of the founders of the sects,” continues Terada. “I must realize the images on this stage carefully, and the stage design is simple and colorful. To emphasize this design—discussing with the director, Eiji Hashimoto—I wanted to make the stage like an old picture scroll.” The production’s set designer was Masaru Nakajima, who has studied the tradition of the Zenshinza Company.

The final rehearsals were staged in the Zenshinza Theatre in Kichijoji, Tokyo in November, moving directly to Kagosima, in the southern-end part of Japan, for the first performance. “As of July, we had 18 stages in Japan, and we have travelled 2000km,” says Terada.

This fall, Hounen and Shinran heads to the United States for performances in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Honolulu.

Shimpei Odagiri is chief editor of JPL (Journal of Professional Lighting) in Japan and has worked in advertising, TV production, and classical music for many years. Odagiri has translated books into Japanese, including The Movie Business by Jason E. Squire and Il teatro alla moda by Benedetto Marcello.

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