The new production of Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures presented by the Roundabout Theatre at Studio 54 allowed costume designer Junko Koshino to revert back to her childhood where her family once ran a kimono shop. “Since I have been working in both the traditional Japanese kimono world and the world of international contemporary design, I didn't have difficulty in designing the costumes, which represented Japan's history over the past 150 years,” she says. While it was a challenge to create the designs for the emperor, shoguns, and Japanese Lords, the designer added that she had seen “lots of Kabuki and historical TV programs, so I did know what I was supposed to be doing.”
Pacific Overtures is all about traditions, or, more accurately, how traditions change due to outside influences. In this case, the outside influences are the US, the Netherlands, France, England, Russia, and other Western countries arriving in Japan in order to establish trade in the 1850s. “It interested me to express the two completely different cultures using costumes: the West, which was a strange culture to the Japanese, and the Japanese, who were very surprised to see the Westerners for the first time,” Koshino explains. At that time there was a long seclusion in Japan for 250 years — no one could enter and no one could leave. So when the Americans arrived, Japan was a very beautiful and orderly society, yet very closed.
As the Westerners encroached on Japan, it was important for the Japanese characters to show the bravery and rationality of Samurai, and that included educating the actors on exactly how to wear the costumes. “The act of firmly tying the obi (belt) around their waists adds the ‘Japanese spirits’ to the characters and is very important,” Koshino says. “We had the actors learn how to wear the kimonos since they had to put them on onstage and there are very specific methods of putting on a kimono. On the contrary, Western clothes are pretty much self-explanatory.” As part of the kimono ensemble, the actors were also taught how to wear the kamishimo, a sleeveless, vest-like garment, and the hakama, pleated, wide-legged trousers.
Koshino used sensitive material such as silk and cotton for Japanese costumes, and wool and stretchable material for Western costumes, which were easy to move in and could be made into a variety of shapes. Silks and cottons were also used in abundance, but the class of the Japanese characters also determined the type of material they wore. “For the upper class, I used elaborately woven and dyed materials,” she says, “especially for the storyteller (B.D. Wong, who narrates the show and takes on several roles), whom I imagined as representing Japan. His costume was made of real silk woven in the Nishijin style.” Nishijin weaving has been practiced for over 1,200 years and is known for its yarn dyeing techniques and intricate weave patterns, usually based on nature motifs. The townspeople were clad in cotton, a simpler textile, to represent their class difference from the noblemen. Cotton was also used because it holds the shape of the costumes better.
Like the materials used for the Japanese robes and the Western military uniforms, Koshino was very conscious of the color she selected, not only as it related to the characters but also to the cypress wood used throughout the set. “Since color gives the audience its first impression, I wanted to express the noble beauty of the Lords and the Shoguns with noble colors, which had to look elegant on the Noh-like stage,” she says. “I used mostly traditional Japanese colors in the most gentle and chic way. I combined misty, fresh, elegant, and sheer, yet deep, colors. For crowds I used dark colors that would not show stains or dirt. For townspeople, I used strong and intense colors, which had a great impact. For the battling swordsmen, I used sharp black and white.”
This is the fourth incarnation of Pacific Overtures directed by Amon Miyomoto. The first was presented in the director's native Japan in 2002 at the New National Theatre in Tokyo followed by performances at both the Lincoln Center Festival and at the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Festival. The current Roundabout production is the first of Miyomoto's stagings to be sung in English rather than Japanese. It is also the first time the show has been on Broadway since it premiered in 1976.