Masks, and behind them faces like masks; operatic extremes of emotion; a dreamlike journey through a numinous underworld; a tale with the graceful momentum of a Kurosawa film; yes, Yukio Ninagawa's back in town. Shintoku-Maru, which opens on Wednesday at the Barbican, is a quintessential product from this Japanese master: a fable about love, revenge, and lust, with a labyrinthine plot and the emotional kick of Greek tragedy. But this is a work which dwells in the old Japan which lives unquenchably on beneath metropolitan Japan's Westernised veneer.
And it picks up where his cycle of masterpieces left off. The Macbeth with which he galvanised Edinburgh in 1986 was an exquisite ritual observed by two old crones at the entrance to a Shinto shrine. The Medea with which he returned was a ferociously-drilled choral dance culminating in one single unforgettable image, as the deranged queen floated in the heavens brandishing a child's severed head in each hand. His Tokyo staging of Tango at the End of Winter opened with a cinema-full of students being gunned down, the stalls awash with blood.
His heart may be with the stylised landscapes and stereotyped characters of Noh theatre, but the East-West collision is a constant in his work. His samurai-style Macbeth expired with quiet decorum, while cherry blossom fell like snow, and choirboys sang Faure's Requiem. The male actor in the title role in Medea glared out from a mask of sequins, crystal pendants, and skeins of silk, while a funeral march by Handel was repeated at ever- intensifying volume. Ninagawa is mesmerised by the challenge of fusing East an West on stage.
"Only when I have done that can I grasp the whole world," he says with a nervous blink. From a man whose hand crumples like a little bird when you shake it, such overarching ambition sounds strange, but the evidnce of the work supports it as does his tendency to trawl for talent far beyond his native shores. Acting in Japan, he says, has become corrupted by digital culture. "Young people in Japan are refusing to grow up, their only interest is themselves. In the theatre, the result is a breed of brilliant monologuists who can't relate to anyone else on stage." The company he's bringing this week are all Japanese, but they are people he has spotted and trained. He himself started as an actor - after failing to get into art school - and found his metier when he set up his own company on the crest of the radical Sixties' wave.
His odyssey since has left politics far behind. He talks about his mid- life crisis, and the scare he got when stress caused him to start vomiting blood. He animatedly discusses his phobias, which indicate an aestheticism carried to hilarious extremes: a loathing for sticky Japanese rice (`each grain has had the life crushed out of it') and the sight of mincemeat coming out of a grinder. The prospect of meeting new people - in auditions, or press interviews - keeps him awake at night with anxiety.
He's eccentric in a wonderfully consistent way. His refusal to speak a word of English - though he understands a lot - is his way of keeping people like me at a safe distance. He wears two watches, one showing London time, the other the time in Tokyo. Creating a new work, he has a standard procedure. "I read the text over and over, then I lie down and think. Three days later an idea may surface."
When I ask him about the ultimate goal of his art, there is a long, awkward pause, then an equally awkward utterance. "To see transparent light. I want to see the light ahead of me, and I hope my work will help me to it." He doesn't make the connection, but it's glaring all the same: this is the desire, expressed in almost identical words, that drives the protagonists of Ibsen's last play, When We Dead Awaken, to the top of the mountain, where they gladly meet their deaths.
`Shintoku-Maru' opens at the Barbican, London EC2 tomorrow for six performances (0171-638 8891).