Day 19 – 文楽 Bunraku (Japanese puppet theatre)

Well, very few photos of my own today since I spent over 5 hours at the National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka (but I found images of the plays I saw)…if I had attended the entire program, I would still be there. It started at 11 am,  but I was hanging around a lot earlier, there is a display of artefacts nearby.

I saw two stories, each of which had its unique attractions…the highlights for me was that one of the narrators was the most senior existing narrator in Japan and he read for one of the most difficult scenes,  and one of the shamisen players appeared to be the youngest performer I have seen at an official performance he looked only 15.  In fact, 15 is also the age that young apprentices join with a puppet master and apparently it takes 10 years before you are good enough to move the feet, let along the more important parts of the puppets. I’ve also found some related images on the web.

Bunraku Basics 101

Each puppet is controlled by 3 puppeteers,  the main puppeteer has his left hand inside the upper torso controlling the head and his right hand controls the puppet’s right hand,  the secondary puppeteer controls the left arm,  the tertiary puppeteer controls the feet. The puppeteers are usually completely covered from head to toe in black, unless it is a major character in which case the main puppeteer is visible (as a form of honour to his skill!)

There is usually one narrator that provides ALL the voices but speaks in very classical/stylised way, and one shamisen player that provides the musical accompaniment. Usually a narrator/shamisen pair will work together for their entire career, almost as if they were married. The text of the narration appears in Japanese as surtitles above the stage (I assume because it can be hard to make out the stylised words) and for some reason it was in pre-war orthography (thanks Cockerill-sensei for teaching me pre-war orthography in Japanese 9). Many audience members have the complete text with them as well, which they read along…now that seemed strange to me, surely you want to be looking at the puppets!

Story 1: Musume Kagekiyo Yashima Nikki

A rarely performed play written in 1760. Here I’ll give a brief synopsis and what aspects of the puppetry most amazed me.

Scene 1 (The Hanabishiya Brothel)

A procurer of prostitutes tries to sell a teenage girl Itotaki to a brothel, but they complain the girl has no official papers signed by her parents (many children from poor families agree to a period of servitude to make money for their parents, but the parents must give permission) so are reluctant to buy her…this is her story

Her adopted mother has just died and revealed that she is actually the daughter of Kagekiyo, the last warrior of the defeated Heike clan living in exile as a beggar on an island. He has blinded himself as he does not want to see the world ruled by his enemies.  She has chosen to sell herself into servitude for 10 years to make enough money to find her father and convince him to submit to the new ruler, and in an honourable tradition to enemies who submit he will be forgiven and given money and a new position in recognition of his valour.

This sad story so impresses the brothel owner that he cuts the period of servitude in half, lets her go find her father immediately (under the protection of the procurer) and not only the owners but all the other prostitutes give her many presents for her journey.

The japanese narrator’s voice was very monotone (I also had an English translation  playing in my ear-phones…and a lot of japanese people had modern japanese translations in their ears as well). I had a lot of trouble keeping awake, even though it is 11am, and the guy next to me fell asleep as did about 25% of the audience…though it wasn’t as bad as the Sekisui business plan! Amusingly at one point, one of the puppets goes off to have a nap on the side of the stage, so 25% of the puppets are also asleep. Mostly exposition and not much action,  though the exciting bit is the giving of the presents, because the puppets are handing small items directly to each hand-to-hand…very very lifelike movements.

I was glad for the 5 min toilet break at the end of Scene 1 and even more pleased that you get a different narrator for each scene.

Scene 2 (The Island)

This narrator is much older and sounds much more exciting…the English audio track mentions that more senior performers are used with each successive scene…so I guess the first scene was a warm up with a less experienced narrator??

The blind general is commemorating the one year anniversary of the defeat of his clan and the death of his beloved clan-master, although he is blind he has created a memorial tablet and shrine, which he hides when he hears voices approaching.

It really felt like the puppet was blind, this puppeteer was brilliant and for the next hour and a half I was captivated by this character and the other puppets also reacted to his blindness when moving around him and handing him objects…I genuinely forgot he was a puppet within about 10 mins. At times it was almost as if you could see the puppets chest and lungs heaving with emotion!

Three puppets appear on a moving boat (the girl, the procurer and the ferryman)…that makes 9 puppeteers in total working in unison within close proximity with the special effect of a moving boat. The young girl and her protector see this blind man and correctly assume that he is Kagekiyo, but he is afraid to reveal his identity and says that many blind beggars live on the island and that Kagekiyo died of starvation a year ago.Eventually, the truth comes out  (via some neighbours) and the girl reveals her identity, the father asks about her life.  Rather than reveal the truth, the procurer jumps in and says that she is married to his master, a wealthy farmer, thinking this will please the blind old man, and that they have brought money for him to buy back his honour. He is angry that the daughter of a Heike warrior has stooped so low as to marry a farmer, and is not interested in buying back his honour! He is so angry, that he tries to kill his daughter, who has to flee.

He later learns the truth from a letter the daughter has left with his neighbours. He decides that to save his daughter from servitude, he will renounce his former clan and take a position with his enemies,  it is revealed that his neighbours are actually officials of the new government who have carefully protected this former great, but now blind leader, patiently waiting for him to come to his senses. The final scene takes place aboard a great ship where Kagekiyo throws the memorial tablet to his Heike leader into the sea and sacrifices his own honour to be able to save his daughter from prostitution.The lunch break was 30 mins and I bought this very beautiful obento box for lunch.Story 2: The Tragic Love of Oshun and Denbei (by an unknown playwright)

This performance had lots of action and showed off all of the skills of everyone involved, several narrators were changed, and at one point there were three narrators working together and two shamisen players working together. This play is set in Kyoto…and I have actually been to the places mentioned in the play!

Scene 1 – A dark riverbed off 4th Avenue in Kyoto (near Gion)

Kanzaemon (a wicked Samurai) is in love with Oshun (a courtesan) but she is in love with Dembei (an honest merchant). Kanzaemon tries to ruin Dembei by stealing a precious tea-pot which he will return for huge amounts of money and ritual humiliation…Dembei reluctantly agrees…Kanzaemon removes his muddy sandals and wipes his dirty feet on Dembei’s face and kimono…(it is amazing to see and feel that one puppet is brutalising and humiliating another puppet…again you forget that they are puppets) But later Kanzaemon breaks the deal and smashes the teapot to the ground, Dembei in his rage attacks back and ends up killing the wicked Kanzaemon…unfortunately kiling a samurai is a crime and Dembei must either hide for the rest of his life or commit ritual suicide. Oshun has promised to spend their lives together, so she is also obligated now to commit suicide.

The best part of this scene was the sword fight and the rubbing of dirty feet on face…but can’t find any good images of either!

Scene 2 (Oshun’s Home and Family)

Oshun’s mother is blind and teaches the shamisen.  A young girl arrives for a lesson. The teacher and student play a duet which is a tragic story of a love suicide (thus mirroring the story of the whole play)
There are two shamisen players and each puppet shamisen player is perfectly synchronised with the sounds and movements of the corresponding real shamisen player, stroke by stroke!!!!…recall each puppet is controlled by three people, so a total of 8 humans have to act in perfect concert to make this scene work…this is also part of the act that only the greatest narrators are allowed to perform.

Later Oshun’s brother Yojiro returns home and prepares a meal and medicine for his blind mother.

The entire pretext of the meal is to show off the skills of the puppeteers…it really looks like Yojiro is cooking, and later when he is eating you can almost see the food going down his throat

Yojiro is illiterate and earns a living by performing shows with his trained monkeys.(Yes, there are little bunraku puppets of his monkeys!) When Oshun comes home, her brother and mother convince her to write a letter breaking off her relationship with the now ruined merchant,  but the mother is blind, the brother is illiterate, so what she is actually writing is a suicide note.

By the way, you see her brother carefully prepare the inkstone and parchment for the letter, and it looks like she is genuinely writing a letter using the finest calligraphy..AWESOME!

Dembei arrives in the middle of the night…to cut a long story short, there is a whole comedy of errors involving the mother’s blindness and the brother’s illiterateness! Later, the family convince the young couple to run  away and live in the mountains, in the final scene Yojiro gives the young couple the only thing he knows how to do, a special performance by his trained monkeys…

The two monkeys perform a play about a young couple in love who must commit suicide (of course, what else would a play within a play be about)…the monkeys behave just like real monkeys and sometimes make mistakes and need to be scolded by Yujiro…even the monkeys are handing small objects back and forth!  Because the monkeys are quite small the are both operated by one puppeteer using one hand for each…but the monkeys are doing quite elaborate and distinct things
I almost decided to stay for the afternoon performance as well…maybe another time!

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2 Responses to Day 19 – 文楽 Bunraku (Japanese puppet theatre)

  1. Maria says:

    Hello 🙂 do you happen to know someone who really do the Bunraku? Maybe, a shamisen player, narrator, puppeteer or a teacher?

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