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Experience Old Japan Through Bunraku Theatre

Last week I went to see Bunraku for the first time! Bunraku is traditional Japanese puppet theater that started in Osaka. The Bunraku of today has been the same since the Edo Period (1603-1867).

Bunraku puppets are so large that it takes three puppeteers to work them: the main puppeteer who works the right arm and the head; the leg puppeteer; and the left arm puppeteer. With much rigorous training and experience, the three puppeteers work together without speaking and only use the slightest of cues to signal one another. It was truly impressive to watch.

The Bunraku stage includes a large portion dedicated to the puppets, but it also has a side stage for the narrator and shamisen (Japanese traditional guitar) player. The narrator tells the story in a chanting, rhythmic tone, and speaks each characters’ lines, while the shamisen player strums the guitar to provide melodic accompaniment to the story. Because each Bunraku play is so long (usually an hour and a half), one narrator and one shamisen player cannot possibly perform throughout the whole thing. So the side stage turns on a turntable, bringing out fresh narrators and shamisen players! I liked some of the narrators better than others; one guy got so into it, he yelled and screamed until his face got red! He was so spectacular that I looked away from the puppets and instead looked at him!

The first “act” was a short 15-minute dance performance with two 3-man puppets. It’s called “Ninin Sanbasou,” and it depicts two priests performing an agricultural blessing ceremony to the gods for a good harvest. The dance was very intricate; each puppet held a fan and a stick of golden jingle bells. About halfway through the dance, as one puppet turned his back to the audience, the other puppet walked over to the corner of the stage, “sat” down, and took a little break. It was complete with wiping the sweat off his forehead and fanning the back of his neck with the ceremonial fan. I wasn’t expecting comedy, so I laughed out loud! The other puppet turned around and noticed his buddy taking a break; he got angry and a short “Get up!” “No, I’m tired.” “Get up now!” type of exchange ensued with just body language. It was so funny! They finished their ceremony, and therefore, their performance. I could watch it again, no problem.

In between this short performance and the main show, the theater gave an “Introduction to Bunraku” presentation. They introduced the narrator, the shamisen player, and the puppeteers, and their respective jobs and how it all comes together to create “Bunraku.” It was very educational, but if you didn’t speak Japanese you would have no clue what was going on. Luckily, I understood the majority of what they said, so I enjoyed the explanation.

SUMMARY (-ish)

After intermission, the real play began. It was a story of two lovers, Isonojou and Kotoura, who needed to get back to their home prefecture, but because Isonojou had committed a crime (we’re not sure what crime, cause that’s a different play) they’re in hiding at an old man’s house. The old man, Sanpu, houses the two and keeps them safe. Then, Isonojou’s friend’s wife, Otatsu, visits out of the blue to tell Sanpu that she’s heading back to her home prefecture of Wakayama. Wakayama just so happens to be Isonojou’s home prefecture as well. Otatsu offers to take him with her, but Sanpu declines, saying that she’s too beautiful to be left in charge of a young, healthy man. What happened next was like straight out of a soap opera: Otatsu, feeling put out by Sanpu’s distrust, decides to take a hot iron rod to her face. That’s right, a hot iron rod pressed against the right side of her face. It was all so melodramatic; I unconsciously let out a puff of laughter! Sanpu was so moved by her courage to “throw away her beauty” that he allows her to take Isonojou home to Wakayama.

After Sanpu sees Otatsu and Isonojou off, Otatsu’s father comes to the house. He says that Otatsu’s husband and Isonojou’s friend, Danshichi, told him to take Kotoura (Isonojou’s lover) to a safe house for a few days until he can bring her to Wakayama. Sanpu believes him and hands Kotoura over. Not long after, Danshichi comes to the house (I know…just how many times are people gonna visit this guy’s house?!). Sanpu tells him that Kotoura is safe with his father-in-law and on the way to the safe house. Danshichi tells him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It becomes clear that Danshichi’s father-in-law is up to no good, so Danshichi runs after them. An extremely long fight scene ensues. And by “extremely long” I mean 20 minutes long. At first it’s very interesting, because we realize that the father-in-law is selling Kotoura to some evil guy who wants her for himself. Danshichi convinces him to return Kotoura for 30 dollars. Once the father-in-law realizes Danshichi lied about the money, he hits him upon the head causing him to bleed. Danshichi is a samurai, so that kind of disrespect is unacceptable…and he ends up killing his father-in-law.

It was definitely a melodramatic storyline, but it represents an exaggerated account of actual events of the time. The narrator and shamisen player’s technique, and the mastery of the puppeteers made it a fabulous performance. I loved it so much I went back to see it a second time! Bunraku makes for a wonderful cultural and artistic learning experience. I highly recommend those who visit Japan to go see it! It’s uniquely Japanese, and uniquely Osakan!

© 2016 by That Voice in my Head - Meagan Finlay

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