Last night, I attended a performance of the Bunraku National Puppet Theater of Japan in Little Tokyo at the Aratani Theater. It was nothing short of amazing.
Bunraku is one of the three traditional theater artforms of Japan, along with Kabuki and Noh. Having actually never seen any of the three, I jumped at this chance, shelled out $60.00 for a good seat and was not disappointed. It was the first time the National Puppet Theater of Japan had come to the US in nearly two decades.
It’s a unique type of puppetry unlike anything you’d usually imagine. Essentially, the puppets—approximately 3 feet tall—are worked by three men who are in plain view the entire time, a master puppeteer and two assistants covered with black hoods. The story is told from the side of the stage by a chanter with music provided by a shamisen player. The chanter has to provide not only narration, but the voices of all the characters as well. The shamisen player’s technique and music create the moods and sound effects (like crying, footsteps running, and so forth).
The puppets themselves are quite amazing, especially the heads, worked by the master puppeteer’s left hand. Male puppet heads have articulated features like mouths, eyes and eyebrows and it’s incredible the emotion and life that can be given with only those simple features. Gestures, costume changes, moving feet, using items on stage are all handled by the three puppeteers working their parts of the puppet and essentially “ad-libbing” the movements in realtime. After watching, spellbound, the puppeteers almost disappeared as I became absorbed with the puppets themselves while taking in the story as recited by the chanter.
The show’s first half had a short piece entitled Oshichi’s Burning Love—The Fire Watch Tower
about a maiden who raises the town’s fire alarm so that the gates to the city will be opened and she can return a treasured heirloom to her lover who, having lost it, is under penalty of death. Of course, raising a false fire alarm is also punishable by death and she therefore sacrifices her own life for his. It was very short, but fascinating—especially how they had her climb the ladder to the top of the tower.
This was followed by perhaps the best part of the performance. Each of the players in Bunraku—chanter, shamisen and puppeteer—each demonstrated and talked about what they did. The chanter spoke about 100 MPH and I was trying really hard to understand—fortunately there was a translator. The shamisen demonstrated all the different sounds and techniques he could produce from just his single instrument. The most fascinating, though, was the puppeteer who showed all the parts of the puppet and all the different techniques and movements used to let the puppets “act”. It was extremely interesting and contributed so much to the enjoyment of the final performance.
That final story was really moving. Miracle at the Tsubosaka Kannon Temple—Sawaichi’s House and the Mountain tells the story of blind Sawaichi and his faithful wife Osato. He hears her slipping out of the house every morning, and thinks that since he’s blind and of no use, she’s being unfaithful to him. She explains that she faithfully prays to the Kannon every morning to ask the goddess to restore her husband’s sight. After sorting out that misunderstanding, Sawaichi wants to go to the temple at the top of the mountain to pray to the goddess himself, and the couple make their way there. Once arrived, Sawaichi resolves to remain for a three-day fasting vigil, so Osato returns home to get a few things for them. Sawaichi decides he’s been too much of an untrusting burden on his wife and throws himself off the cliff to his death. Osato—sensing something bad has happened through a terrible premonition—returns to see her husband’s cane and shoes left behind, and his lifeless body at the bottom of the ravine. In her despair, she too jumps from the cliff so they will be together.
Riveting stuff, huh?
But, the goddess Kannon, having heard Osato’s faithful prayers takes pity on them and restores them back to life—complete with Sawaichi’s eyesight! All the tension and sadness fortunately takes a more lighthearted tone when Sawaichi—seeing his wife for the first time ever—asks anata wa dare desu ka? (Excuse me, but who are you?) They then rejoice and exhort the audience to believe in the goodness of the goddess Kannon and the great Buddha and resolve to go off on a pilgrimage to “spread the word”, as it were.
I absolutely could not believe how enthralling it was and how emotionally involved I got with the story and characters. It was an experience I will treasure and not soon forget.
For more information, check out Bunraku on Wikipedia.