Out of period but worth it - bunraku came to Berkeley
"Bunraku, Japan's centuries-old form of puppet theater, combines three
distinct and highly refined artistic disciplines: joruri, or ballad
narration, shamisen instrumental music, and ningyo tsukai, or the art
of puppet manipulation. Each of these skills demands years of intense
training (it is said to take at least 25 years to attain the status of
omozukai, the main puppet master). But the true magic of bunraku is
revealed when the three independent components of movement, words, and
music come togetherit is this awe-inspiring ensemble work that evokes
such deep emotion and wonder. This is extraordinary, multidimensional
performance, displaying complexities not found in any other theater in
the world. In a major cultural event, Japan's foremost exponent of
this singular living art forma company that includes four "Living
National Treasures"visits the United States for the first time since
Datemusumune Koi no Higanoko - Hinomi Yagura no Dan (Oshishi's Burning
Love - The Fire Watchtower) by Suga Sensuke, Matsuda Wakichi and
Wakatake Fuemi from 1775.
Tayu (chanters): Toyotake Rosetayu and Takemoto Aikodayu
Shamisen: Toyosawa Tomisuke, Takezawa Dango, Toyosawa Ryouji
Master puppeteer: Yoshida Seizaburo (and unnamed assistants)
Sixteen year old Oshichi has fallen in love with a handsome samurai
named Kichisaburo who has lost a treasured heirloom sword and is
sentenced to die. She recovers it but is unable to leave the city
because of the curfew. Knowing the penalty is death, she climbs the
fire tower to ring a false alarm in a desperate effort to reach him.
(Crappy resolution video from Youtube of Oshichi climbing the ladder.)
"She races off on her final journey - and into legend!"
Tsubosaka Kannon Reigenki - Saiwachi Uchi Yori Yama (Miracle at the
Tsubosaka Kannon Temple - Sawaichi's House and the Mountain)
Tayu: Takemoto Tsukomadayu
Shamisen: Takezawa Danshichi, Takezawa Dango
Puppeteers: Yoshida Kazuo (performing Osato), Yoshida Tamame
Blinded by disease, Sawaichi notices his wife slips out of the house
every night before dawn and accuses her of meeting a lover. She
explains that she visits the temple daily to pray to Kannon, Goddess
of Mercy to restore his sight. Moved by her devotion, Sawaichi agrees
to go with her to pray and fast. Osato leaves him at the shrine to run
home for a few things. Sawaichi, believing he is too great a burden on
his wife, throws himself from the cliff in her absence. Osato returns,
sensing something amiss, sees Sawaichi's abandoned staff and zori and
then looks down to see his body in the gorge. In despair, she leaps to
her death. Moved by the devotion of the pair, Kannon the Merciful
brings them back to life and restores Sawaichi's sight. The play ends
with the couple singing and dancing with joy and praise of Kannon.
Within moments the presence of the puppeteers became secondary and I
was drawn into the action. Young Oshichi's frantic resolution and
desperate climb up an icy ladder in the snow was utterly magical.
I gazed in delight as Osato "threaded" a needle and sewed kimono,
biting thread with a dainty jerk of her head. I sighed in awe as her
blind husband played a shamisen - his hand movements in perfect synch
with the live musician seated at the side of the stage. By the time
Sawaichi removed his zori and crawled along the cliff side feeling for
the edge, my heart was with them.
Texts from the plays in English can be found here:
Between the two plays, members of the company presented a
demonstration of their performance techniques through a translator.
Toyotake Rosutayu, the tayu, an animated young man who talked with his
hands a lot, demonstrated the vocal styles he employs to present the
narration and character dialogue. These characterizations are stylized
stereotypes that would be familiar to Japanese theatregoers, passed on
by oral tradition, not unlike those used by male kabuki actors
portraying female characters, for example. Or Frank Oz. Ms. Piggy does
not really sound like a female, but we understand that she is because
of the way Oz voices her.
Despite the fact that I do not speak Japanese, I actually understood a
bit of shamisen player Toyosawa Tomisuke's demo, between gestures, a
few Japanese words I DO know and the effects he produced while playing.
And then Yoshida Kazuo, the puppet master, came out. Armed at first
with only a male puppet head, he showed how simple leverage with
string and levers mounted in the puppet's bamboo neck manipulated
movement of the head. Male puppets have articulation to move eyes and
eyebrows, while female puppets do not. The joints in the wood which
permit the articulated faces of the male characters would spoil their
beauty. We got to see the masters operate puppets with their
assistants. The master operates the head and right arm of the puppet,
one man operates the left arm and a third moves the feet (for male
puppets) or kimono skirts (for females). To allow the foot puppeteer
to work more easily, the master wears very high geta, the ha (teeth)
wrapped with straw.
It was absolutely amazing.
Saionji no Hanae
- Ah! I actually had a very lucky day on Friday and got to see the long
version of the demo at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco! It was
It's a pretty unbelievable story: In town for three days for a
wedding, I'd planned on spending Friday wandering around the tourist
crap at Fisherman's Wharf, but it was raining. Really, really
raining, with water pouring out of the sky - which never happens in
San Francisco unless it's winter. So the beau and I decided to go to
a museum. We picked the Asian art museum over MOMA for really no
reason at all. We figured out from our tourist map where the bus is,
and when we walked out there was a bus waiting there. We got to the
museum at about 10 minutes to 2:00, and while paying the entry fee I
happened to read a sign on the front desk about a bunraku demo that's
going on at 2. So I said, hey, we could go to that. And we did. It
The troupe is the national Bunraku troupe of Japan, and they came to
the Bay area because Kyoto and San Francisco (or possibly Berkeley)
are sister cities. They went into a lot of detail about each job, the
narrator and musician and the different puppeteers, and they took
questions. They demonstrated a few scenes from the plays, and also
showed an excerpt from a DVD.
There was one scene from the DVD where a man (puppet) comes in from
outdoors, takes his scarf off his head, and ties it around his neck.
You could see that the puppeteers' hands were tying the knot, with the
puppet's hands attached by a finger ring, but the illusion was very
good. It wasn't until later that I realized the hands were from two
Some things I learned:
- The foot man studies about 10 years to master feet before he can
move on to another job. He gets to perform earlier in his studies,
though. I think this is the entry level position.
- The female dolls typically have no legs or feet, because they
wouldn't show under their clothing. The foot man has to make them
with his arms.
- Although the female dolls don't have articulated faces, they do have
a tiny pin in their mouths that is used to catch their sleeves in
moments of great emotion. The puppeteer demonstrated a few spiffy
head gestures that dislodge the sleeve without making it look like
you're picking the sleeve up off a pin.
I also thought it was cool how they were performing the puppets
most of the time they were on stage. They brought out the husband and
wife dolls to talk about how they worked them, but they actually
walked the dolls onto stage and had them sit down, and the wife
arranged her blind husband's clothing for him just right....
Though I am wondering now how the Japanese ever talked about courtship
before they borrowed the word "date" because whenever they talked
about lovers meeting that's the word they used!
At any rate, it was a great presentation and we were so lucky to
happen upon it. It was worth having only an hour in the rest of the
museum (we blew through the Japan wing, one temporary exhibit, and the
We later apologized to our friends who were getting married, because
the rain Friday had them very nervous about their outdoor reception
Saturday (but actually Saturday was gorgeous). The rain must have
been arranged just for us.