Arts & Culture / Mosaic / March 6, 2008

A puppet show for grown-ups

Most Americans will recall puppet theatre from early school days or, for the more cultured crowd, a European marionette performance, but Bunraku is something else entirely. This past Friday the world’s only non-Japanese Bunraku troupe, the Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe, brought this exquisite Japanese art form to Knox College.

Bunraku, also known as “ningyo joruri,” is the traditional Japanese puppet theatre of Osaka. The puppets themselves are life-like, but at half life-sized.

Their clothing is ornate and embroidered, made by members of the troupe, and each is manipulated by three black-robed and masked puppeteers. Each puppeteer maneuvers around the puppet, moving carefully so as not to block the audience’s view. The combination of dance, mime, music and vocals creates a multidimensional theatre many Americans find perplexing.

Performed entirely in Japanese, the Bunraku Bay Troupe used recordings of music and vocals. Normally such sounds are produced live, but due to the volunteer nature of the group, accommodations were made. One of the recordings, however, was of troupe member Alison Chen playing the samisen, a long-necked fretless lute, and singing.

In Bunraku, the puppets derive their life energy, from the puppeteers surrounding them like three black storm clouds. The impassive black masks provide a foil for the expressive nature of the puppets which is represented not in the face, but in the movement of the puppet. Emotion comes from manipulation of the body. The puppeteers are dancing directors, coaxing their actors on stage.

Performing both classic and domestic pieces, the Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe began in the traditional manner, with Kotobuki Shiki Sanbaso. A Sanbaso is an opener meant to cleanse the stage and bring luck and fortune to the audience members. Two puppets robed in gold and red with large golden hats throw salt onto the stage and danced energetically.

While one puppet is clearly young, the other is old and the jerking movements and heavy breathing motions demonstrate how tiring such a dance is. During the dance, the puppets mimicked Japanese symbols commonly associated with felicity. Holding the fan to their backs and the bells to their nose, they strut around like a crane. Holding the bells under the fan the puppets represent a turtle, and reversed a bag of seeds to spread good luck.

“It’s tough being a puppet,” said troupe director Martin Holman, encouraging the audience before the show to clap for the puppets if their performance flagged.

As part of the show, the puppets interacted directly with the audience, spreading good luck by vigorously shaking bells over children’s heads and hugging college students. Unlike story performances, the emphasis of the Sanbaso is on synchronized movement of the two puppets. As they danced, the tempo increased, but the two puppets stayed in precise tandem. With six puppeteers on stage the Bunraku Bay troupe’s timing and placement was nigh perfect, making the feat seem all the more incredible.

Because of the language barrier, the audience relies on a printed synopsis of the stories performed to tell them what is going on. The details of emotion, however, are taken from the mood the music generates and the movements of the puppets. The imagination is also asked to stretch its muscles. Because of the size of the stage and the number of performances, the set for all three stories is onstage the whole time.

“You don’t see the boat. There is no boat,” said a laughing Martin Holman, waving his arm through the air as though using mental powers to convince the audience.

A large bell tower, river and boat were present on the stage at all times, but the puppets easily drew attention away from them. The troupe’s second performance, Yaoya Oshichi, one of the more popular plays in Japan, used the bell tower, placed center stage. Oshichi tells the story of the daughter of a greengrocer who has fallen in love with a doomed warrior. The lover having failed in his quest to obtain an ancestral sword, he must die. Unknown to this young warrior, Oshichi has procured the sword but is locked out of the city. Seeing a fire tower, Oshichi must decide whether to ring the alarm and open the gates, risking punishment of death, or leave her love to die.

The puppeteers traverse down the steps to the stage, throwing Oshichi’s head up and down in a headbanging explosion of grief. Oshichi takes the life-sized sword, unsheathes it and re-sheathes it, demonstrating the true skill of the puppeteers. The graceful, sweeping motions exhibited by Oshichi portray her delicate nature while the expressive closing of her eyes and the hand held against her face extend her woeful plight to the audience.

Finally deciding to climb the tower, the puppeteers manage to arrange her against the ladder, and trickle behind the tower one by one. All the puppeteers are out of sight when the puppet begins to climb up the ladder, apparently unaided. While the puppeteers merely hid themselves inside the tower, the skill it takes to manipulate such a puppet in close quarters, backwards, while still maintaining the entire illusion right down to the articulated fingers, is incredible.

The final play calls for the removal of the bell tower and the audience focuses on the last remaining set. Stage right and up is home to a far dock, while stage left and down shows us a river and a boat, giving the impression of distance and depth. Hidakagawa Iriaizakura tells the story of a woman in love with a man who detests her. The young man is forced to visit her house to contact her father on a business matter, but sneaks away during the night to avoid the young maiden. She pursues him, but is stopped at a river where the man has paid the boatman to prevent her crossing. When the boatman tires of her requests, he taunts her with her quarry’s supposed infidelities, causing her to become a demon, cross the river, and kill him.

This scene, taken from perhaps the most popular play in Japan, requires over-the-top acting and severely expressive movement. Kiyohime, the young woman, is comparable to Silvius from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Her laments are long and loud, plaintive and annoying. As she sags against the dock pole and winds herself about it in anguish, the audience laughs and applauds for the boatman who is nodding off and ignoring her. The boatman’s attitude of bored ambivalence and Kiyohime’s comical sorrow is masterfully portrayed by the Bunraku Bay troupe.

The most impressive part, however, is when Kiyohime crosses the river. In less than a few seconds, the puppet sheds its clothing to become a white serpent, and then just as quickly re-clothes itself once it reaches the far side. The face seamlessly transforms into a large teeth, red eyes and golden horns. All the while, the dramatic accompaniment and vocals help to support the mood of sorrow, boredom and anger.

Of the some three dozen Bunraku troupes in the world, the Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe is not the best, but they are certainly nowhere near the bottom. Trained by the masters of the Tonda and Ida troupes in Japan, the skills they learned shine through bright and clear.

Bunraku in Japan is like opera here in America; it’s a cultural icon that everyone has heard of and no one has seen. For a volunteer troupe that never knows which performers will be on stage that night, the Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe is a genuine Japanese cultural experience, performed with great skill and love

David Nolan


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