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Bunraku puppet theater pulls all the right strings

http://www2.edu.ipa.go.jp/gz/g1bun1/g11gyo/g1g103.jpg
(A scene from the bunraku classic)

A first-timer might feel hesitant about watching a Japanese bunraku, also known as a "ningyo joruri" (puppet theater) performance. In fact, the themes of the drama are quite common.
Many of the puppet theaters around the world are intended for children and deal with fantasy stories.
But bunraku, a traditional performing art presented with the combination of chanting and samisen music, can be harsh and even cruel.
http://nishinomiya-style.com/upload/blog/post/100819kokuritubunraku1.jpg
(National Bunraku Theater)

With their nonchalant faces, puppets portray immorality such as adultery, theft, parenticide and even infanticide.
But predecessors continued to work on stories intended for adults to elevate bunraku to an art form, thanks to strong support from the public.
On this night, a round, revolving platform is placed on the auxiliary stage on stage left, jutting out into the audience.
The platform rotates in a manner similar to a concealed trapdoor at a ninja mansion. As the stage rotates, the "tayu" chanter and a samisen player sitting on cushions appear before the audience.
Puppets are introduced on the stage, each of which is manipulated by three puppeteers dressed in black robes.
The puppeteers stand quietly on stage, holding their puppets. The samisen player strikes a melody with his "futozao" thick-necked samisen string instrument. Then the tayu takes a deep breath and starts reciting the same "shisho" recitations passed down from the Edo Period (1603-1867) to express feelings of the transient world.
Life is breathed into the faces of the puppets, and they spring into action.
They are given the souls of puppeteers and vividly express human emotions.
The audience can easily relate to the story as they see themselves and the faces they wish to see in the dolls.
Another characteristic feature is that it is easy to enjoy the drama beyond the language barrier.
http://image.space.rakuten.co.jp/lg01/59/0000123059/04/imge7fe58e2zik6zj.jpeg http://e-design-lab.net/kagablog/files/B070708_02r.jpg

When I watched a bunraku performance in Mexico nine years ago, the subtitling system was experiencing a problem. But the audience understood the storyline almost completely.
"The tones of the chanting voice and the sorrow and joy played by the strings. It is easy to understand," an audience member said.
But what made the public go wild for bunraku?
Bunraku made a dramatic step after Takemoto Gidayu (1651-1714), a legendary chanter who established a distinctive style, teamed with the famous playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725) to put on shows at his Takemoto-za theater.
At the time, bunraku theater mainly featured old-fashioned themes based on classical heroic tales and legends. But the Takemoto-za theater turned over a new leaf with "Sonezaki Shinju" (The Love Suicides at Sonezaki), a double suicide tragedy premiered in a month after an actual incident upon which the story was based took place.
The story centers around a low-ranking clerk and a courtesan who commit suicide together.
People saw themselves and their lovers in the good-looking puppets and became deeply fascinated.
Love suicide became a popular theme, and the number of couples taking their own lives drastically increased. The shogunate had to ban double suicide stories to stop the epidemic.
Bunraku theater explored scandalous themes with sophisticated chants that were rich in word play and heavy-hitting twangs of the samisen. The combination of these elements resulted in the cool and stylish quality that struck the hearts of adults, which led to the flourish of bunraku.
This spring, tayu chanter Takemoto Tsunatayu succeeded the stage name of Gentayu
and samisen player Tsuruzawa Seijiro assumed the name of Fujikura from their grandfathers.
Takemoto Sumitayu, the highest-ranking chanter who is recognized as a living national treasure, also succeeded the stage name from his father.
http://www.puppet.or.jp/puppetArchives/%E4%B9%99%E5%A5%B3%E6%96%87%E6%A5%BD.JPG

It would seem only natural to pass down the title through bloodlines in such a time-honored performing art. But In fact, they are exceptions. Unlike many other traditional arts such as kabuki, there is no system in bunraku to succeed stage names from father to child.
"I didn't choose a career in bunraku because of my father," Sumitayu said. "It was because I loved it. In fact, my father was against my decision."
But to be a puppeteer requires exceptionally long years of training. An apprentice will have to work on the feet for 10 years before moving on to the left hand, which also requires a puppeteer to continue for another 10 years. They need to endure this long, rigorous training period before they are allowed to manipulate the head.
A puppeteer operates the right hand of a puppet with his outstretched right hand.
Yoshida Tamao, a master puppeteer and living national treasure whose career spanned more than 70 years, had a right arm longer than his left.
There were even a tayu and a samisen player who tried to continue their performances even though they were losing consciousness after collapsing on stage.
Bunraku theater comprises performers who devote their lives to the art because of their love for the theater.

By TS on Oct 18, 2011
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