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Bunraku: Puppet Theater

JAPAN | Monday, 26 January 2009 | Views [3862]

(borrowed from the Osaka-city website. Sorry...)

(borrowed from the Osaka-city website. Sorry...)

Bunraku – boon-rah-coo – or traditional Japanese puppet theater was founded in Osaka in 1684, though apparently established as the form we know today coming about in 1872 (I’m quoting the Wiki here). Bunraku contains the puppeteers (the ningyōzukai), the chanters (tayū), and the shamisen players as they act out traditional pieces of plays, usually faithfully following some ancient text or story (this can be seen when the chanter respectfully holds up the text he’s going to chant and bowing before it), making it more of an author’s theater unlike kabuki which can deviate from any script, though the same story can be acted out by both bunraku and kabuki theater.


This trip was for the very last performance of the very last day of the January/New Years show. Here’s how it works: there are 2 “performances” per day lasting 4 hours each with breaks. However, in actuality performance one is part one and performance two is part two (or vice versa) so it can be a full day affair for those made of sterner stuff than me. I only bought one ticket for one show and caught part one which consisted of a dance of the seasons, a story of honor, and a love story.


The Dance of the Four Seasons: Hanakurabe Shiki no Kotobuki started off with a small spring dance with a pair of traditional street entertainers singing, followed by a summer dance of a lovelorn fisherwoman on the beach. Autumn brought a famous (and very beautiful) Heian-era poetress and courtesan named Komachi, now old and withered, reminiscing about her lost love who died when he accepted her challenge to come visit Komachi every night for 100 nights to show his devotion but on the last night he died in a snow storm coming to her house. Winter brought about the best of the dances, a kabuki­-esque dance of a heron maiden in a white kimono dancing with bamboo umbrellas as snow falls around her. I liked this last one the best!!


A quick break, and onto the chanting stories, the first being Honzo Shimoyashiki, or Honzo’s Village, taking place in Edo­ period Tokyo. A chief retainer of a feudal lord, Hanzo, is being sentenced to death for betraying his lord’s orders by bribing an official without his lord’s knowledge making the lord look foolish. At the time of the play Hanzo was under house arrest and he sees one of his lord’s attendants, Banzaemon, poisoning a tea kettle so his lord would die. The attendant was infatuated with his lord’s beautiful sister and wants to abduct her. Anyway, so when the lord, Wakasanosuke, finally makes it to the scene he delivers justice by instead of killing Hanzo he beheads cowardly Banzaemon, as Hanzo was trying to help his lord. Hanzo shows Wakasanosuke the poisoned tea kettle and he thanks Hanzo and releases Hanzo from his service honorably. This was an interesting play because we get to see all these feudal samurai and hear about the samurai code of ethics, bushido, as well as gorgeous costumes of both the men and the one woman (Wakasanosuke’s sister Michitose) in this play.


Another break and on to the final story: Yoshidaya, or the Yoshidaya Tea House (a euphemism for a brothel in feudal Japan). Izaemon was a very wealthy son to a rich merchant in Osaka but he spent all of his father’s money visiting a beautiful courtesan that he fell in love with, Yugiri. He finally gets disowned and sells everything he owns to continue seeing Yugiri until he has no money and is left wearing a thin paper kimono. He wanders away in disgrace and Yugiri becomes ill with grief. Izaemon comes wandering back around during New Years, a festive time, to see Yugiri and he gets jeered at by the staff when he asks to see the owner of the tea house, Kizaemon. But Kizaemon comes out and recognizes Izaemon and welcomes him in to get warm, as it is a cold winter’s night. Izaemon begs to see Yugiri but she is apparently busy, sick though she is, with another samurai and he gets very jealous to hear of it. When Yugiri finally comes Izaemon rebuffs her and they have a long (and perhaps a bit drawn-out) lovers quarrel but ultimately reunite as she didn’t want anything to do with the samurai and she still loves him very much. The story ends with Izaemon’s father taking him back in and paying off the tea house so they’ll never be parted. The end. Curtains come down and applause starts. Time to head out for some dinner.


After a full belly of ramen from my favorite ramen restaurant I can look back and realize that even though I was sitting for 4 hours(!!) watching the puppet theater the time just flew by. I had a very good time and I really enjoyed watching the somewhat stylized movements of the puppets as they were manipulated by three men. It was quite interesting and I enjoyed it more than I did the kabuki I watched a couple of years ago in Tokyo. I’d be willing to check out another show later on down the road if I find I have some extra money and extra time on my hands.


For those interested, bunraku usually seems to run on a three-week period in January, April, June, July/August and November at the National Puppet Theater in Nipponbashi, Osaka. January is over so you’ll have to wait until April, alas. Info and tickets can be found here: http://www.ntj.jac.go.jp/english/index.html Tickets can also be bought at the theater the day of or beforehand as well as at the JR midori no mado, or green window areas (the same place where you’d buy a shinkansen ticket). I’d recommend the ¥5,800, or more expensive ticket, because it’s nice to sit up close and soak up the ornate details of the puppet’s costumes. Why not? It could be a once in a lifetime experience so you might as well make the best out of it. Also, I suggest fishing out an extra ¥650 for the English headset (it's ¥1,650 but you get ¥1,000 when you return the headset).


Happy viewing!

Tags: culture, japan, new years, osaka, puppet, theater, winter



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