Miguel Romero
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JAPAN (February 7 – March 6, 2000)

Bunraku and Backstage at the National Theatre of Japan

bunraku stage

On my second day in Tokyo, I attended three consecutive Bunraku performances of Osaka’s National Bunraku Theatre during their annual visit to the capital. The performances began at 12 noon and ran until 9 p.m. that evening with 30-minute intermissions and a one hour dinner-break before the 6:30 p.m. show. It was a bit like diving off the deep end of the pool without knowing how to swim, but it provided a crash course in this most remarkable of puppet forms.

The marathon consisted of three works:

  • Kurosuke Sumika, a tale of a heroic female warrior who dies clutching the banner of the Genji in her severed hand, only to be resurrected temporarily to miraculously pass on her military prowess to her son who becomes a samurai, determined to avenge her death and restore honor to the Genji.
  • Matsunami Kengyo Biwa, the story of a warrior who impersonates a murdered blind musician at the imperial court and becomes embroiled, because of the false identity, in a series of vengeful acts that conclude in a dramatic showdown.
  • Somemoyo Imose no Kadomatsu, a saga of forbidden love between a merchant’s daughter and one of her father’s apprentices. The lovers successfully thwart their elders, but not without bloodshed. A mask peddler and professional gossip conclude the story with amusing songs and dances and exchanges of the different masks.

The performances were superb. The big stars were on display, and the plays performed covered the breadth of the Bunraku repertory: a military revenge epic steeped in the supernatural; a court drama with multiple scenes of mistaken identity and duels; and a romantic intrigue with elements of song and dance. Although many in the audience come to hear the narrators and follow the performance with their heads buried in copies of the text, I was dazzled by the spectacle and the amazing intricacy and subtlety of the puppet manipulation. I moved to a front row seat to admire it all in detail, but this meant losing some of the perspective, as Bunraku is performed on a very wide stage.

By prior arrangement, I met Hitoshi Hamatani after the performance. Mr. Hamatani, fortunately for me, is married to an American, Eloise Hamatani, who had been extremely helpful in facilitating our communications. He had recently retired after 32 years as technical director of the National Theatre. He was very gracious and took me through the backstage, where I saw the sets and puppets up-close (Bunraku puppet heads are stored separately from their bodies). Unfortunately, there was a TV crew taping interviews with the puppeteers, which limited Mr. Hamatani’s plans to have some of the performers show me the workings of puppets and answer other questions. This was a disappointment, but did not diminish the excitement and privilege of being backstage.

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Copyright © 2002 Miguel Romero. All rights reserved.