Japanese Bunraku Returns!
Bunraku performers and fans gather after some late night Japanese beer following the show.
On Friday some friends and I went to see an authentic Japanese Bunraku theatre performance in Little Tokyo. Apparently, this is the first time in 20 years that an official Japanese troupe has toured in the U.S. I was happy to see it was a full house and not just puppeteers, although my friend Sam had rallied a lot of us puppeteers and got us a discount. He also acted as translator after the show when two of the performers and a few fans went out for drinks afterwards.
The staging and sets were gorgeous. A huge curtain with silk-like metallic decoration opened to reveal Japanese landscapes including a temple wall, a precipice and the Underworld itself. I particularly liked the use of a real tree, which moved organically. Above the stage, a large screen showing English supertitles. To the right, the narrator and the musicians playing shamisen (guitar-like instruments played with a big wedge pick).
What was the show like? Well, writing about a puppetry performance is a bit futile in my opinion. The whole point is to fall for the magic moment where your mind thinks that there's a living thing on stage, despite the fact that it's actually a doll with three people behind it. One great thing about this show is that the director of the theatre presented and translated a demonstration by the performers, explaining how the puppets work, what the narrator does, what the musicians do to enhance the story. This was brilliant and really made the show itself accessible to everyone. Also, in part of the show, a musician puppet came out playing a shamisen. This puppet's performance matched the music and the fingering of the real musician pretty much exactly! Great attention to detail. (When have you ever seen an animation or a puppet performance of a character playing a musical instrument where the fingering was accurate??)
The troupe and bunraku puppetry itself originate in Osaka, Japan. The government subsidizes the troupe almost entirely. Apparently, it's not especially popular in Osaka itself (indeed, my friends there hadn't even heard of it), but the shows in Tokyo are often sold out.
I asked them (over some Sapporo) how old the stories were and whether new ones were being written. They said that the most recent one was 130 years-old, but the ones considered "classics" are 300 years old. There are some new ones out there they said, but by the way they shook their heads disapprovingly, it was clear these were inferior to the classics.