Bunraku was born in the commercial city of Osaka as a form of ningyo joruri (music theater performed by puppets) of and for the common people. The roots of Bunraku go back to the famous joruri (musically accompanied storytelling) performer Gidayu Takemoto who founded the Takemoto-za theater in the mid-17thh century and later teamed with the joruri playwright Monzaemon Chikamatsu to create plays beginning with Shusse Kagekiyo (Kagekiyo Victorious) and followed by Sonezaki Shinju (Love Suicides at Sonezaki) and Meido no hikyaku (The Courier for Hell) that are still performed today as central works of the Bunraku repertoire. The plays of ningyo joruri (puppet joruri) all deal with themes of parent-child love, love between man and woman, conflicts of loyalty and duty and the trials and tribulations of life. The stories are recited by the tayu, who varies his voice to the roles of old and young, male and female characters. The tayu is accompanied by the 3-stringed futozao shamisen with its deep reverberating sound. This joruri is acted out by the 3-man-manipulated Bunraku puppet with movement so expressive that the puppet seems to come alive. The human dramas played out by the beautifully integrated 3-part performance of the tayu, shamisen and puppets seldom fails to win the hearts of the audience.
In its heydays from the 17th to 19th centuries, many different ningyo joruri theaters and performers competed for popularity, but the onset of Japan’s modernization and Westernization brought a decline in the popularity of the medium. By the beginning of the 20th century there was final only one theater still performing ningyo joruri, the Bunraku-za in Osaka. And from that time ningyo joruri came to be known as Bunraku. World War II hastened the decline of Bunraku as many of the more famous masters of the art died in the war and the Bunraku-za theater with its specialized facilities burned down in air raids. After that Bunraku lost its ability to compete against the new-age mass-entertainment media of film and television. To save Bunraku from extinction in this postwar crisis, the national government, the prefectural and municipal governments of Osaka and the national broadcasting company NHK joined together to provide support and launch the Bunraku Association in 1963. In 1972, the National Theater in Tokyo established a program to train young people aspiring to become Bunraku tayu, shamisen players and puppeteers, as part of larger program to preserve Japan’s traditional arts be fostering the next generation of performers. In the world of Bunraku, where advancement is based on talent and achievement rather than family lineage, 50% of today’s performers have come from this National Theater training program. In 1984, a new National Bunraku Theater was opened in Osaka to give the art a new center of operations. In 2003 UNESCO designated Bunraku an Intangible World Heritage. Today there are 25 tayu, 18 shamisen players and 37 puppeteers in the Ningyo Joruri Bunraku-za theater group.
|Traditionally, it is said that the training in the art of Bunraku puppetry takes ten years to master the feet and ten years to master the left hand before moving on to main puppeteer (omozukai). Is that another way of saying that manipulating the feet is the fundamental upon which Bunraku puppetry is based?
That’s correct. I believe that one of the biggest merits gained when Bunraku adopted the 3-man puppet manipulation we now use is that it gave the puppet foot movement. According to records, 3-man manipulation was first adopted in 1734 at the Takemoto-za theater in the Dotonbori district of Osaka, when they performed Ashiya doman ouchi kagami. I am very impressed when I think of the people who came up with this idea 270 years ago and made it work. There is a record that a 3-man puppet had been used at a small theater called Geki-za theater in Edo (present Tokyo) about 40 years before that, at the end of the 17th century. But it was completely different, in that one puppeteer moved the head while a second manipulated both arms and the third manipulated the feet. It must have been very difficult to manipulate that way. Because, even with our present-day style, it is very difficult for the omozukai [head and right hand puppeteer] and the ashizukai [feet puppeteer] to coordinate their movements. Although there are few records for the intervening 40 years after that first attempt, the puppeteers must have tried numerous variations before arriving at the present style that came into use at the Takemoto-za theater in 1734. And after that, there was a rapid shift to 3-man style puppetry throughout Japan.
The difficult thing about 3-man puppetry is that each of the three people manipulating the puppet bares an equal share in the task. Of course, the omozukai is the main puppeteer, but it is not a case where the omozukai is doing 70% or 80% of the job. In the case of a female-role puppet, the ashizukai does half the work. Since the female puppet has no feet, the ashizukai has to move the hem of the kimono in a way that makes it look as if it has legs and feet. That is why it can be said that the ashizukai has half of the responsibility for the movement of the puppet. In certain scenes and with certain choreography the hidarizukai [left hand puppeteer] also plays a very important role, and of course there are many places where the omozukai is most important. So, all three puppeteers have to be giving 100% to 120% to successfully manipulate the puppet.
I think it is safe to say that at any time, the ashizukai is doing half of the work involved. If the ashizukai suddenly lets go of the feet, there is no omozukai, no matter how skilled he may be, who can hold the puppet and continue to manipulate it. So, the real meaning of “ten years to learn the feet” doesn’t mean that it takes ten years to finally graduate from the lowest job. Rather it means that after ten years you have reached the point where you have a good grasp of what is required in the overall manipulation of the puppet that you can manipulate the feet well and at this point half of your training is complete. That is why we are told constantly when we are young to do the feet as much as possible.
Still, while you are being told to do the feet constantly as a young puppeteer, you don’t really understand how important the role of the ashizukai is. That was true in my case, too. And that is the stage where many people feel like quitting. You start to wonder why you have to do this same job day after day. Day in and day out you are bent down in a difficult kneeling position and no one is seeing you there on stage because you are wearing the black head-cloth that hides your face. The names of the ashizukai aren’t even listed in the program. But if you can stick it out and get beyond the ashizukai stage, then suddenly everything is OK.
Does that mean that once you have learned the basics of the ashizukai you can naturally move on to the hidarizuai and omozukai with no problem?
The ashizukai always keeps part of his right forearm on he hip if the omozukai to receive signals about the next movements of the puppet. This is called koshiatari (hip contact), and it is the communication method that tells the ashizukai when the next move is coming. Once the ashizukai learns to read these signals he can concentrate on coordinating the puppet’s movements. Then it is a question of how quickly he can learn the puppet’s role in a given scene. He has to become one with the movement of the puppet’s feet, and that is not an easy thing to do.
The way men and women walk and the way a samurai and a commoner walk, or the way an old person and a child walk, certainly there is a variety of forms an ashizukai must learn.
That is true. And it is not just the ashizukai. The really difficult part is going beyond the level of technique to the level of character development. That is why it takes ten to 15 years of training. The most important thing you must accomplish when you become an omozukai is the ability to become one with the puppet and one with its character in the play.
The puppeteer in Bunraku is both an actor who acts out the role of his puppet’s character and a technician who manipulates the puppet. If one of these two capacities is strong and the other weak, the performance will be lacking in expression. The feeling you are trying to put into the role will not be communicated to the audience. So, when you are learning the feet you are also thinking about the feelings that each of the famous omozukai you work with are putting into the roles acted out with the of the different puppets in the different plays. And when you feel that intent of the omozukai you must try to become one with it and move the feet in harmony with it. An ashizukai who can only do nice, graceful movements of feet will actually be making it harder on the omozukai. The omozukai has expectation of the kind of movement he wants from the ashizuka based on the emotion he is trying to put into the puppet’s character and actions. So, no matter how graceful the foot movement may look, if it isn’t in sync with the emotive intent of the omozukai it only makes things difficult for him. I made that mistake when I was an ashizukai too. When I realized that, it was the one time that really felt I wanted to quit puppetry.
My master is Minosuke Yoshida, and when I used to make that mistake it would put him in a bad mood. Master Minosuke is the type who usually doesn’t say a thing, and I believe that is the way all the old masters used to be. They don’t tell you what you are doing wrong. They just let you see that they are in a bad mood. On my part, I had been doing the feet for years and I had some confidence. And since I was at the point where I was doing the feet of the main character (puppet) of the play, it sort of went to my head and I would get in the mood where I wanted to show off what I could do with the feet. My movements looked good. No matter what angle the puppet was photographed from the position looked good, and my timing with the shamisen was good too. Part of the job of the ashizukai is what is known as the ashibyoshi (foot beat). The ashizukai stamps his feet loudly to create the sound of the puppet’s footsteps. And, I was able to keep the proper beat. But still the master was in a bad mood every day. I hadn’t figured out yet what I was doing wrong.
Couldn’t you just ask the master what you were doing wrong?
Even if I did ask, he would never answer. When I did ask, all he would say is, “How many years have you been doing this [and still don’t know].” You have to think and figure it out by yourself. When I would ask some of my older colleagues and have them watch me, all they would say is “I don’t see anything strange.” They didn’t know either. That made me even more lost. The answer was that—as I said earlier—my movements as an ashizukai were not the movements of the character that master Minosuke was trying to give the puppet while acting out its role. And what he was criticizing me of not knowing after being an ashizukai for so many years was not having that very difficult, very high-level sensitivity to be able to move the feet in accordance with the feeling that master Minosuke was trying to give the puppet in each particular moment in each particular scene in each play.
This was something that I came to realize gradually. On our tours there would be times when we would drink with master Minosuke after the performances. He would start telling the same old stories, but gradually I realized that I had to listen carefully each time and not dismiss it as just the same old story I had heard five times before. Because I realized that he was saying things through those stories that he would never say directly to us. I realized that when words like, “The hidarizukai and the ashizukai both have to approach the role the same feeling [that the omozukai is putting into the puppet’s performance],” I realized that he might be speaking to me indirectly. So I would think carefully about what he was saying. The master would never say anything directly to me about how I was handling the feet. So I had to listen to his stories, think about them and try to apply them to my state at the time. That is how I finally figured out what I was doing wrong and worked my way out of that state of confusion I was in.
In short, the ashizukai and hidarizukai also have to achieve the level where they are both actors and technicians. But it is particularly the omozukai who has to find the heart of each role the puppets play. That is exactly what I am struggling with now, and it is the important task that I want to devote myself to in the in latter half of my 50s. As for the technical side, I have been doing it for more than 40 years now, so it would sound stupid if I said I still lacked confidence in that area.