|Even though you may go through the same training process, the different puppeteers still seem to develop different styles and individuality. We also see a difference in where the puppeteers look when they are manipulating the puppet. Some puppeteers move their eyes in the same line of sight as the puppet. Can you tell us where a puppeteer looks when handling the puppet?
The basic rule is that the omozukai should not change his facial expression and should move [his head] as little as possible when performing. The omozukai is the only one of the three puppeteers whose face is exposed, and for that reason we have the expression dezukai (exposed puppeteer) since the Edo Period. If the role is one of a beautiful princess and the omozukai behind her (the puppet) is a man with a darker-skinned face, you don’t want the audience’s eyes shifting to his face. So, the omozukai has to learn the technique for getting the audience to focus on the puppet’s movements and expressions rather than his own. The first things you can do toward that aim are to not move much and not change your facial expression. But as his skills advance people say things like the omozukai seems to disappear or becomes invisible. But it takes a long time to reach that level.
They say that it is the movement of the eyes of the omozukai that the audience notices most. I have an older sister who is an actress and she used to tell me often that I should focus on one point. There are no rules in Bunraku about where the omozukai should look, but in my case I usually focus on the back of the puppet’s head or the area from the back up to the head. However there are also some omozukai who look in a completely different direction from the puppet.
The thing that you definitely must avoid is allowing the puppeteer’s body to move before the puppet moves. If the puppet is going to look to the left, you don’t want to have the puppeteer turn to the left first and then turn the puppet to the left in a 1-2 movement. The puppeteer’s body will move to some degree with the puppet, but you can’t let the puppeteer’s movement stand out more than the puppet’s movement. It is often said that in order to show the puppet with beauty of movement you have to first do annihilate your own body. You can’t let yourself act along with the puppet. The acting that is in your heart as to be transferred to the puppet through your left hand and then projected out to the audience through the puppet alone. This is a very difficult thing to achieve. It is a constant and trying struggle.
Despite the trials and tribulations you press on as a puppeteer. What was the appeal of Bunraku that made you decide to make it your career?
It was in May of 1965, when I was in my second year of middle school, that I was first really attracted to Bunraku. It was a time when there were far fewer puppeteers than there are now. There were only 27 at that time. Since it takes three puppeteers to manipulate one puppet, there was always a lack of hands when performances were being held. For one performance my father (Kanjuro Kiritake II) told me to come help out. Since my father was a Bunraku-za puppeteer, I had often gone with my parents to see Bunraku when I was young. I had often gone to the dressing room and the theater lobby and the audience seats, and I had thought of those places as where my father worked. But it wasn’t until that experience of wearing the black clothes and head-cloth and helping out backstage that I really saw where my father worked and what an amazing world it was.
And what I thought was the most impressive of all was the job of the ashizukai. Me and the other helpers that had been gathered for that play had to stay hidden behind the balustrade in the wings and hand props and things to the actors or line up the stage clogs that the omozukai wears on stage. As I sat crouched there in the wings, the thing I could see best of all right in front of my eyes was the feet of the puppets. I was amazed to see how they looked and moved just like the feet of a real person. Seeing that, I got the idea that I would like to learn to do that. I was a child who liked making models and drawing pictures and I was also interested in the mechanisms that made things like mechanical dolls work. So, everything backstage at the Bunraku theater fascinated me, from the mechanisms in the puppet’s head [for eye, eyebrow and mouth movement] and the sets and props to the way the puppet head dresser tied up the hair. When I delivered a head to the head dresser, I was supposed to return immediately to the stage, but I would end up standing there watching in fascination as she dressed up the hair. That’s the kind of child I was. During the year or so that I was helping out as a stage hand, I became more and more interested in the movements of the puppets, and it was during my third year in middle school that I decided to become a puppeteer. It was my father who decided that Minosuke would be the master I apprenticed under.
So, that fascination you felt back then has connected to your career today?
In fact it got more and more interesting all the time. I feel that now I am at the most interesting stage of all since becoming a puppeteer. Since about two years ago, I’ve come to a stage where I feel that the puppet is moving naturally by itself. In the past I had to try so hard to make it move as I wanted. Perhaps some of it comes from being more used to it, but today I don’t work up a sweat even when I an manipulating the biggest and heaviest of the puppets. For this year’s May performances in Osaka, one of my senior puppeteers, Bungo Yoshida, was sick and I had to fill in on one of his roles besides the two I was doing. One of the roles was Watonai of the play Kokusenya gassen, which is the largest puppet in the Bunraku repertoire. Another was Tokichi of Kinkakuji, the fourth chapter of the Gion sairei sinkoki, which is the first character I have played with a puppet wearing armor. The third role was Magoemon of the play “Ninokuchimura no dan” chapter of Keisei koibikyaku, which is a difficult role of an old man. All three of these were first-time roles for me and I was worried whether or not my strength and stamina would hold out. But I ended up enjoying it all very much. Since all of these were new roles for me, there was a tremendous amount of pressure, but I found myself thoroughly enjoying going out on stage with the puppets each time. In the 42 years since I became a Bunraku apprentice I have never enjoyed it more than this.
I think that enjoyment shows in your performances. The puppets you handle seem to carry a big aura on stage. The Miuranosuke you performed in your current production of Kamakura Sandaiki truly comes across as a beautiful and gallant young warrior.
This Miuranosuke was another first attempt for me, but I think that I may have had a good hold on the role and the character. I had a clear image in my mind of the kind of person Miuranosuke was. When he comes back from the war out of concern for his sick mother, calling out, “Mom, Mom,” and is told by her, “Any young warrior who would show his back to the enemy and leave the battlefield to come home is no son of mine,” he tells her, “I will go back to battle,” but still lingers on by her side.
A “mother complex” perhaps. Your performance gave the feeling of his youthfulness and somewhat spoiled nature.
That is something that can be done with a Bunraku puppet. With live actors, in something like the role of a young princess being played by a somewhat older actress, no matter how gorgeous her costume may be, you are going to be bothered by the face. But the puppets never age and that gives us an advantage. The puppeteer behind the puppet may be 70 or 80, but the puppet is still the same young princess. The only problem is whether the puppeteer can continue to find the feelings of a young girl. My master Minosuke is 75 this year, but in April he performed the role of the 14-year-old maiden Ohan in Katsuragawa renrino shigarami, and it was undeniably a convincing 14-year old. For a 75-year-old to perform a 14-year-old role that really looks 14 is a testament to the artistry of the master and also a testament to the amazing art of Bunraku. The puppeteer has to be able to find a variety of feelings for the many roles of the Bunraku repertoire and be able to go out on the stage with the feeling of a young man or a young woman and find the essence of the role. As I said earlier, technique alone is not enough to achieve the kind of expression necessary in Bunraku.