The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
Kanjuro Kiritake III, a leader of the rising generation of puppeteers in Japan's world renowned puppet theater, Bunraku

Outreach program in kindergarten
Photo: NPO Ningyo Joruri Bunraku-za
A year has past since Bunraku puppetry lost one of its greatest pillars in the late Tamao Yoshida, who was a Living National Treasure in Japan. Then, this January another great figure passed away in Bungo Yoshida. Now you are taking on many of the important roles, not only on the stage, but in the training of younger performers, and in this capacity you are truly a leader of today’s Bunraku world.
    It all came so suddenly. Our older generation masters passing away one after another. It was completely unexpected. In terms of generation, Kazuo Yoshida, Tamame Yoshida and myself are the second generation after the late master Tamao. My master Minosuke and master Bunjaku are the first generation after master Tamao. Then there is the late Bungo and Tamako Yoshida, Iccho Kiritake and Monju Kiritake and then we were the generation after them. So, the sudden shift in the Bunraku world came unexpectedly and I asked myself what was going to happen. We have a serious lack of puppeteers now who can do the main tachiyaku male roles. This is where my generation has to try to step in and fill the gap. In September, Seinosuke Yoshida of the generation after me will inherit one of the master’s names. He will be reviving the Seijuro Toyomatsu name. Seinosuke is capable of doing both onnagata female roles and tachiyaku male roles. I look forward to working with their generation to build the future of Bunraku, but I am also worried because the tayu masters are also quite along in years.

To become a tayu with the vocal virtuosity to be able to perform the voices of characters young and old, male and female, and even the voice of a “little runny-nosed boy” well into his 60s, is said to take long years of training. Because it takes a long time to pass on such a traditional art form.
    This is something that master Sumitayu Takemoto is also worried about, but at 84 he is still the most energetic tayu of them all. And among the puppeteers, my master Minosuke at 75 is the most energetic. So as long as they are healthy and energetic, we have to learn as much as we can from them and try to absorb it all. We have to be as aggressive as we can about learning everything we can from them and never let ourselves think that we have learned all we can from them. And there is still a lot more. After 40 years of learning from my master it is easy to think that I have learned all of his skills, but then I find something more that I didn’t know about. Since the master himself is never satisfied with his own art and always trying to perfect it, there is no way that I can ever catch up. As long as he is alive, I will never catch up. It is an amazing thing, my master’s art.

Besides pursuing and refining your own art, you are also teaching at schools, conducting workshops and other efforts to build the Bunraku audience, such as giving demonstrations and explanations at stations of the Tokyo Metro subway system.
    There are still many, many people in Japan—let alone overseas—who have never seen a Bunraku performance. For that reason, I want to help us do a more complete job of promoting our art, even at the grassroots level. Even our regional tours in Japan go only to the major cities. In the past Bunraku performers went much deeper into the countryside to smaller town, and that is something I would like to do too. Although it is a program that includes only one elementary school at this point, the Osaka Municipal Kozu Elementary School, I go there to teach their 6th graders. For seven years now we have been going to teach special classes in tayu, shamisen and puppetry. Although we didn’t begin the program with the intent of training the next generation of Bunraku performers, we hear that one of the 6th graders from the first classes seven years ago has now entered apprenticeship under Sakitayu Toyotake with the intent of becoming a tayu. There was another student who asked me if he could become my apprentice. I told him to begin by building his strength. I heard later that he was doing pushups every day and when I saw him again as a middle schooler he looked healthy and focused. I was looking forward to the day when he would be being training, but I was sad to learn that he became ill and passed away recently.

You have started an NPO called the Ningyo Jorori Bunraku-za.
    It is in its 5th year now. The Bunraku tayu, shamisen players and puppeteers all got together to create this NPO that was officially recognized by the Osaka government. Before that there was a mutual aid society but there was no organization that brought us all together as one. The performances we give at the request of nursery schools and homes for the elderly and programs like the Kozu Elementary School classes I just mentioned are all done as programs of our NPO. For the NPO I serve as the chairman in charge of copyrights. Until then there had been no copyright management for photographs of Bunraku performances, so we created one. When you see a photograph of a Bunraku performance, all that will probably be seen is the omozukai and the puppet, but in order for that photograph to be taken there must also be an ashizukai and hidarizukai working there too. If it is a video the accompaniment will also be there. When I have time I check the data and go to the people who appear in the photos and videos and get their permission for its use. I’m finally getting used to it but this copyright verification is quite a job.

It sounds like you are laying the foundations for the future of Bunraku. Can you tell us something about your vision of that future?
    I can’t make any grand statements, but I can say that I want to help pass the Bunraku tradition on to the next generation with its forms intact. Noh has continued for 600 years with its forms and tradition intact. They say the reason is that they have stuck to the tradition of learning to do things as their predecessors and teachers did. Bunraku is the same. Normally, a tradition will break down little by little over time. If you set out to break tradition intentionally, it will be break down within a year, or even half a year. That is why I want to help pass this long-held tradition on to the next generation without losing any of the elements that have been handed down for hundreds of years. I also believe that this is important from the standpoint of maintaining and growing our audience. Right now I feel assured because our Tokyo performances are attracting a large audience, but you never know when that trend will change and suddenly people aren’t coming to see Bunraku anymore. We have to maintain the high level of our art. We can never let it reach the point where people are saying, “I was invited to go see it but I wasn’t impressed.”

You have spoken about not allowing the tradition to break down, but there have also been new experiments lately such as performing newly written plays and using different kinds of music from the traditional joruri, such as gospel and [Western] classical music. It seems there is a thin line between experimentation and breaking down traditions.
    It is a thin line. But if you maintain the traditions and are trained and practice to the degree that that you can perform the traditional repertoire at any time, then I believe it is all right to try other things when you want to. Even as I preach that we must maintain the tradition, I am the one who is experimenting with new things more than anyone else. There is nothing that can beat the traditional repertoire. No new plays or styles of performance can beat the joruri ensemble and the traditional staging that have been perfected over hundreds of years. Still, there are interesting things that come out of making new plays. I hear that there is a famous comedy playwright who says that he wants to try writing a play for Bunraku. Since there are no comedies in the Bunraku repertoire, if an interesting one could be written and performed, it could be a way to attract the attention of young people. I would like to create new productions that could attract new audiences, which would then be interested to see the traditional Bunraku plays. In this sense I am very much in favor of having new plays written and performed.
    We are in a time where I believe we will see a lot of new things happening. I am often asked why women can’t enter the Bunraku world, and we may soon be seeing the day when women or foreign puppeteers enter Bunraku. When you look at Japan’s traditional national sport of Sumo today we see many foreigners now at the top level of the sport. But the question remains whether or not foreign-born puppeteers will be able to express the feelings and emotions of the Japanese that have been expressed through the Bunraku puppets for hundreds of years.
    Still, there are many foreigners who are more Japanese in spirit than many Japanese of the young generation. So, it will be interesting to see what happens. But, before that, I want to try to do something about the fact that there are many people in Osaka, the city where Bunraku was born 300 years ago, who have never seen a Bunraku performance. I want to see Bunraku become more popular in Osaka first.
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