The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Kanjuro Kiritake
Kanjuro Kiritake III
Born in Osaka in 1953, the son of the Kanjuro Kiritake II, a Bunraku puppeteer who was designated a Living National Treasure by the Japanese government. His elder sister is the actress Kyoko Mitsubayashi. He became a puppetry trainee of the Bunraku Association in 1967. He studied under Minosuke Yoshida III and first performed on stage the following year. He performs both male and female roles, having learned tachiyaku male roles from his father and onnagata female roles from his the famous onnagata puppeteer Minosuke. In 200 he inherited his father’s name and became Kanjuro Kiritake III. In addition to performing, he conducts workshops, he teaches at the Nose Ningyo Jorori Rokkau-za theater in the Nose-cho district of Osaka and also produces new plays. He is the president in charge of copyrights for the NPO Ningyo Jorori Bunraku-za.
Sonezaki Shinju (The Love Suicides at Sonezaki)
Sonezaki Shinju
Sonezaki Shinju
Sonezaki Shinju
©K. Kawahara
an overview
Artist Interviewアーティストインタビュー
Kanjuro Kiritake III, a leader of the rising generation of puppeteers in Japan's world renowned puppet theater, Bunraku  
The traditional puppet theater Bunraku is one of Japan’s proud cultural heritages that has recently been designated a UNESCO World Heritage as well. It is performed by the 3-man manipulated puppet, the tayu narrator and the shamisen musician. Moving to the narrative and rhythm of the joruri and gidayubushi accompaniment performed by the shamisen musician and the tayu, who uses his vocal virtuosity to express the voices of both male and female characters, young and old, the three puppeteers manipulate the legs, arms and head of the puppet to portray human emotions with unique elocution that has inspired international performing artists in productions from France’s Théâtre du Soleil to Disney’s Lion King. In a type of puppetry unique in the world, three men manipulate one puppet. The main puppeteer, known as the omozukai, manipulates the head, or kashira, and the puppet’s right hand, while the hidarizukai manipulates the left hand and the ashizukai manipulates the feet in an exquisitely orchestrated performance of such expressiveness that the puppet seems to come alive. Kanjuro Kiritake III has been a Bunraku puppeteer for 42 years and is one of the most celebrated of the current generation of Bunraku puppeteers. Unlike Kabuki, where all the main actors come from a small number of families that have carried on the tradition for centuries, Bunraku is a world where anyone can become a performer and individual talent and achievement are the major factors in a performer’s career. And, although there is no tradition of hereditary families of Bunraku puppeteers similar to the Kabuki families, Kanjuro Kiritake III is the son of the late second-generation puppeteer Kanjuro Kiritake II, who was designated a Living National Treasure during his lifetime. It wasn’t until his middle school years that the future Kanjuro III discovered the appeal of Bunraku and began training in its traditional arts. Studying as his former name Minotaro Yoshida, he learned the foot (ashizukai) and left hand (hidarizukai) before moving up to the role of main puppeteer (omozukai). He inherited his late father’s name in April of 2003. Today he is one of the leading figures in the Bunraku world.
(Interviewer: Kazumi Narabe)

You have participated in several overseas tours of Bunraku, and you have just returned from a performance tour in France in March (2008). How do you introduce the interesting aspects and appeal of Bunraku to foreign audiences?
    I don’t make any special considerations just because the audience is a foreign one. There are still many people in Japan as well who have never seen Bunraku. And, those who are seeing Bunraku for the first time often ask me what they should look and listen for. But it is difficult for us as performers to say ’This is what you should watch for. This is what to listen for.’ The repertoire is large and there are jidaimono plays based on historically events and sewamono plays based on the lives of the common people, with dozens of plays in both of these categories and each play having its own unique appeal and highlights. So, it is difficult to generalize about what an audience should watch for.
    Bunraku is a unique and truly rare form of theater conceived by Japanese some 300 years ago. It is a form in which a story is played out by a three-part ensemble of the puppet manipulated by three puppeteers, the tayu narrator and the shamisen musical accompaniment. It might be and exaggeration to say that the Bunraku puppet operated by three puppeteers exceeds the expressiveness of a human actor, but it definitely is capable of expressive actions not possible by a human, and for this reason the actions of the doll probably attract most of the audience’s attention at first. That is all and well, but in fact Bunraku is actually a three-part performance that is based on a fine coordination and harmonization by the tayu, the shamisen and the puppets. In addition to the puppets there is also rich appeal and artistry in the performance of the tayu and the shamisen which enable Bunraku to be seen from different aspects, which I believe enriches its interest greatly.
    Being able to understand the Japanese joruri narrative and dialogue of the play would naturally give the foreign audience more insights into the thoughts, customs and emotions of the Japanese people and bring more appreciation and enjoyment to the foreign audience, but even with the use of [projected] subtitles or commentary it is difficult to offer foreign audiences a full understanding of the contents of the joruri as they watch the performance. The language that the plays were written in back in the Edo Period is also difficult for younger Japanese today to understand, which is why Japanese subtitles are used when we give performances at the National Theaters in Japan. We hear people say that they were able to understand the play well because of the subtitles, but I wonder if it is really true. Thanks to the subtitles they are able to understand the story and what the tayu is saying, but I don’t think that is really a true understanding of the performance as a whole. I would rather have the audience watching the performance carefully as a whole rather than reading subtitles.

Is it correct to assume that Bunraku is the world’s only puppet theater where a single puppet is manipulated by three puppeteers?
    As far as I know there were no other 3-man puppets in the past. But today there appear to be many forms of puppetry. Until now I have gone to France twice to teach the techniques of 3-man puppetry and the people I have taught are now doing 3-person, 4-person and 5-person puppetry. There are now several places in the world where Bunraku type puppetry is being performed.
    The teaching I have done until now was 3-week summer seminars at the national puppetry institute of the Union Internationale de la Marionnette (UNIMA) in Charleville-Mézières, France. The courses were attended not only by puppeteers but also by directors, actors, ballet dancers and people from a number of different genres. I wanted to stress the fact that manipulating the feet is the fundamental base of Bunraku puppetry, so I had them make puppet feet from wood. I got the idea of having them experience making the feet because we didn’t have enough feet to supply the dozens of participants in the seminar, and you can’t teach without having actually feet for them all to practice with. The wood was supplied locally but the nikawa glue and the Chinese White pigment that are mixed to paint the feet white were brought from Japan.
    I’m sure that the participants were wondering why they were being made to cut the wood into blocks and carve it into feet. But I was not there to simply teach them to manipulate the 3-man puppet. I was there to teach them how difficult it is to manipulate the Bunraku puppet well and that it is not something that they should try to imitate lightly (laughs). In Bunraku puppetry the omozukai [head puppeteer], hidarizukai [left hand puppeteer] and ashizukai [foot puppeteer] have to be able to move as one and communicate their intentions without words. This is an art that can only be learned by the body through long period of practice. It is not something that can be studied for three or four weeks and think you have mastered. So, it is fine if they can fine something useful, some reference for what they do, in our art, but I wanted to show them that it is a very difficult art that takes a long time to learn. I wanted them to experience this physically by making the feet. And the result was that they said ‘I see.’ (Laughs) They did understand.
    In this way, I had them practice manipulating the feet, but for the taller foreign participants, bending down to manipulate the feet for extended periods is difficult. Still there was one young French participant in his twenties who was shorter and did it so well that I would have liked to bring him back to Japan. In those three weeks he nearly mastered the foot movement, it was wonderful to see. I should have asked him to come to Japan. He might been the first foreign apprentice in Bunraku (laughs).
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