Arts Listings

The Theater: Japanese Puppet Theater Comes to Zellerbach

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Tuesday October 09, 2007

When the Bunraku (National Puppet Theater of Japan) begins a performance—as they will this Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. in Zellerbach Hall, for the first time since 1983—a particular kind of magic takes over.  

Some of it comes from the ritual of the appearance of the shamisen player and the Tayu, the narrator, onstage, sometimes popping into view on a turntable, with the Tayu bowing to the text of the play in his upheld hands. Some of it comes from the penetrating sound and rhythms of voice and instrument, as the emotions of the words play across the Tayu’s face. And when the three-foot-tall puppets start to “act,” despite the three puppeteers for each in full view, some spectators begin to squint, the illusion is at once so lifelike, yet fantastic, as if another world has opened up, in a perfect, completely charming imitation of the Genroku period of 17th-18th century Japan. 

The Bunraku (more formally “Ningyo Joruri,” indicating “doll storytelling, with music and chanting”), despite its reliance on actors of wood and paint, is one of the great theaters of the world. It has had a profound influence on the development of the texts and performing style of the Kabuki, and exciting the imaginations of theater practitioners and theorists everywhere, a literal realization of Romantic playwright Heinrich von Kleist’s great essay and parable, “On the Marionette Theater,” in which a stage dancer watching a puppet show asserts that “a puppet built to the right specifications could perform in such a way not to be equaled by any of the geniuses of our time ... never guilty of the least affectation.” 

The company, which includes four “Living National Treasures” of Japan (a government-designated status), will present ‘Date Musume Koi no Higanoko’ (“Oshichi of the Fire Watch Tower,” 1773) and ‘Tsubosaka Kannon Reigenki’ (“Miracle at the Tsubosaka Kannon Temple,” 1887), with an introduction to Bunraku. 

Other events around the Bunraku’s visit include a free symposium, 7 p.m. Wednesday at Wheeler Auditorium on the UC Berkeley campus, and a lecture-demonstration in Samsung Hall at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, Fri. at 2 p.m. (free with museum admission).  

The Wheeler symposium includes a panel with Mary Elizabeth Berry (History Department chair), Janice Kanemitsu (East Asian Languages and Culture professor) and Peter Grilli, president of the Boston Japan Society (who also gives the free Sightlines pre-performance talks, half an hour before curtain). Both events will feature the screening of performance footage and a demonstration by puppeteers. 

Puppets were introduced to Japan in the 9th century, but it wasn’t until the late 16th century that the formula that would lead to the Bunraku was created, when Hikita, a puppeteer, joined forces with a shamisen player, Menukiya Chozaburo, to back the actions of the puppets with the musical storytelling of joruri. In 1685, the Takemoto-za was founded in Osaka, bringing together the talents of joruri narrator Takemoto Gidayu, puppeteer Tachimatsu Hachirobei, and “the Shakespeare of Japan,” playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon, and the Bunraku was born. 

Chikamatsu had come from Kabuki and was influenced by the humanistic acting style of Sakata Tojuro of Kyoto. In contrast to Kabuki, an actors’ theater, Bunraku would become a playwrights’ venue, and Chikamatsu wrote about 100 plays for the puppets, many adapted back to Kabuki and among its greatest classics.  

As the puppets improved technically and could be used with greater virtuosity—by the middle 18th century, eyes, eyebrows, ears and individual fingers could move and the stomach swell—Bunraku competed with Kabuki in popularity, and for awhile pulled ahead, due to government restrictions on live actors (similar to the conditions that made puppet opera triumph in France at about the same time). 

To catch up, Kabuki actors imitated puppet movement and joruri voice, taking the lead again, as described by Faubion Bowers, longtime Kabuki simultaneous translator and commentator, in Japanese Theater: “However much the public liked to see puppets act as humans, they were more delighted to see actors perform as puppets.” 

Bowers, who studied Kabuki in Tokyo before World War II, and afterwards, as MacArthur’s theater censor, saved Kabuki from closure when zealous reformers endeavored to have it banned completely, discusses both Kabuki and Bunraku as the expression of the Genroku era, late 17th to early 18th century (especially in the Kansai region, Kyoto and Osaka): “The moment of awakening of the common man in Japan ... there was emancipation to a certain extent, but it was emancipation of the emotions from narrow moral restraints. There was desire for equality, but for equality in the pleasure districts only ... The political rule of the military classes continued ... irrationality, conventionality and formality were harmonized... .” 

The poeticized dramas of Bunraku deal with sentimental and social conflicts, expressed in the common speech of the time. In the first play to be presented, a girl separated from her secret lover almost burns down the city trying to reach him. In the second, an older couple is rewarded for their exceptional sacrifice and devotion. Smaller than life, the life-like puppets create emotional overtones that become larger than life. As Kleist’s dancer says in his parable, “Grace appears with the greatest purity in whatever human shape having either no consciousness or infinite consciousness—puppet or god!” 




8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley. $76. Rush tickets, for $10-20, are announced two hours before showtime and put on sale an hour before. 642-9988. 


Photograph: Bunraku Kyokai 

Bringing Japan's centuries-old form of puppet theater, Bunraku National Puppet Theater of Japan comes to Cal Performances Oct. 13 and 14.