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|A CurtainUp Review
TwoTales from Japan
By David Lipfert
Puppet Theater 2000, Schedule of Events and Links to Other Shows
As part of the Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater, Japan Society hosted performances by Otome Bunraku, literally Women's Bunraku. While traditional bunraku theater utilizes three male puppeteers for each puppet, this variant makes do with one female per puppet. The other big difference is that the male version is heavily subsidized by the government while the women more or less have to fend for themselves. Otherwise the repertory and presentation modes are similar.
These puppets are the size of a young child. With the puppet strapped to the body of the puppeteer and the heads connected by cords, the two move precisely in tandem with each other. The puppeteer can access special mechanisms to operate the puppet's hands with surprising grace. Since the puppets themselves hang to about the puppeteer's knees, a strip of patterned cloth extending across the stage front gives the illusion that the puppets walk on a platform.
A demonstration before show enables early birds to see the innards of the puppets and understand their mechanics. The puppetteers first give an abbreviated performance that involves the magical transformation of a woman into a demon. Afterward the chair of Japan's Modern Puppet Center, Fumiko Matsuzawa, explains various bunraku traditions and answers questions.
The two pieces on this program share a stately character that is conducive to philosophical musings, just like Greek tragedies. They emphasize values of piety and bravery, and the two-character format reins in the plots so they are easily followed. Typical of Eastern thought, nature plays a significant role in these stories, because the natural world is considered to be a reflection of the spiritual realm.
The Miracle at Tsubosaka Temple pits an old blind man's desire to rid his family of the burden he causes them against his wife's devotion that causes her to pray continually for his healing. He jumps off a mountain path into a ravine, and she later does likewise. The Kannon god/spirit revives them both and grants Sawaichi's sight, to the couple's joy. On an apron at the right side of the stage, a narrator intones the story and dialogue with accompaniment on traditional stringed instruments called the shamisen.
After a brief intermission, the company presents Yoshitsune and the One Thousand Cherry Blossom Trees. Like the other piece, this is an excerpt from a much longer work. The action takes place after the victory of the Genji clan. Two Genji brothers have quarreled, and as a result Yoshitsune has been on the run. His lover, Shizuka, has set out through the mountains to find him. While resting, she plays a special drum made from wolf hide. The sound summons a magical fox that responds to the sound of his mother's skin being played. (A furry white fox with a menacing, toothy grin hops up and down on a cloth mountain for this section.) The fox then transforms into the shape of Tadanobu, Yoshitsune's retainer. Using dance and song, he entertains Shizuka by recounting how his elder brother died defending their master.
Perhaps the second story is the more interesting for western audiences because there is more stage action. While Tadanobu excitedly recounts the great sea and land battle, panels at the rear revolve to show the engagement in Japanese-style illustration. After this they revert to the opening cherry blossoms. The rhythmic dance with silver fans for Tadanobu and Shizuka that comes earlier in this scene is another memorable moment. Costumes, both those for the puppets and the simpler ones for the puppetteers and musicians, have a fascinating level of detail. This is a rare opportunity for New York audiences to encounter a very special form of puppetry.