This week I had the opportunity to attend a Bunraku performance at the National Bunraku Theater in Osaka. Osaka is the birthplace of Bunraku, and has been the premier city in Japan to experience the art form since it's inception in the 17th century.
If you are unfamiliar with Bunraku, you can read a bit about it here, which might help contextualize this post.
According to my friend Philip,
"With haiku, they have mastered the world's shortest poetry. They make up for it with their dramatic forms!"
This is very true indeed with Bunraku, as the show I attended was 4 1/2 hours in length, encompassing six separate dramas. I was struck not only by the extremely high level of craftsmanship of the puppets, but also the refinement of movement and expression capable in the hands of the 3 puppeteers operating each puppet (two in complete black with hoods, one lead puppeteer unmasked). They say that it takes up to 30 years to master the craft, and in true Japanese fashion, you study 10 years just to get the movement of the feet and legs correct (!).
While I only understood a fraction of the narrative, my attention was more drawn to the movements and expressions of the puppets, and the choreography of the three puppeteers operating each puppet - Amazing.
And, of course, the music. The featured musicians are the shamisen player/s and the narrator (たゆ), located stage left, sitting on a small swiveling stage capably of seamlessly switching performers. Like a secret swiveling doorway. There is also a small chamber ensemble off stage right, in a separate small room, that includes percussion and flutes. It's quite interesting that the bunraku tradition developed to highlight the shamisen and the singer, which have their roots with the common folk, and the more "courtly" instruments are hidden away. I'm not sure the reason for this. The shamisen in bunraku, by the way, is tuned lower than other styles of playing, which is great! The low string buzzes with a natural distortion - very pleasing.
Also notable is the use of stomping percussion by the puppeteers themselves, and the piercing clap of the hyoshigi (拍子木) bamboo clappers, either played against one another in interludes, and on the floor on stage during high dramatic moments. All in all, there are multiple layers of musical dialogue and interaction happening simultaneously, from all parts of the stage, with striking synchronicity - impressive.
While photos weren't allowed in the actual performance, I was having fun pre-show with reflections and the beautiful stage backdrop.