Puppet master brings Bunraku into classroom


OSAKA — Although Bunraku puppet shows are a key element of traditional Japanese culture, many people — especially youngsters — have never even witnessed a performance.

In an effort to change that and promote traditional forms of entertainment among young people, a professional Bunraku puppet performer has begun giving lectures at Osaka Shoin Women’s University, in the city of Higashi-Osaka.

In a three-day class on Japanese cultural history that started on Sept. 24, 55-year-old Kazuo Yoshida, who picked up his first puppet in 1967, taught the students the history of Bunraku and how to operate a puppet.

“As it is difficult to make people interested in our traditional culture, I thought it would be helpful if students could see an actual performance and touch the puppets,” said Hisashi Matsuo, a professor of Japanese cultural history at the school who invited Yoshida to become a part-time lecturer for his class.

Bunraku, the history of which dates back 300 years, each puppet is handled by three people. The person who operates the puppet’s head and right arm is the main player. Before a puppeteer can reach this level, he or she must train for 10 years to be able to handle the puppet’s feet and another 10 years to control its left arm.

At present, a group of about 40, including 15 puppeteers and those who perform the supporting roles such as narrators and shamisen players, crisscross the country to perform live for audiences in Tokyo, Osaka and other cities.

The group has also taken its act abroad and is currently on its first ever tour of South America. The one-month tour will involve 15 performances and will take them to venues such as Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City.

At the university, students first watched a video and listened to a lecture about Bunraku before being allowed to touch the puppet on the second day. On the final day, they tried to perform one scene of a play, using a taped narrative and background music.

The female puppet used in the class weighed 4 kg. The performer was required to handle various parts — located mainly at the back of the head — to move the puppet’s eyes, mouth and eyebrows to display a range of emotions.

“At first, I had no idea what the narrator was saying, but I began to understand it while I was doing it,” said student Tomoko Mori. “And when I came to understand the flow of the story, I became more interested.”

It was also a difficult experience for Yoshida, who has never taught Bunraku at a university.

“It is next to impossible to teach things I have acquired through my 35-year career in such a short time,” he said. “I think it is good enough for the students to get the feeling of Bunraku and be able to talk about it, for example when they go abroad.”