The makings of an omozukai

Tamao Yoshida retraces path from mild interest to mastery

by Rei Sasaguchi

Tamao Yoshida is a dominating figure in the bunraku theater of today: A living national treasure, he has a 62-year history as a puppeteer. Onstage, he is elegantly composed, his countenance impassive as he manipulates his puppet with the aid of two assistants covered in black. Offstage, he is vigorous and forthright, and chain smokes his way through conversation.

Omozukai Tamao Yoshida talks about his 62-year career in bunraku theatre.

A native of Osaka, where bunraku theater originated in the late 17th century, Tamao was born Ueda Sueichi in 1919, in the area of Nipponbashi where the National Bunraku Theater now stands.

Tamao decided to pursue a living as a puppeteer at the age of 14 after seeing three bunraku performances, “though I was not particularly attracted to bunraku at the time,” he says.

To help her son, Tamao’s mother sought advice from the wife of a leading bunraku master, Tamasuke Yoshida III, and the boy was sent to a master called Tamajiro Yoshida for his initial training. Under his new stage name, Tamao Yoshida, he began to learn how to handle the puppet’s ashi (legs), which he struggled with for seven years.

But Tamao’s apprenticeship was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II: He was conscripted in 1940 and in 1944 was sent to China for two years. Upon his return to Osaka in late 1946, Tamao went right back to his puppets, taking up the study of hidari, or manipulation of the puppet’s left hand, under Yoshida Tamasuke III. Tamao also learned a great deal about bunraku from Yoshida Tamaichi II, the foremost puppeteer in Osaka at the time.

“One is supposed to master the contents of bunraku texts while studying the technique of handling ashi and hidari,” Tamao says.

Although Tamao’s entrance into the world of bunraku was rather casual, it became apparent before long that he had chosen the right profession for himself. He was endowed with a great talent. And with his strong willpower and perseverance, he soon stood out as a promising young omozukai (principal puppeteer), with a mastery of both male and female puppets.

Over the past several decades, Tamao has received numerous honors and prizes in recognition of his outstanding work. In 1977, he was designated a living national treasure and, in October, was honored as a person of cultural merit.

Tamao is currently displaying his craft at the Tokyo National Theater through May 27, working the puppets for two strikingly different male characters. In Part 1 of the program, he plays the puppet for the enigmatic stonemason Midaroku in Acts II and III of “Ichinotani Futaba Gunki,” the 1751 jidaimono (historical play) by Namiki Sosuke.

In the dramatic final scene, Midaroku, a fugitive Taira warrior who holds a grudge against Minamoto no Yoshitsune for beating the Taira forces at the battle of Ichinotani, learns to his delight that in compliance with secret orders from Yoshitsune, vassal Kumagai Naozane has spared the life of Atsumori, the son of a Taira clan leader, by sacrificing his own son instead.

In Part 2, Tamao plays the puppet for Tokubei in “Sonezaki Shinju (Double Suicide at Sonezaki),” Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s first sewamono (real-life play) on double suicide, based on an actual incident that occurred on the grounds of the Tenjin Shrine at Sonezaki in 1703.

Tokubei, who works as a clerk for his uncle, has been carrying on an affair with Ohatsu, a beautiful courtesan in the Sonezaki pleasure quarters, but his uncle wants him to marry his wife’s niece. Meanwhile, one of Ohatsu’s clients has proposed to redeem her. To escape from their miserable situation, Tokubei and Ohatsu decide to kill themselves with the hope of being united after death.

Tamao played Tokubei for the first time at age 36, when Chikamatsu’s “Sonezaki Shinju” was revived and staged in Osaka in 1955. In the following 44 years, he played the part 1,070 times. In Tamao’s hands, the 150-cm-high puppet becomes Tokubei, and his sorrow and suffering are seen in the subtle nuances rendered in the face.

At age 82, Tamao is still going amazingly strong, but he admits he now feels the weight of the puppets, which can be anywhere from 15 to 20 kg. “I continue to do my best while I can,” he says, “but each time I go on stage with a puppet, I think it may be my last performance.”