Koki Mitani adds comedy to bunraku

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

Koki Mitani is Japan’s top comedy writer, having written a number of stage plays, TV dramas and films. He also loves working with puppets, and has put together a serialized puppet drama for public broadcaster NHK. Despite a love of puppets, however, it was only about 10 years ago when he first saw a performance of bunraku, the 300-year-old traditional Japanese puppet theater.

The experience gripped him so deeply, he says, that it inspired him to write his own bunraku play, which had a successful run last year at Parco Theater in Tokyo and will be back for an 11-day encore beginning Aug. 8.

Titled “Sorenari Shinju (Much Ado about Love Suicides),” Mitani’s bunraku is sort of a comic sequel to the famous, tragic bunraku play “Sonezaki Shinju” (“Love Suicides at Sonezaki”). Originally written and staged by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), the 1703 play is Japan’s equivalent of “Romeo and Juliet” and is based on the real-life story of the forbidden love between a young couple — a soy sauce maker servant and a young prostitute in the pleasure district of Osaka. The couple committed suicide in the Tenjin Shrine forest in the city’s Sonezaki district, in the hope that doing so would unite them in heaven. The incident and its dramatization caused such a sensation back then that it spawned a rush of joint suicides (shinjū) among other star-crossed young lovers.

But how did Mitani come up with an idea to turn this classic tragedy into a comedy? “As I read over the script of ‘Love Suicides’ at Sonezaki, I realized that the play was staged soon after the actual suicides,” Mitani said in an interview in Tokyo last month. “I wondered what people depicted in the play might have thought of it — especially this guy called Kuheji, who is painted as a complete villain. People must have told him, ‘Hey, you are in the play!’ “

As Mitani tried to imagine the conversations of people back then, he visualized a scene in which a middle-aged man interrupts just when the beautiful young couple try to commit suicide in Chikamatsu’s play.

From there, he spun the tale of a manjū-(traditional Japanese cake) store owner who makes a fortune out of persuading couples not to kill themselves.

“Much Ado” is very much in line with the bunraku tradition — using tayū chanter who give voices to the puppets, shamisen players and black-robed ningyō zukai puppeteers. But unlike traditional plays that use the archaic Japanese, Mitani’s piece has characters speaking in modern Osaka dialect, thus allowing viewers to understand the story without the need of subtitles or scripts.

Mitani says that puppets — with the work of skilled puppeteers — convey emotions, and even sexiness, in ways human actors cannot match.

“I once saw a (bunraku) puppet die in a play, and I shuddered with fear,” he says. “Bunraku can reenact people’s deaths in a truly authentic manner. Puppets also have this sweet quality that makes our hearts beat faster. I hope people who come to the show will soak up the world of bunraku, complete with the powerful chords struck by shamisen players and the tayū’s beautiful chanting.”

“Much Ado about Love Suicides” starts Aug. 8 at Parco Theater in Shibuya, Tokyo, and runs till Aug. 18. Tickets are ¥7,800. For more information, visit www.parco-play.com or call (03) 3477-5858.