Tears shed for puppets in the City of Love

by Bronwyn Mahoney

Special To The Japan Times

Japanese photographer/artist Hiroshi Sugimoto is inescapable in Paris just now, with posters all over the Metro for his “Accelerated Buddha” exhibition at the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent and “Sugimoto Bunraku: Sonezaki Shinju” (“The Love Suicides at Sonezaki”) at the Théâtre de la Ville de Paris — both part of the city’s Festival d’automne.

Since its launch in 1972, this artistic festival has aimed to present experimental “works of reference” — but how experimental can traditional Japanese puppets performing an 18th-century drama by Chikamatsu Monzaemon actually be? In the hands of Sugimoto, 65, the answer is: Extremely.

Taking this play first staged in June 1703 in Osaka — just a month after the events that inspired it took place there — Sugimoto, as its producer/artistic director, has added lyrical and musical accompaniment by the living national treasure, Seiji Tsurusawa, together with video by artist Tabaimo and costumes created from Hermès silks.

Interestingly, though bunraku puppets are nowadays manipulated by three people, here, in the prologue — as in the Edo Period (1603-1867) — there is just one puppeteer, 60-year-old Kanjuro Kiritake III.

Working with a contemporary artist was very different, Kanjuro says, explaining that Sugimoto has made the lighting much darker than usual to emphasize the whiteness of the marionettes. And while in traditional bunraku the audience can see the puppeteers, he asked them to cover their faces so the puppets would be the focus.

Another difference for Kanjuro was Paris itself, where even this seasoned performer admitted he worried about the “weight” of the audience’s cultivated eyes.

He needn’t have been concerned, because the warm reaction on the opening night of the Oct. 10-19 run before an invited audience was followed by a rapturous reception from paying customers to the second of the 11 performances. That night, in fact, delight and relief showed clearly on Kanjuro’s unmasked face at the performance’s end, as he and the rest of the troupe took extended bows. And after that, it was full houses and similar acclaim all the way.

The nature of the story is, of course, part of the play’s cross-cultural appeal, while the “humanity” of its inanimate characters is enticing. Kanjuro explained that this comes not only from the puppeteer “understanding the character and listening to the chanter,” but from the artist’s own life. “A young puppeteer can have talent in manipulation but no experience in his life — so then something is missing,” he said.

There is nothing lacking in his rendering of O-Hatsu, the love-struck heroine, as she moves from anger at her love, a hapless soy-sauce clerk named Tokubei, to a tender determination that the two of them should join together in the hereafter. Definite notes of Romeo and Juliet, but this is no Baz Luhrmann baroque extravaganza. Instead, the energy here comes through restraint, an elegant mix of the traditional and contemporary, and through the interplay of puppeteers, narrators and shamisen.

Ichisuke Yoshida, Tokubei’s puppeteer, said he finds it hard to imagine a couple behaving the same way today, believing their love could carry over into another world. However, it is the bunraku tradition that moves him most — an incredibly strong sense of heritage, of carrying on the work of artists before.

He, too, felt something different about performing in Paris, the final stop on their European tour after Rome and Madrid. For Ichisuke, the concentration of the audience shows how artistic a country France is — not least because audiences demand an encore when they feel a performance warrants it, which he said never happens in Japan.

To an extent, also, audiences here know what to expect, as this isn’t the first time bunraku has come to Paris, or to the Festival d’automne. But as the event’s director, Marie Collin, noted, it last featured 16 years ago.

She pointed out as well that this iteration is a reexamination of the traditional staging, with the story stripped down to its elements. Here, there are none of the original’s amusing bystanders, nor is there any retribution — though 14 years after the first performance, Chikamatsu tinkered with it to assuage the audiences’ desire to see the bad guy suffer.

Then, in 1723, it and other works on a similar theme were banned to discourage “love suicides” and the belief that victims’ souls would be entwined in the next life.

In Paris, the City of Love, tears were shed at the death of the couple, so Sugimoto definitely succeeded in his desire for his actors, the puppets, to be as imbued with life as possible. The response of one friend here was simple: “C’est magnifique!”