Bunraku storyteller speaks out

Ayako Takahashi explores traditional puppetry with the living national treasure, Takemoto Sumitayu VII

by Ayako Takahashi

During the early part of the Edo Period, when Japan was ruled by Tokugawa shoguns from 1603-1867, Osaka — the main city in the Kansai region of western Honshu — thrived as the country’s cultural and economic center. It was during those heady days around 400 years ago that a kind of puppetry called ningyō jōruri was born — a performance art, now commonly known as bunraku, that was designated by UNESCO in 2003 as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

In bunraku, a single puppet is operated by three puppeteers, whose teamwork results in surprisingly realistic movements on the proscenium-arched stage. However, bunraku isn’t just about the puppets, as beside the stage is a yuka, a round platform from where a seated tayū (storyteller) narrates the story and dialogue and a shamisen-hiki (shamisen player) sits and plays his instrument, not to create tunes but to provide aural accents for the scenes. Together, the puppeteers, the tayū and the shamisen-hiki are the gigeiin.

“If bunraku was baseball, the tayū would be the pitcher, the shamisen-hiki the catcher and the puppeteers the fielders. If the pitcher loses his rhythm, the catcher has a hard time leading and the fielders have a hard time protecting the field. That’s why the tayū has to be really solid” — a simile supplied not by a sports fan, but by the oldest living tayū, designated living national treasure Takemoto Sumitayu VII, 89, who is still hard at work despite suffering a stroke in July 2012.

Adding to Sumitayu’s woes since being so sorely afflicted has been Toru Hashimoto, the mayor of Osaka — the city still at the heart of bunraku and around which most of those involved in that culture live. Like many other art forms, this one has long been subsidized, but of late the mayor has been cutting back and making statements to the press and on Twitter that, “Bunraku is in decline because of the gigeiin’s reduced awareness.” Not only that, but he has seen fit to declare that, “If the living national treasures don’t come and talk to me, I won’t release the rest of their subsidies.”

After his stroke, Sumitayu said he determined that, “Though it might be impossible to make a comeback, I want to go on stage again — and especially because it would be very frustrating to have to retire under those circumstances.”

During his rehabilitation, he said, his therapists and doctors all told him he would recover quickly because he had that goal to work toward — and indeed, he always exercised for longer than they told him to.

Laughing, he likened this to his youth, when, he said, “I was clumsy and a slow learner, so I was always asking my bunraku master and my superiors, ‘Sorry, please teach me again’ — and it was the same with my rehabilitation. In hospital, too, they said that breathing is an important part of getting better, and I thought that was also something in common with bunraku.”

This January, Sumitayu made his first post-stroke appearance on stage in Osaka, followed by a full return in April, with Tokyo shows in May. When he returned, both he and many in the audiences shed tears.

“I’ve been a tayū for more than 60 years, and the art is in my bones — that’s why the words just naturally came out when I heard the shamisen,” he explained.

As for his ongoing rehabilitation, he said, “I still have lingering symptoms and I’m not fully recovered. I do find it frustrating, but bunraku values emotion over all else, and every day I feel I want to express that, so I keep doing it. The audiences listen to me, and I don’t know if it’s sweat or tears, but I see them wiping their faces, and that makes me feel very grateful.”

Although bunraku is unlike kabuki in that its performers are generally not taking hereditary roles, Sumitayu has been immersed in it since childhood. His father was Takemoto Sumitayu VI, a renowned tayū who advised him against following in his footsteps into “a life of toil.”

However, Sumitayu was irresistibly drawn to the art form, though after university his ambitions were interrupted by war, when he was sent to Shanghai and nearby Suzhou as a soldier. It was only after the surrender in 1945 that he officially began his career as a professional gigeiin. In the turmoil of the early postwar years, the gigeiin would travel all over Japan polishing their art — but making barely enough money to live.

Despite this, Sumitayu said, “I just loved it, and I kept doing it. After the war, every day was so hard; ‘struggle’ doesn’t begin to describe it. But I thought, ‘I can’t let poverty get the better of me,’ and so I kept at it.

“You can’t look impoverished if you’re performing in front of an audience, but you can’t put on airs either; you can’t pretend to be smooth, and you can’t try to make the audience cry either.

“Basically if you just work diligently and honestly at your craft, you’ll naturally be good at it by the time you’re 60 or 70. Your humanity comes out in your craft, and though of course humanity isn’t all it takes, there are some things you just can’t teach no matter how hard you try — you know?”

For Sumitayu and the nation’s other bunraku artists, persistence finally paid off when, in 1966, the National Theatre was opened in Tokyo, followed by Osaka’s National Bunraku Theatre in 1984 — so establishing key twin hubs for the performance art’s promotion.

“The theater in Tokyo is close to the Imperial Palace, and when it was built there wasn’t anything else around there, so we really wondered if anyone would come to see the shows,” Sumitayu recalled. “But, fortunately, nowadays it gets full houses. Even so, it costs a lot to bring everything from Osaka, and we can’t manage to make a profit. In Osaka, the theater has ‘bunraku’ in the name, and since it’s a native Osakan art form, I was really pleased about that — though lately I’ve been sad to see audiences there have got smaller.

“Unfortunately, Japan is losing interest in its traditions, and I always tell my apprentices, ‘You can’t let it die out — you’ve got to put on shows that people can understand, even if there are no subtitles.’ ”

Such urgings notwithstanding, most Japanese people nowadays live in a world with absolutely no connection to bunraku, which uses the old Osaka-based language that is different from today’s everyday speech.

However, there’s no denying that it is still enjoyed by many. The Emperor and Empress often go to see performances, which is surely a sign of their love for it, and their appreciation of it as a valued Japanese tradition.

Indeed, Sumitayu said, “This year the Empress said to me, ‘I’m glad that you’re feeling better.’ So I thought maybe she had seen me in the newspaper or on television.”

In addition, kabuki actors in search of an “authentic performance” often come to the tayū to learn the speaking style, since bunraku plays are the source of many kabuki plays. And just as audience members who don’t speak Japanese can enjoy that traditional theater form, so the spirit and emotion in the shamisen’s sound, and the chanting of the tayū, can be understood by all.

With that in mind, Sumitayu noted, “Now we have to keep making bunraku more appealing to audiences. We’ve also got to do things the fans like, and make good new shows and get people interested. That way — so then they’ll come see the classics, too.”

As for himself, he said, “I might pass on soon, but I think I’ll keep on rehearsing after I die, because in the entertainment world you never get good enough.” Then, citing his late senior apprentice, Takemoto Koshijidayu IV, who complained, “One life isn’t enough practice. I want a second life,” Sumitayu said, “I understand just how he felt.”

Others are seemingly less devoted to this traditional art form. Indeed, starting this year, the terms of the subsidy from Osaka City now include a condition stating that if a certain audience quota isn’t reached, the payment will be reduced in the future or cut altogether. Yet since the role of a subsidy is to supplement income that isn’t sufficient, surely that new policy runs counter to the spirit and purpose of such assistance. And anyway, is the value of bunraku, which the gigeiin give their lives to preserve, really measurable in annual attendance figures?

Please everyone, come to the theater and see for yourself.

Takemoto Sumitayu VII will perform in Part II of “Hatsuharu Bunraku Performance” at the National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka from Jan. 3-26. For details, call the theater at 06-6212-2531 or visit www.ntj.jac.go.jp/schedule/bunraku/ or www.ntj.jac.go.jp/kokuritsu.html. This article was written in Japanese for The Japan Times and translated by Claire Tanaka.