Bunraku legend gets set for his grand finale

by Rei Sasaguchi

Special To The Japan Times

On the occasion of his retirement after three decades as a bunraku narrator, the designated living national treasure Takemoto Sumitayu VII will present part of a program of traditional puppetry (ningyō jōruri) being staged by the National Theatre in Tokyo from May 10-26.

Born Kin’ichi Kishimoto in Osaka, Sumitayu, 89, will perform the “Kutsukakemura” (“Kutsukake Village”) segment of a 13-act bunraku play titled “Koinyobo Somewake Tazuna” — which translates, albeit awkwardly, as “A Wife in Love Holding the Colored Reins.”

First staged at the Takemoto-za in Osaka in 1751, this adaptation by Yoshida Kanshi and Miyoshi Shoraku of an earlier work by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, requires Sumitayu to narrate for around an hour, with 56-year-old Nozawa Kinshi providing the samisen accompaniment, just as he did when Sumitayu performed the same work at the same venue in 1996 — though the musician was then known as Nozawa Kin’ya.

Despite its difficulty, Sumitayu has said he chose this piece to pay homage to his unrelated predecessor and mentor, Sumitayu VI, as it was one of his favorite works — and he, too, performed it on the occasion of his retirement, in 1958.

In its entirety, the long and complicated play follows the mixed fortunes of Shigenoi, the daughter of a noh master retained by Yurugi Saemon, the lord of Tamba (in present-day Hyogo Prefecture). It begins with Shigenoi falling in love with Date no Yosaku, a son of the lord’s chief retainer, and bearing his child, after which her father is ordered to commit hara-kiri to earn her forgiveness. That done, the lord appoints Shigenoi to be the nurse for his own young daughter.

In “Kutsukake Village,” Sumitayu, sitting to the left of the stage, narrates the lines for eight characters from the depths of his abdomen, subtly changing the tones of his voice to suit each one. In order to fortify his belly during the performance, Sumitayu binds it with a cotton belt under his costume, sits on his heels with a low stool under him and places an otoshi (weight) on his stomach. From his years of practice, he can articulate his voice through his nose to even sound like a woman or a young boy.

The action in the village unfolds around the impoverished and sickly unnamed nurse of 8-year-old Yonosuke, the child born out of wedlock, and her own son, Hachizo, a former servant of Date no Yosaku who now scratches a living as a packhorse driver (mago). One day another mago, named Jirosaku, turns up and offers Hachizo a job.

When Hachizo eventually returns, he brings with him Keimasa, a blind monk (zato) sat astride his horse. That night, when the monk and his mother are asleep, Hachizo starts sharpening his sword but the noise wakens them both and Keimasa says he feels it is time for him to leave. Then, as the monk starts to walk away in the dark, Hachizo is set upon by two robbers who he fends off with a charcoal brazier (hibachi). In the fight, a blow to the brazier sends gold coins cascading out of it — which in the end leads to the realization that Keimasa is actually the older brother of Date no Yosaku, Yonosuke’s father, who has come to help the family out by hiding the money in the brazier.

In his swan-song performances, Sumitayu will narrate this ripping yarn as the characters are brought to life (and death) by a venerable cast of puppeteers comprising 85-year-old Yoshida Bunjaku, Yoshida Minosuke, 80, and their younger cohorts Kiritake Kanjuro, Kiritake Montomi, Yoshida Kazuo and Yoshida Tamame.

For the master-narrator Sumitayu, and those who go along to witness and enjoy his intaikoen (retirement performance), this is a parting that promises to be sweet sorrow for one and all.

Takemoto Sumitayu VII’s special retirement program runs May 10-26 at the National Theatre in Tokyo. For details, call 0570-07-9000 or visit www.ntj.jac.go.jp.