Hyper Japan hails digital-age ‘Genji’ opera

by Tom Smith

Special To The Japan Times

Modern technology and age-old tradition combined last week for the premiere run of an ambitious Japanese opera with a difference — one with no live singers, musicians or actors.

That’s because the stars of “Vocaloid Opera Aoi with Bunraku Puppets” at Hyper Japan in city-center Earls Court — an event “celebrating the most dynamic elements of Japanese popular culture” — could have stepped straight from the world of bunraku (traditional Japanese puppetry). And with even this performance-art film’s libretto voiced by a computer, there’s never been anything quite like those July 25-27 screenings.

Bunraku, whose roots trace back to late-17th-century Osaka, comprises three elements: ningyōtsukai (rarely-glimpsed black-clad puppeteers, three to a puppet, who are this work’s only direct human contributors); tayū (chanter/voice actor); and a shamisen player sometimes augmented by taiko drummers. The role of the tayū is crucial in providing emotion to the story, expressing each character’s voice, personality and even facial expressions, and though a sole tayū is the norm, in very long works others sometimes also take part.

In “Opera Aoi,” this key input comes courtesy of software known as Vocaloid — begging the question whether electronics can emulate human emotion.

Vocaloid has been a hot topic in recent years. Developed by Yamaha, it allows users to synthesize a singing voice with the addition of lyric and melody input. It is now a bona fide music genre, with recognized producers and characters that regularly make the top 10 in the Oricon pop charts in Japan. The most famous digital persona in the genre is Miku Hatsune, a virtual idol who joined Lady Gaga on tour earlier this year.

“Opera Aoi” is a 30-minute work based on the ninth chapter of “Genji Monogatari” (“The Tale of Genji”), a classic 11th-century work of Japanese literature by Murasaki Shikibu, a noblewoman who was a lady-in-waiting at court during the peak of the Heian Period (794-1185). That rarefied provenance, though, is far, far removed from this arrestingly up-to-date version created within the context of Vocaloid, virtual idols and the music industry.

In the original novel, Aoi, the wife of Prince Hikaru, is possessed by the vengeful spirit of her husband’s former lover, and a priest is summoned to perform an exorcism. But in “Opera Aoi” these roles are given a radical makeover, with Aoi now a pop star, Hikaru a top music producer who was once part of the original Vocaloid boom — and the priest a psychiatrist.

In “Opera Aoi,” Hikaru — sensing that the Vocaloid movement is becoming saturated — reverts to working with real singers again.

One of those is Aoi, a vocalist who first found fame covering Vocaloid songs with releases of her own (along the lines of Supercell and others today) but has since left the software behind.

On the way to the studio to record a song for her 10th-anniversary album, though — a track originally written for a Vocaloid character — Aoi passes out.

Later she awakes in hospital in a fit of rage, her eyes rolled back and her voice eerily replaced with something digital-sounding. As her body flails around out of control, it’s as if she’s been possessed by the Vocaloid character the track was written for. Whether this digital entity can have a will of its own is something the audience will then find out …

“Opera Aoi” manages to take a story written about 1,000 years ago and make it totally relevant to our digital age, with a plot centered around a cultural phenomenon where digital characters are personified, while their roles are acted by puppets and synthetic vocals emulating human emotions, ideas and passions. It’s all very meta, ironic and utterly contemporary yet traditional, too — though the mind boggles what Lady Murasaki’s reaction would be to this ninth chapter of her masterpiece.

But be warned: There are few things more disturbing than a possessed puppet — although that didn’t stop the brave London audience from awarding the screening the loudest round of applause of the entire Hyper Japan weekender.

“Vocaloid Opera Aoi with Bunraku Puppets” runs Sept. 10-15 at the Tollywood art-house cinema in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo, and at theaters across Japan this fall. For details, visit www.opera-aoi.com.