Yoshida Minotaro (real name: Miyanaga Toyomi) is rare among today’s bunraku practitioners as he comes from the family of the prominent puppeteer Kiritake Kanjuro II, who died in 1986 at age 66, four years after he was designated a living national treasure. Minotaro was 33 years old at the time of his father’s death, and now, at 50, he has succeeded to the prestigious stage name left by his father.

This month at the Tokyo National Theater, Yoshida Tamao, Yoshida Bunjaku and Yoshida Minosuke — the three foremost puppet players and living national treasures each one — welcome the new Kanjuro. Yoshida Minosuke, in particular, takes great pride in his prize disciple, now embarking on his career as Kiritake Kanjuro III.

Kanjuro was 14 years old when he decided to become a puppeteer in 1967. He joined the Bunraku Association of Japan and apprenticed himself under Yoshida Minosuke, unsurpassed as an onnagata — a handler of puppets for female roles. Kanjuro first spent 15 years handling the ashi (legs) of the puppets operated by Minosuke, and another 10 years working the hidari (left hands). While working closely with Minosuke, Kanjuro learned his techniques and at the same time expanded his bunraku repertory. Over the past 10 years, Kanjuro has gained recognition as a highly talented omozukai (principal puppeteer), who handles the head and right hand of the puppet.

Kanjuro’s strength as an omozukai lies in his ability to handle both male and female roles, because he also learned from his father the operation of tachiyaku (male lead) puppets.

In Part 1 of the program, after he is introduced to the audience in the rite of shumei (succession to his stage name), Kanjuro performs one of the most important tachiyaku roles, Takechi Mitsuhide, which was inherited from his father. The character is the notorious protagonist of “Ehon Taiko-ki,” a 13-act bunraku play written in 1799 by Chikamatsu Yanagi and two collaborators, based on part of “Ehon Taiko-ki (Illustrated Books of the Life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi),” published 1797-1802.

The play details historical events, with the names of the real-life participants subtly altered as required by the laws of the day (thus Takechi and not the historical Akechi Mitsuhide). It centers on Mitsuhide’s actions during the first 13 days of June, 1582. Mitsuhide resolves to rebel against his warlord master Oda Harunaga (Nobunaga) on June 1 (Act I), and assassinates Harunaga — who is staying at the Honno-ji Temple in Kyoto — the following day (Act II).

The most outstanding part of “Ehon Taiko-ki” is Act X, known as “Amagasaki” after the region in the southeast of present-day Hyogo Prefecture where it is set. Mitsuhide, who has left the battlefield after fending off Harunaga’s powerful vassal Mashiba Hisayoshi (Toyotomi Hideyoshi) and his forces, comes to Amagasaki secretly to see his mother Satsuki (Kiritake Monju), who is angry with her son for his rebellious deed. Mitsuhide’s son, Jujiro (Yoshida Tamao), comes and tells his grandmother of his desire to join the fight against Hisayoshi’s forces.

Hisayoshi, disguised as a Buddhist mendicant, then appears and asks Satsuki to let him stay at her house overnight. Overhearing his mother urging the mendicant (whom he recognizes as Hisayoshi) to take a bath, Mitsuhide thrusts a bamboo spear into the bathroom. The next moment, Mitsuhide is shocked to find that he has stabbed his own mother — Satsuki foresaw her son’s murderous intent and entered the bathroom first herself.

Jujiro returns, fatally wounded in battle, and dies alongside his grandmother. Having killed his mother and watched his son die, Mitsuhide tries to conceal his agony. He then strikes heroic mie poses, and departs with Hisayoshi, who now appears clad in armor, after proposing to join him in combat at Yamazaki, south of Kyoto.

In “Kagamiyama Kokyo no Nishiki-e (Pictures of Our Home at Kagamiyama)” in Part 2, Kanjuro handles the puppet for Ohatsu, with Yoshida Minosuke taking the part of Onoe. Ohatsu is one of Minosuke’s favorite roles, and Kanjuro mastered Minosuke’s techniques by working as the ashi or hidari when his master was handling the puppet for Ohatsu.

“Kagamiyama” is an 11-act bunraku play, initially performed in Edo in 1782. Written by a physician with the pen name Yo Yotai, the play centers on some wicked people scheming to usurp the house of a provincial daimyo called Taga Tairyo. “Kagamiyama” was hugely popular among the Edo townsfolk because it was based on an actual incident that took place in the city in 1724, at the residence of Daimyo Matsudaira from Hamada in the western part of present-day Shimane Prefecture.

Out of this lengthy, complicated play, Acts VI and VII featuring the conflict of three remarkable women — Iwafuji, Onoe and Ohatsu — have survived. They are presented here alongside the tragic story of a minor samurai named Torii Matasuke, who dies for accidentally slaying his daimyo by mistake. Matasuke’s story is borrowed from another bunraku play titled “Kagamiyama Sato no Kikigaki (Stories Heard in the Pleasure Quarters of Kagamiyama),” presented in Osaka in 1796.

Iwafuji (Yoshida Bungo) is the chief lady-in-waiting, plotting against the house of Daimyo Taga with chief retainer Ikkaku and senior retainer Danjo. A splendid villain, Iwafuji is determined to destroy her rival Onoe (Yoshida Minosuke), the second-rank lady-in-waiting, because the latter now possesses a secret message from Ikkaku to Danjo, lost by Iwafuji.

Onoe is an embodiment of patience, enduring slights provoked by her lowly origins in the merchant class. She withstands Iwafuji’s insults until one day, returning from a visit to the Hachiman Shrine in Kamakura, Iwafuji torments her and viciously hits her with a slipper. After this public humiliation, Onoe collects herself and resumes her journey home in a palanquin, contemplating suicide.

Onoe’s maid, Ohatsu, the bright young daughter of an impoverished samurai, is worried about her mistress. Onoe writes a letter to her mother and Ohatsu delivers it, together with Iwafuji’s slipper. Disturbed by an ominous presentiment on her way, Ohatsu hurries back to her mistress only to find that she has stabbed herself to death.

Chagrined, Ohatsu swears to avenge Onoe’s death; she hastens away (exposing a pair of thin legs), carrying Onoe’s will, the secret letter, Iwafuji’s slipper and the dagger with which Onoe killed herself. After taking revenge on Iwafuji, Ohatsu is handsomely rewarded; she is promoted to the position held formerly by her beloved mistress.

In the scene between mistress and maid we are struck by Ohatsu’s touching devotion to Onoe, and Onoe’s deep love for Ohatsu, conveyed through the strong bond formed between Kanjuro and Minosuke over the past 36 years. Watching his superb performance as Ohatsu, we feel that the new Kanjuro is ready to carry the future of the bunraku theater on his shoulders.

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