On Nov. 7, 2003, bunraku was recognized by UNESCO as a World Intangible Cultural Heritage. The award cited the unique nature of Japan’s indigenous puppet theater, and praised the realism with which it portrays human emotions.

Bunraku has a long and varied history. Called ningyo joruri (literally, “puppet theater”) from the late 16th century through the 19th century, bunraku uses sophisticated techniques whereby each puppet in a leading role is manipulated by a team of three men. Narration and dialogue are provided separately, to the accompaniment of a shamisen.

In a bunraku performance, the omozukai (principal puppeteer) controls the right hand of the puppet with his right hand and, from under the back of the puppet’s sash, uses his left hand to hold a short wooden stick, the dogushi, that supports the puppet’s head. His left arm is thus the “spine” of the puppet, and expressions on the puppet’s face are controlled by manipulating with the fingers of the left hand a spring set in the dogushi.

During a performance, the two men handling the left hand and the legs of the puppet (or the lower half of the kimono, if the puppet is female), are required to stay behind the puppet and beside the omozukai. They time their moves by closely observing the back of the puppet’s head and the omozukai’s left arm. All three must move in perfect unison.

All Gidayu narration and dialogue are delivered from the side of the stage by a tayu (master). The shamisen is not merely a musical accompaniment to this, says Tsuruzawa Kanji, a noted player. Rather, the subtly varied, evocative tones of this three-stringed instrument directly express the feelings of the participating characters at different moments, as well as creating mood and atmosphere.

All these elements combine in a special season of bunraku masterpieces, to be presented this month at Tokyo National Theater in celebration of the recent UNESCO designation. From Feb. 7-22, the theater’s Small Auditorium will host 88 bunraku artists, including no fewer than five living national treasures; three omozukai — Yoshida Tamao, Yoshida Bunjaku and Yoshida Minosuke; Gidayu master Takemoto Sumitayu; and shamisen player Tsuruzawa Kanji.

No less venerable are the plays being performed. One of the most famous is “Sonezaki Shinju (Double Love Suicide at Sonezaki)” in Program B. This is renowned playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s first sewamono (realistic play) on the theme of love-suicide, based on an actual incident that occurred at Tenjin Shrine at Sonezaki in 1703.

Yoshida Tamao, who is going amazingly strong at age 84, operates the puppet for Tokubei, a young man who works as a clerk for his uncle; and Yoshida Minosuke, a relatively youthful 70, handles the puppet for Ohatsu, a beautiful courtesan of the Sonezaki pleasure quarters in Osaka, with whom Tokubei has been having an affair.

Tokubei’s uncle wants him to marry his wife’s niece, while one of Ohatsu’s clients has proposed to buy her freedom. To escape from their predicament, Tokubei and Ohatsu decide to commit suicide together, in the hope of being united after death. The final act features dazzling music from Kanji and four other shamisen players, to accompany the young lovers on their doomed journey.

Tamao played Tokubei for the first time at age 36, when “Sonezaki Shinju” was revived and staged in Osaka in 1955, and since then he has played the part more than 1,100 times! If you haven’t got a ticket already, you’ll have to try the box office for returns for this performance — bunraku cognoscenti are so eager to see Tamao and Minosuke that tickets sold out on the first day.

Why not try for Program C instead? This features Acts VIII and IX from the famous “Kanadehon Chushingura (The 47 Loyal Retainers),” written by Takeda Izumo and collaborators in 1748, and is no less of a treat than Program B. That’s because of the pairing of Yoshida Bunjaku, 75, the finest living operator of the puppet for the lead character of Tonase, with the Gidayu narration and dialogue of Takemoto Sumitayu, 79, renowned for his powerful, exquisite voice.

“Chushingura” is based on the well-known incidents that took place in Edo in 1701 and 1702. On March 14, 1701, Daimyo Asano from Ako in the southwest of Hyogo Prefecture was ordered to commit seppuku for attempting to kill the shogun’s head steward, Kira Kozukenosuke, in Edo Castle, after being viciously insulted by him. Twenty-one months later, Asano’s 47 former retainers avenged their master’s death by killing Kira; then they, too, committed seppuku by order of the shogun.

As the Tokugawa regime forbade the use of the names of historical personages in dramatic works, “Chushingura” is relocated to the 14th century, shortly after the establishment of the Ashikaga Shogunate in 1336, and the principal characters are named after warriors from the late 14th-century “Taiheiki (Chronicle of the Great Peace).” Thus Daimyo Asano is called En’ya Hangan and Kira is Ko no Morono. Asano’s chief retainer, Oishi Kuranosuke, is referred to as Oboshi Yuranosuke and his son Chikara becomes Rikiya.

Act IX of “Chushingura,” known as “Yamashina Kankyo (A House in Yamashina),” relates an earlier event in which a daimyo’s retainer named Kakogawa Honzo prevented Hangan from slaying Morono. The main action is preceded by a lyrical dance portraying the journey of Honzo’s wife, Tonase, and her stepdaughter, Konami (operated by Yoshida Minosuke), to Yuranosuke’s house in Yamashina. Konami is engaged to Yuranosuke’s son, Rikiya, and Tonase wants the pair to marry. When the stepmother’s entreaties are rejected by Yuranosuke’s wife, Oishi (operated by Yoshida Kazuo), because Konami is Honzo’s daughter, Tonase tries to kill Konami and herself.

At that moment, Honzo himself (operated by Yoshida Bungo) turns up, disguised as a Buddhist mendicant, and allows Rikiya (operated by Yoshida Seinosuke) to stab him. Before he dies, Honzo apologizes to Yuranosuke (operated by Kiritake Kanjuro) for his crucial mistake in preventing Hangan from killing Morono. In recompense, he presents Rikiya with a map of Morono’s residence as a wedding gift. The map will enable the 47 ronin to carry out their plan of revenge.

The most outstanding feature of “Yamashina Kankyo” is found in the early scene in which Tonase and Oishi fight fiercely over the young couple’s marriage. The puppet for Oishi is expertly handled by Yoshida Kazuo, and Bunjaku is thrilled to perform Tonase opposite his 56-year-old disciple, who has studied under him for 36 years.

Adding to the moving effect of this part of “Yamashina Kankyo” is the superb narration and dialogue delivered by Sumitayu — we feel overwhelmed by the heated exchanges between Tonase and Oishi and, at the same time, touched by the strong bond shown by stepmother and daughter under such trying circumstances. Sumitayu considers this act the finest example there is of Gidayu narration, with fluent, expressive and melodious lines.

Backstage, Sumitayu spoke on behalf of the senior generation of bunraku masters, expressing their deep gratitude for the UNESCO recognition. He hopes that the designation will make bunraku even more attractive as a traditional theatrical form. And the masters themselves, he told me, will be doing their bit to ensure the preservation of this precious part of Japan’s cultural heritage:

“Naturally, we feel responsible for the future of bunraku, so we will strive to pass on our skills in our respective fields to the younger generation.”

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