Audiences at the Tokyo National Theater are being treated to two full-length Bunraku masterpieces being staged in its smaller auditorium this month.

The first play, at 11 a.m., is “Futatsu Chocho Kuruwa Nikki (Chogoro and Chokichi and Their Diary of the Pleasure Quarters).” A sewamono or “realistic play,” this was written by Takeda Izumo and collaborators in 1749.

The drama begins with an illicit love affair between a married man, Yamazaki Yogoro, and Azuma, a beautiful courtesan working at Shinmachi in Osaka.

Chogoro, a sumo wrestler, feels compelled to help the star-crossed lovers because Yogoro is his patron. In trying to help them escape from the pleasure quarters, Chogoro inadvertently kills the two samurai pursuing Azuma, Gozaemon and Ariemon.

So Chogoro flees Osaka and goes to visit his old mother living in the village of Yawata south of Kyoto. While Chogoro is resting upstairs, though, his stepbrother Jujibei returns home — only to be told by relatives of the dead samurai that they are bent on revenge against Chogoro. At first, Jujibei is eager to avenge the dead samurai, and go in search of the killer. Then, when he discovers that the killer is his stepbrother, he agrees to call off the hunt for his stepmother’s sake. Chogoro is so moved by this that he wants to give himself up to Jujibei, but he’s urged by his mother to escape instead. In the end, however, he reaches a compromise with her by agreeing to let her shave off his forelock, a symbol of a sumo wrestler, so that he can escape in disguise. She then fulfills her giri (obligation) to her stepson, (whose duty is to arrest her son), by tying Chogoro up with the end of the cord of a skylight window. Jujibei in turn fulfills his obligation to his stepmother by cutting the cord with his sword, thus inadvertently allowing Chogoro to escape. This scene is known as “Hikimado (Skylight)” and is the high point of the play.

Bunraku is staged entirely with puppets, each of which is manipulated by a team of three men, two of them completely cloaked in black, accompanied by gidayu (dialog and narration) set to samisen music. The person who delivers lines and provides background narration depicting a certain scene or situation, is called tayu (master). In this production, the tayu is Takemoto Sumitayu VII (real name Kishimoto Kin’ichi), an 80-year-old native of Osaka and a designated living national treasure, who is superlative in the kiriba, or final scene, of Act IV. In this scene, Sumitayu has to speak the lines for all six characters: Chogoro, Chogoro’s old mother, her stepson Jujibei, Jujibei’s wife, Ohaya, and the two samurai visitors.

For 55 minutes, Sumitayu delivers the entire scene speaking from the depths of his abdomen, subtly adjusting his voice to suit each character.

In order to fortify his belly, he 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. Sitting to the left of the revolving stage, Sumitayu delivers the lines in the kiriba, solo, without once glancing at the main stage. When he deals with the ji (background narration) parts, he uses eloquent melodies, heightened by the evocative sound of the samisen played by Nozawa Kinshi, 48.

In the gidayu, breathing is the most important factor for a lifelike rendition of the characters. “In delivering lines,” Sumitayu says, “it is not enough to simply imitate the voice of the person represented. To distinguish the characters, and suggest different moods or nuances, requires the on [tones of voice] to be varied.” Other points of importance are timing or ma and the use of fine Osaka diction.

Offstage, Sumitayu is an attractive, vigorous and affable man, who is eager to talk about himself and his profession. After a successful 58-year career as a gidayu master, he still works hard to rehearse. His voice, although not mellifluous, strikes you as exquisitely expressive and moving when he renders the lines exchanged between Chogoro and his old mother.

Sumitayu really enjoys his work as a gidayu master, and “Hikimado” is one of his favorites from the repertoire. He finds it challenging to portray the psychological struggle between Chogoro and his mother, her concern for her stepson Jujibei and his wife, and the intimate relationship existing between Jujibei and his wife Ohaya.

“I find it exciting to convey to the audience a sense of jo [feelings, love, compassion] cherished by those who are portrayed in such Bunraku plays as ‘Hikimado’ through the skills I have developed over the years,” Sumitayu confides.

* * * The second play running this month starts at 4:30 p.m. and is titled “Koinyobo Somewake Tazuna (The Woman who Holds the Reins Dyed in a Few Colors).”

It is a jidaimono (historical play) reworked by Yoshida Kanshi and Miyoshi Shoraku in 1751 after the celebrated Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s 1708 drama.

This is the story of Shigenoi, the daughter of Takemura Sadanoshin, a Noh actor serving Daimyo Yurugi in the domain of Tamba near Kyoto. After an illicit love affair between Shigenoi and a young retainer called Date no Yosaku, he is expelled, whereas Shigenoi’s life is spared through the self-sacrifice of her father Sadanoshin.

After his expulsion she bears Yosaku’s child in secret, and has to send it away away to be brought up by Hachizo, Yosaku’s retainer, living as a mago (packhorse driver). But then, when Shigenoi encounters her son Sankichi as a precocious 11-year-old brought up as a mago, she has to part with him after failing to make him understand why she cannot accept him any more.

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