The Tokyo National Theater is currently showing a three-hour bunraku performance drawn from the play “Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami” (literally translated as: “Sugawara Certifies a Disowned Disciple to Perpetuate His Line of Calligraphy”), written by Takeda Izumo and collaborators in 1746.

“Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami” centers on the life of Sugawara Michizane (845-903), and his feud with Fujiwara Shihei. Through the machinations of Shihei, Michizane was exiled to Dazaifu in Kyushu, where he died.

This Machiavellian historical tale is also combined with the story of the lives of three triplets, born in Osaka just before the play was written. The three brothers, whose symbolic names are taken from ume (plum) and matsu (pine) and sakura (cherry), trees, have strikingly different characters and appearances. They are all three servants to the courtiers: Umeomaru serves Michizane; Matsuomaru works for Michizane’s mortal enemy, Shihei; and Sakuramaru, a humble oxherd, is in the service of Prince Tokiyo, younger brother of the emperor. The political rivalries of their masters lead to passionate rivalry between the brothers. This partial version of the play focuses on the story of Sakuramaru.

The play opens with an idyllic outing near the Kamo Shrine in Kyoto. Sakuramaru and his wife, Yae, arrange a meeting between Prince Tokiyo and Michizane’s beautiful foster daughter Kariyahime. Kariyahime meets Prince Tokiyo but their assignation is spotted by Minister Shihei’s spy and the young lovers have to flee. Suspected of having treasonous intentions against the throne, Michizane is exiled to northern Kyushu. Determined to take revenge on Minister Shihei for plotting the downfall of Michizane, one day Umeomaru and Sakuramaru try to attack and kill Shihei on his visit to the Yoshida Shrine, but they are blocked by their own brother Matsuomaru, Shihei’s servant, and forced to retreat. The sibling feud continues when the three brothers are invited back to their father Shiratayu’s house for his 70th birthday.

When Umeomaru and Matsuomaru finally arrive in Shiratayu’s absence, they resume their quarrel, and while wrestling in the garden, fall against the cherry tree. Shiratayu finds the broken cherry tree on his return and has a premonition of the imminent death of Sakuramaru. The old man then disowns Matsuomaru because he works for Shihei and dismisses Umeomaru.

When the two brothers depart, Sakuramaru appears from inside the house wearing a black kimono, in a style far too graceful for his position as an oxherd. He has resolved to commit seppuku as a way of taking responsibility for being the cause of Michizane’s exile. Sakuramaru stabs himself with a dagger, which has been handed to him by his father. As he expires, the old man beats a hand bell madly, to help his son die in peace.

Yoshida Kazuo

The puppet-handler for Sakuramaru, is Yoshida Kazuo (the stage name for Tsunetoshi Ogino), 57, one of the leading members of the “younger” generation of the bunraku theater, now in their 40s and 50s.

Born and brought up near Uwajima on Shikoku Island, Kazuo had no ambition to become a puppeteer when he finished high school. What made him decide to take it up was a meeting with Oe Minosuke (d. 1997), the renowned sculptor of bunraku puppet heads, in his workshop on Awajishima Island (Hyogo Prefecture) in 1966.

In the following year, Kazuo, then aged 20, joined the Bunraku Association and began his apprenticeship under Yoshida Bunjaku, the eminent puppeteer designated living national treasure.

For the past 37 years, Kazuo has worked under Bunjaku, spending 10 years handling the legs, then another 10 years operating the left hand of the puppet. During the course of his apprenticeship, Kazuo was taught to master the bunraku texts before becoming a principal omozukai (puppet operator) 20 years ago. The omozukai acts out the words uttered by a tayu (narrator). He controls the right hand of the puppet with his right hand and, from under the back of the puppet’s sash, holds the short dogushi (wooden stick) supporting the puppet’s head with his left. He creates expressions by manipulating a spring attached to the dogushi. Gentle and genial, Kazuo is the ideal person to perform the role of Sakuramaru who is supposed to be gentle in character. Kazuo learned how to handle the puppet for this role in 1980. In spring 2002, Kazuo was assigned to perform Sakuramaru at the Bunraku Theater in Osaka and the National Theater in Tokyo.

“What I have learned from my master Bunjaku in the past years is to grasp the true shone [nature] of each character I perform and express it in the puppet I handle,” Kazuo said in a recent interview. “So for each performance, I spend time ‘building the character.’ ”

Being at the prime of his power as an omozukai, Kazuo is sure to delight us for many years to come with his elegantly controlled style.

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