Playing for his master


“I entered the world of bunraku by accident, without knowing anything about it,” says shamisen player Tsuruzawa Enjiro, who has just received the prestigious stage name Tsuruzawa Enza (VI) previously held by his master.

In 1977, at age 18, Enza VI — then known by his real name, Shinichi Tanaka — applied to the National Theater’s training program to study the shamisen, driven by a love of the minyo folk singing he watched on television.

“While attending classes at the National Theater, I came to like gidayu [narrative] music” he continues. Thus, when he completed his two-year training, he was assigned to work under Tsuruzawa Enza V, a living national treasure who was prominent in bunraku. This is how he unexpectedly came to be a part of bunraku, the traditional Japanese puppet theater that is accompanied by narrators and shamisen.

Enza VI says Enza V was strict when teaching, but was personally very kind throughout their long relationship. For 16 years, he learned from the master how to handle the instrument and perform on stage. His talent was quickly recognized as he proved capable of skillfully producing subtly varied tones on the finger pole with his left hand and of harmoniously accompanying the gidayu narrator.

On Aug. 3, 1995, 81-year-old Enza V suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while on stage at the bunraku theater in Osaka, and died six years later. Enza V was performing part of the 1739 historical play “Hirakana Seisuiki (The Rise and Fall of the Minamoto and Taira Warlords),” which Enza VI now brings to the Tokyo National Theater through May 28, in honor of his master and his succession to the name.

After the late Enza’s sudden illness, his student substituted for his master at the relatively young age of 36, completing the season with the gidayu master Takemoto Sumitayu. For the current production, Enza VI plays with the gidayu master Toyotake Sakitayu, 61, in the scenes “At the House of the Fisherman Gonshiro (Part 2)” and “The Sakaro (Using Oars in Reverse)” from “Hirakana Seisuiki.” Sumitayu, the head of the Bunrakuza (Society of Bunraku Performers), is introducing Enza VI to audiences under his new name. The event is of particular importance as he is the first graduate to specialize in shamisen at the National Theater’s training program who has received such an honor.

Enza VI was surprised when he first heard of his nomination in September 2004.

“The name is mine, but not entirely mine. So I feel responsible for carrying it,” he said in an interview with The Japan Times. “I have been warned by Sumitayu that I should be careful and work harder because the name means nothing unless one grows in his pursuit — unless the name is used as an incentive.”

Questioned about the pressure of bearing such a prestigious name, Enza said, “I will do my best. I may not reach the level of Master Enza’s art, but I hope to be able to play the shamisen well, to meet the expectations of all around me, and to surprise Master Enza, who must be watching me from heaven.”

Enza compares his responsibility on stage to the traditional role of a wife toward her husband: to help, support and encourage him while working. The current production of “Hirakana Seisuiki” shows a powerful harmony between Sakitayu and Enza.

“The most important thing Master Enza taught me,” Enza says, “is that the shamisen player in bunraku should make it easier for the gidayu master to deliver his lines and background narration in gidayu music well.”

At a tense moment in the performance, Enza VI demonstrates this ability, accompanying Sakitayu’s recital with the vibrant tones of his shamisen and adding sharp yells occasionally. The performance climaxes with a spectacular scene at sea in which Enza follows the powerful movements of a puppet who is rowing with a breathtaking rendition that recreates the surging of water and the sound of waves.

Truly, Enza VI is deserving of his new name, and of his former master’s approval.