“One aspiring to become a puppet operator would have to spend 10 years to master the handling of the puppet’s feet and another 10 years to be able to operate its left hand,” says Yoshida Bunjaku, 79, one of two omozukai (principal puppeteers) awarded the title of Living National Treasure. “While he is learning . . . he is supposed to watch what the omozukai, who is constantly giving him signs, does on stage.”

For the past 55 years, Bunjaku has been in charge of the approximately 400 kashira (puppet heads) that belong to the National Theater of Japan: 30 types of male heads and 10 kinds of female heads. For every bunraku (traditional Japanese puppet) performance in Tokyo, Osaka or other parts of the country, Bunjaku, using his formidable knowledge of the art form, selects the heads which he considers most appropriate for the roles in the forthcoming plays.

The heads of bunraku puppets are each carved from a single piece of Japanese cypress from the Kiso Mountains. But as Bunjaku told The Japan Times in a recent interview, “The material should be more than 60 years old, and it should be dried thoroughly after being immersed in river water for several years.”

Inside the hollow head is a mechanism comprised of springs and silk strings that moves the eyeballs, eyebrows and lips, and makes the head point up or down. The head is supported by a dogushi (wooden handle), which is held by the left hand through a hole in a board covering the puppet’s torso.

The facial features of male puppet heads are often exaggerated. The omozukai creates expressions — such as raised eyebrows, roving eyes and an opened mouth — by manipulating with his left thumb and forefinger bamboo buttons set in the dogushi. For young girls, the eyes are generally open and the lips spread a little apart; the head of a married woman has her eyebrows shaved off and her lips are open to show blackened teeth; while the head of an old woman has no eyebrows and her lips are slightly open.

For the current performance of “Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami (Sugawara Certifies a Disowned Disciple to Perpetuate His Line of Calligraphy)” at the National Theater, Tokyo, Bunjaku is handling one of his favorite old-women heads for the character of Sugawara Michizane’s aunt Kakuju. For Michizane (845-903) himself, the puppet master has chosen a grimacing head for Act II, when the scholar visits Kakuju at the Domyoji Temple on the way to Dazaifu in Kyushu, where Michizane was exiled to in 901.

“A kashira chosen for a performance,” Bunjaku says, “should be cleaned thoroughly and covered with a new layer of coarse-grained gofun (purified chalk) mixed with glue. It is important to use the gofun in a rough texture so that the puppet’s face doesn’t reflect too much light on stage. A kashira can last for 100 years if it’s given proper care.”

When the face is made up, a wig is fixed onto it, and the hair is styled by a puppet-head hairdresser. Most of the 400 heads belonging to the National Theater are extremely valuable because most were carved by Oe Minosuke (born Oe Takeo; 1907-97) between 1945 and 1964.

A native of Naruto in Tokushima Prefecture on Shikoku Island, and a member of a family of craftsmen who made puppet heads for local theaters in Awaji, Hyogo Prefecture, Oe went to Osaka in 1930 at age 23, carrying a set of carving implements. He began to work there at the Bunraku-za theater in Yotsuhashi as a member of a circle of puppeteers headed by Kiritake Monzo. Copying the famous puppet heads owned by the theater, he asked such renowned puppeteers as Yoshida Eiza and Yoshida Bungoro for advice.

After the end of World War II, Oe was asked by the head of the Shochiku Company to make replicas of heads that had been damaged in air-raids on Osaka and Kobe in March 1945.

As Bunjaku studied how to handle puppets under the omozukai Bungoro in the 1940s, he remembers how his master helped Oe with the problems he encountered in trying to carve female heads all by himself. The first piece Oe created upon his return to Osaka in 1946 was the head of a married woman, which Bungoro liked so much that he often used it up until his death in 1962.

“Here is the most important advice Bungoro gave to Oe,” Bunjaku recalls. “When you work on the head of a young girl,” he heard Bungoro tell Oe, “you are not supposed to define her facial features accurately. You must leave them as vague as possible. I will infuse the character’s feelings into it while performing with it.”

So Oe left his heads “unfinished” — he stopped just before reaching the final stage of his carving in order to allow the puppeteer to give life to the work he had created.

As the nation’s leading bunraku onnagata (handler of female puppets) of married or old women, Bunjaku now reveals the power of Oe’s kashira while performing as Kakuju. Stern yet compassionate, Kakuju lets her daughter, who is hiding in a basket covered with a red kimono, bid farewell to Michizane (her adopted father) as he is about to depart. Although Bunjaku cannot see the face of his puppet as he holds it before him, he makes his moves at the correct moments thanks to cues from the Gidayu master(narrator) accompanied by the plucking of a shamisen.

“I can make the right movement with the puppet or render the right impression on its face when I perform with the right Gidayu master,” says Bunjaku.

In April 1990, Bunjaku gave a memorable performance as Kakuju with omozukai Yoshida Tamao handling Michizane, to narration by Takemoto Sumitayu. And this month, in memory of Tamao, who died a year ago, Bunjaku performs Kakuju with Tamao’s number-one disciple, Yoshida Tamame, in the role of Michizane.

Bunjaku demonstrated for The Japan Times how he creates subtle emotions on the face of Kakuju while performing. Pulling the string in the dogushi with his left middle finger, he tilts the puppet’s head up — or then releases the string to make it nod or display different nuances on the face. The tilting of the head is similar to how a noh actor wearing a mask changes the mood of a character by moving his head up and down.

When handled by Bunjaku, the face of Kakuju becomes exquisitely alive with suppressed emotions, and it is apparent how successfully Oe, with his his great love for bunraku, infused the spirit of the character into the head of the puppet he had created.

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