One wicked tale from the other Japanese puppets

Long-running Youkiza marionette theater updates classic kabuki tale with "Choan and the Broken Umbrella"


Founded in 1635 by Youki Magosaburo I, Youkiza is the oldest marionette theater in Tokyo and the only remaining troupe among the five theaters from the Edo Period (1603-1867) — three kabuki and two marionette — that were officially recognized and financially supported by the Tokugawa Shogunate. Designated as an Important Cultural Asset by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in 1956 and a recipient of national government recognition in 1995, Youkiza regularly presents programs led by Youki Magosaburo XII.

The 65-year-old Magosaburo XII, the theater’s 12th director, has explored new possibilities for puppet theater throughout his career. Under his leadership, the Youkiza’s repertoire has ranged from traditional Buddhist parables and kabuki pieces to new works based on Japanese and Western literature, including productions of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” at the 1986 Belgrade International Theater Festival and French writer Jean Genet’s “Les Paravents” (2002) in France and Austria.

“Even though we always perform in Japanese and often without subtitles, puppets are easier to understand beyond languages,” says Chie Youki, Magosaburo XII’s sister and one of the puppet handlers, who has participated in several of the overseas performances.

While maintaining its theatrical legacy, Youkiza has carved out its own way by collaborating with cutting-edge playwrights and directors, such as Makoto Sato and Yoshiyuki Fukuda. From Dec. 10 to 14 at Theater Tram in Tokyo’s Sangenjaya, the marionette company will stage its latest production, “Yabure-gasa Choan (Choan and the Broken Umbrella).” Based on the kabuki masterpiece “Murai Choan” by Kawatake Mokuami (1816-93) — who is often referred to as Japan’s Shakespeare — the libretto was written by playwright and director Kiyokazu Yamamoto (b. 1939). Yamamoto first collaborated with Youkiza when they presented the children’s story “A Demanding Restaurant” by Kenji Miyazawa in 2006.

“I did not change too much of the original plot and settings, but it is important to present this picaresque story in a suitable way for the contemporary age,” says Yamamoto.

The story follows Choan, an evil doctor in Edo (present-day Tokyo), who kills Jubei, his brother-in-law, and makes a false charge against Fujikake Dojuro, a samurai who forgot an umbrella at his clinic. The role of Choan will be played by Kazuyoshi Kushida (b. 1942), a veteran actor and director, who will interact with the 60-cm-tall puppets that represent the play’s other characters. The addition of a human actor on the stage is part of Youkiza’s attempts to modernize their art form.

Unlike in bunraku (another kind of Japanese puppet theater), in which responsibility for movements and words are strictly divided among puppet- handlers and a narrator, at Youkiza, puppet handlers both deliver the dialogue and manipulate the marionettes themselves. As well, the actions of the Youkiza handlers can represent aspects of the puppets’ characters.

“At the beginning, it was quite embarrassing for me,” says Kushida. “I did not know to whom to talk: to the small puppet? Or to its handler?”

The production will be accompanied by new compositions by contemporary pianist and composer Yuji Takahashi (b. 1938) rather than the shamisen music that Japanese marionette productions traditionally feature.

“I had no intention to perform a classical piece as it was,” says Magosaburo XII, who was given the name in 1993. “It is obvious from the fact that I commissioned the direction to Yamamoto.”

At rehearsals, the members were enjoying the creative process, discussing the timing, positions and movements on the stage and the modulation of the words. In one scene, for example, a rain storm is raging after midnight. Kushida, playing Choan, slashes the puppet Jubei — who is being handled by Magosaburo XII — with his sword, and the puppet falls to the ground followed by Magosaburo XII, who Choan has attacked as well. With a devilish smile, Choan robs Jubei as thunder crashes before delivering a monologue set to the quiet yet thrilling tones of piano accompaniment.

“The original shamisen patterns inspired me to transform them into piano tunes,” Takahashi says. “I have already written down the notes, but maybe in vain. The music will change every moment by interacting with the puppets and the actor.”

At the end of his monologue, the villainous hero Choan says, “Urami ga arunara kane ni ie! (If you have a grudge against me, tell it to the money!)”

“Actually, we want to say such a phrase, don’t we?” suggests Kushida with a smile. “Choan speaks for us and reminds us of the inner dark desire that we all share.”

Performances of “Yabure-gasa Choan” will take place from Dec. 10 to 14 at Theatre Tram in Tokyo’s Sangenjaya; tickets are ¥3,500-¥5,000. For more information call (042) 322-9750 or visit