Swept away by the ‘Tenpesuto’


“The Tempest,” Shakespeare’s play of sorcery, was originally planned for bunraku puppet theater for the 1991 Japan Festival in London. The script was to be written by Shoichi Yamada (b. 1925), the former executive director of bunraku at the National Theater, using a Japanese translation by Tsubouchi Shoyo, a renowned novelist, dramatist and critic of the Meiji-Taisho Era.

Yamada, however, was unable to complete the play in time for the festival and so “Tenpesuto: When the Storm is Over” was not shown until February 1992, in an Osaka performance directed by Yamada himself and accompanied by gidayu music composed by the Living National Treasure, Tsuruzawa Seiji (Hiroshi Nakanoshima, b.1945).

Yamada’s adaptation follows Shakespeare’s original storyline but sets events in medieval Japan. All the characters — now dramatized by beautifully crafted puppets, each manipulated by a team of three men — were given Japanese names and titles.

“Tenpesuto” opens with a startling four-minute musical rendition of a violent ocean storm played by six shamisen and one 17-string koto. Tsukushi no Tairyo, governor of the Tsukushi area in northern Kyushu, and his party are shipwrecked on a desolate island in the South Sea, on their return from the wedding of the governor’s daughter.

Unknown to Tairyo, the storm was summoned by Aso no Saemon Fujinori, a former daimyo of the Higo Province, present-day Kumamoto Prefecture, (Prospero in Shakespeare’s play), who has been living on the island with his daughter Midori since his exile 12 years before. Having been usurped by his own brother, Gyobu Kagetaka, who conspired with Tairyo, Saemon conjured the storm using magic and witchcraft that he learned from books given to him by Tairyo’s councilor Gonzaemon.

This tale of revenge takes a turn when Midori — beautifully manipulated by Kiritake Kanjuro to the narration of Toyotake Rosetayu — encounters and instantly falls in love with a handsome young man. She brings the young man home, but when he introduces himself as Harutaro, the son of Tairyo, Saemon explodes with anger.

Meanwhile, Tairyo has been brought ashore with Gyobu and Gonzaemon. Gyobu who now plots to usurp Tairyo, attempts to kill him, but is thwarted by the spirit Erihiko (Yamada’s version of Ariel) who has been helping Saemon with her magical powers.

By the end of the play, Saemon’s title and territory are returned to him, and seeing that Harutaro and Midori are in love, he surrenders his notions of revenge and agrees to their marriage. In doing so he finds himself at peace with the injustice done to him, but he also realizes a subtle form of revenge. The marriage of Midori and Harutaro would mean his bloodline is now part of Tairyo’s family.

In his epilogue, Saemon calmly informs the audience that he hopes to go home, attend his daughter’s wedding and live peacefully without ever resorting to witchcraft again — a majestic performance, delivered by an impressive puppet with the kashira (wooden head) of Shojo, manipulated by Yoshida Tamame.

When they began the project, both Shoichi Yamada and Tsuruzawa Seiji felt that a bunraku version out of “The Tempest” would be problematic. Shakespeare’s plays are logical, philosophical and filled with poetic phrases, whereas bunraku focuses on the realistic when expressing emotions and gives the audience brief, clear-cut lines and narrations.

But Yamada’s “Tenpesuto” is a remarkable and exciting adaptation of Shakespeare’s work, complete with an eloquent monogatari (story) told by Saemon, a charming kudoki (lament) scene from Midori and amusing chari or comic relief. For this coming show, all the kashira, costumes and sets are new and the principal handlers will be completely concealed in black clothing, an unusual move that adds to the drama of the play.

“Tenpesuto” is showing at the National Theater in Tokyo from Sept. 5- 23 starting at 6:30 p.m., to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the opening of the National Bunraku Theater in Osaka. Tickets are priced at ¥1,500, ¥4,700 and ¥5,700. For more information see www.ntj.jac.go.jp/english/index.html

Bunraku notes for beginners

• Unique to bunraku puppet theater is the use of kashira, hand-carved wooden heads that have names reflecting the age, social status and personality traits that they express.

In “Tenpesuto,” when Gyobu Kagetaka reflects on his own wickedness, his puppet’s kashira is Kodanhichi. Harutaro, the son of Tsukushi no Tairyo, has a kashira called Genda and the bunraku version of Prospero’s deformed slave Caliban, Dekamaru, has a kashira that resembles a crab. When Aso no Saemon Fujinori delivers his epilogue his kashira is Shojo.

• According to Tsuruzawa Seiji, composing gidayu music for bunraku begins with very a close reading of the script to help him decide what tones and tempo of shamisen would be most suitable. For “Tenpesuto,” Seiji first composed the theme music for Saemon, Midori, Erihiko and Dekamaru, which are played to herald the characters’ entrances on stage. The appearances of Erihiko and other spirits are preceded by semitone tunes or a simple triple beat to help create an eerie atmosphere.

Since the puppeteer handles his puppet according to the rhythm of gidayu, it was necessary for Seiji to follow the conventions of gidayu in composing his music for “Tenpesuto,” even though it is an adaptation of a Western play. Seiji’s skill particularly shines through in scenes four and five of the play when he accompanies Toyotake Rosetayu’s dialogues and narration.