A puppeteer of traditional Japanese arts

Photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto's modern vision of bunraku takes the audience back in time


As a photographer, Hiroshi Sugimoto creates artworks that start off as visions from his imagination. His celebrated “Seascapes” series, for example, which features oceans and skies devoid of all traces of human activity, began with the notion of a vista that could be viewed today in the same way that it would have been viewed millennia ago.

However, calling Sugimoto a “photographer” is rather like describing Leonardo da Vinci as a “draftsman.” Though his photographs routinely reach seven-digit dollar figures at auction the world over — and he will have major retrospectives at the National Gallery of Scotland and the Chinati Foundation, Texas, later this year — his activities now stretch to architecture and antique collecting. Most recently, he has been focusing his energy on productions of traditional Japanese performing arts, such as noh and bunraku. A performance of the latter will be held later this month to launch the brand new Kanagawa Arts Theatre (KAAT), and, like his photography, it is a work that began with a vision.

“My approach to traditional theater is that it needs to keep the spirit of the original; but, because I’m a contemporary artist, it needs to be presented in a contemporary way,” he explained in an interview at a Tokyo gallery last week.

As far as noh was concerned, that meant taking the performance outdoors. “Noh is performed at the National Noh Theater. It is done on a beautiful stage,” he said. “But that is inside a giant concrete building, completely cut off from nature.”

Sugimoto explained that the earliest noh stage, with a history going back to the 15th century, is located in Kyoto’s Nishi Honganji, and it is outdoors. “The proportions, the way it stands, is so beautiful, and it is surrounded by real pine trees dating from the 15th century.”

Two years ago, he arranged an outdoor noh performance for the launch of the Izu Photo Museum (which he also designed) in Shizuoka Prefecture, and he’s now applying a similarly revisionary approach to the upcoming bunraku performance at KAAT.

“Who wants to see the puppeteers’ faces?” Sugimoto asked with a cheeky laugh. “They should all be wearing black masks, so that there is a neutral black background to help viewers concentrate on the puppets.”

Sugimoto explained that the current bunraku convention, which is for the most senior of the three puppeteers manipulting each puppet to keep his face exposed to the audience, dates only to the Meiji Era. Prior to that, he said, all of the puppeteers’ faces were concealed behind masks.

Sugimoto’s innovations also extend to subject matter. While he chose to produce 18th-century playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s classic “Sonezaki Shinju” (“The Love Suicides at Sonezaki”), he made some important departures from the play’s conventional style of production.

Based on a true story, “Sonezaki Shinju” depicts the tragic double-suicide of a courtesan and her lover, a merchant who is being pressured to marry someone else. The play was eventually blamed for a rash of copycat love suicides in the early 16th century and was consequently banned from theaters.

“Chikamatsu brought together religion and romance,” Sugimoto said. “He introduced the idea that if the love between two people was pure, then the Amida Buddha would admit them to heaven.”

The key departure in Sugimoto’s production is the reinstatement of an original prologue in which the courtesan visits 33 temples; this, he thought, provided an important religious element to the story. That prologue, however, was so long that when recited at the speed of speech used by bunraku performers today, it lasted about 30 minutes. Working with shamisen player and Living National Treasure Tsurusawa Seiji, Sugimoto determined that, “Originally, this part must have been played much more quickly.” Consisting largely of a reading of the names of temples that the courtesan visits, the prologue was shrunk to a brisk 13 minutes.

Sugimoto laughed at the suggestion that he might be ruffling feathers in the bunraku world. “Not at all,” he said. “They welcome the idea of having someone new coming in and injecting new ideas.”

Puppeteer Kiritake Kanjuro became so absorbed by this revisionist spirit that he decided to build a traditional-style puppet, which would be operated by one person, as they used to be five centuries ago.

To act as a base for his expanding activities, Sugimoto created The Odawara Art Foundation in late 2009. The foundation, he said, “makes it easier to apply for public funds to assist in holding productions like the KAAT bunraku.”

He also hopes that it will eventually build a combined theater and museum facility in the Kanagawa Prefecture coastal town of Odawara, just west of Tokyo. “There will be three noh theaters down there,” he said, before explaining that one would be as close to the original 15th-century theater as possible — outdoors and surrounded by pine trees.

A second theater will be indoors — “for when it rains” — and a third will be made of glass. “It will be jutting out from a cliff, 10 or 20 meters above the sea, and the entire stage will be made of optical glass,” he said, filling in the details of the vision he has in mind.

And how long will it take him to make that vision a reality?

“About three or four years for the first stage,” he said with a smile. “But of course, that depends entirely on whether my photographs keep selling.”

“Sonezaki Shinju” (“The Love Suicides at Sonezaki”) will be held at the Kanagawa Arts Theatre, Yokohama, from March 23 till 27. See sugimoto-bunraku.com
or www.kaat.jp
for details and ticketing information.