The traditional performing art of bunraku (ningyō jōruri) involves three puppeteers together operating a cast of single puppets, with a gidayū bushi to the side comprising a story-teller (tayū) and a shamisen player (shamisen- hiki) seated on a round platform (yuka).

Originally, the gidayū bushi was a male preserve, but it becomes known as a joryu gidayū when women take those roles in the absence of a puppet performance — and among the leading female narrators is 78-year-old Komanosuke Takemoto, a designated national living treasure.

To hear Komanosuke in action is to be astonished. That’s because, though the stories require her to use old and difficult Japanese, and though she must portray many characters both male and female, the way she enunciates in such a wide range of voices is so clear and dramatic that it resonates in the listener’s heart and soul.

“If the audience can’t understand the gidayū bushi, that means the narrator has become too attached to the musicality, and has forgotton their responsibility of bringing the text to life. I make an effort in my own way to be sure each word comes across clearly, while also placing importance on the musical aspect,” she declares.

Born on Awaji Island, a part of Hyogo Prefecture in the eastern Seto Inland Sea that’s famed as a hub of bunraku, Komanosuke was — while still in the third year of junior high school — encouraged by her stage-loving mother to move to Osaka as an apprentice of the renowned tayū, Harukoma Takemoto.

Harukoma was a strict teacher, but Komanosuke says that when she heard her perform she would swell with pride, feeling, “My teacher is different from all the others.”

But “different” was often used to describe the teenage prodigy’s renditions, too. Possibly because of her shining talent, she was allowed to study with male masters, starting with Wakatayu Toyotake X. He then asked Tsubamedayu Takemoto III (who became Koshijidayu Takemoto IV) to help her, and she recalls how he — who had never before taught a woman, but declared “I’m going to teach you as if you were a man” — greatly broadened her scope.

Yet now, while delighted when people say she reminds them of Koshijitayu, she insists her teacher Wakatayu, “had a flawless, unwavering narration style,” adding how pleased she is that people sometimes say, especially when she does military characters, that “You really sound like him.”

“My teacher Koshijidayu even said, ‘You took that from Wakatayu! I want to take his stuff too, but I can’t seem to grasp it.’ (Note: In bunraku, skills are not “taught,” but “taken”).

Despite being so privileged, Komanosuke recalls she was often scolded early on for “sounding like a woman” when she wasn’t voicing a female role. Nonetheless, her male teachers inspired her to practice and persevere. “When they did a female voice, it was even more feminine than a woman, so I realized there was no reason why a woman couldn’t do a male voice,” she said. “Whether the tayū is a man or a woman, it’s a technique you can’t do with the voice you were born with alone. That’s what makes it difficult.”

So difficult, in fact, that even with her more than 60-year career, she says it’s only in the last 20 years or so that “I’ve somehow managed to be able to do it — and now I’d like to try a lot of new things.”

And she is. Last year, Komanosuke began performing difficult and rare pieces before audiences at Kanagawa Arts Theatre (KAAT) in Yokohama. In her next appearance there, on Feb. 1 and 2, she will perform “Kakioki no Dan” (“A Suicide Note”), the title of Act VII of “Taiheiki Chushin Koshaku” (“Loyalties in the Taiheiki” — referring to the 14th-century historical epic of that name).

As with the famous bunraku and kabuki play “Kanadehon Chushingura” (“Treasury of Loyal Retainers”), this draws on the true historical drama of 47 rōnin (masterless samurai) who, in 1703, avenged the death of their lord by killing the court official they held responsible — knowing they would then all be made to commit ritual suicide.

Though sometimes regarded as lauding militaristic values, Komanosuke sees in this story a universal human theme of struggling to find one’s own answers while bound by various systems and constraints.

“I strongly feel it’s not about vengeance so much as what is happening all the time and right now. I think it’s a very fresh, contemporary story,” she says.

Among the seven characters Komanosuke depicts in this piece, two in particular stand out: Jutaro Hazama, who decieves his family and kills his own child in order to take part; and his wife, Orie, who sets out her feelings in a supremely poignant suicide note.

“There are many sad works, and brutal works, and it’s not easy to tell these stories, but I do it with all my strength, never hesitating to get immersed in the emotions, because vocal characterizations should not be artificial or manipulative,” she says with passion. And the chance to experience that art refined over many decades is not to be lightly missed by anyone with an interest in Japan’s traditional performing arts.

“KAAT Takemoto Komanosuke Performance” runs Feb. 1 and 2 at Kanagawa Arts Theatre. For details, call 0570-015-415 or visit www.kaat.jp. This article was written in Japanese for The Japan Times and translated by Claire Tanaka.

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