The type of Japanese puppetry known as ningyō-jōruri (aka bunraku) has its roots in 17th-century Osaka. Since then, though, there will rarely if ever have been a bunraku play drawn from stories written a little earlier on the other side of the world — yet that’s what awaits Tokyo audiences next month when the National Theatre presents “Farusu no Taifu” (“Sir Falstaff”).
This new work based on the comic and corpulent character Sir John Falstaff, who appears in three of the 37 plays written by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), has actually been brewing for nearly 30 years. It’s that long since bunraku shamisen player, and now National Living Treasure, Seiji Tsuruzawa saw the BBC’s 1979 productions of “Henry IV Part I” and “Henry IV Part II” on NHK and was bowled over by Anthony Quayle’s now legendary portrayal of Falstaff there.
As a result, Seiji (who is known by his given name, as are artists from venerable lineages of traditional performers) finally composed “Sir Falstaff,” which he also supervises, while the script is by Japan’s leading authority on Shakespeare, Shoichiro Kawai, who created a computer database of bunraku scripts for reference as he strove to write in its characteristically poetic Japanese yet retain the Bard’s renowned wordplay. Additionally, there are even scenes that employ kabuki-style signature phrases.
Commenting on the storyline, Kawai said in a recent news conference, “I mostly drew on different episodes in the plays, including a vignette in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ when two women get revenge on Falstaff for trying to trick them; a tavern story from ‘Henry IV Part I’; and one of Falstaff’s many fallings-out with Prince Hal as he lures the heir to the throne into his world of seedy taverns.”
Then, describing how he views the central character, he said, “Falstaff’s an epicurean fellow who is proud of his girth and does whatever he pleases. Yet he may just be the most human of all Shakespeare’s characters because, compared to dashing Prince Hal who becomes King Henry V and goes to war and wins, Falstaff has no wish at all to risk his life in battle.
“And so by chance, ‘Farusu no Taifu’ became something I’d like contemporary Japan to see,” he added.
However, in a recent conversation Seiji pointed out that, as most of the bunraku canon of some 200 plays are tragedies, “I had a difficult time trying to use them to create a comedy — all the while imagining how the dolls would move as I’m thinking of music which sometimes cast shades of English folk songs like ‘Greensleeves.’ I also use a samba during the fight scene.”
Meanwhile, the work’s designer, Mitsuru Ishii, explained how bunraku sets are normally just flat backdrops, “but most of my work is with theater — musicals, opera and the like. So I proposed a three-dimensional stage that’s higher than usual and has a multitiered system allowing sets to be switched without changing scenes in the dark as is usual in bunraku. Also, some of the costumes are very detailed and use Swarovski crystals,” he said — teasingly urging audiences to watch out for the Bard himself making cameo appearances at the beginning and end of the show.
But Ishii isn’t just the work’s designer, but its “head designer,” too. That’s because, ordinarily in bunraku, several types of puppet heads (kashira) are recycled, with their faces repainted and their hair altered to suit the role. This time, though, Kanjuro Kiritake, the puppeteer of the lead character, drew up plans based on Ishii’s design and had a new head made to reflect Falstaff’s character — complete with eyebrows, eyes and mouth that can be very subtly manipulated, he said.
Then, commenting on the character of Falstaff — voiced by the master tayū Hanafusadayu Toyotake — the puppet master Kanjuro said, “I would like to sit around all day just drinking like he does, so I feel a certain affinity. Here, though, I want to work hard at evoking an instinctive and lovable character.”
Finally, while pointing out that this show handily starts at 7 p.m., rather than at 11 a.m. or 4:30 p.m. like most bunraku, Seiji concluded, saying, “As well as hopefully attracting folks who regularly see the classics, the lines here are written to be easily understood — so I hope many bunraku beginners will come, too.”
“Farusu no Taifu” will feature in Part III of the Kugatsu (September) Bunraku Performance at the National Theatre in Tokyo from Sept. 6-22. For details, call 0570-07-9900 or visit www.ntj.jac.go.jp. This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.