Traditional Japanese puppetry, known as bunraku, has its roots in 17th-century Osaka, but in the following century a variant emerged in which, rather than a puppet being handled by just one person, three performers working together operated each puppet in a play’s cast.
In this all-male form of the performance art, the leader (omozukai) wears up to 30-cm.-high platform-style wooden geta sandals as he holds the puppet and operates its head and the right arm while also directing the hidarizukai and ashizukai, who operate the left arm and legs, respectively.
In the postwar era, the undoubted star of this extraordinary and marvelous art form has been the late national living treasure Tamao Yoshida — and now his longtime former pupil, Tamame Yoshida, will debut as Tamao Yoshida II with performances in Osaka in April and Tokyo in May.
Raised in a family with no connection at all to bunraku, in the 1960s Tamame, who is now 61, had the opportunity to assist a puppeteer in his Osaka neighborhood and was captivated by the world of traditional Japanese bunraku. So when he finished junior high school at the age of 15 in 1968, he persuaded his parents to let him begin formal training as Tamao’s first-ever personal pupil.
“Now nine years has passed since he died at the age of 87 in 2006,” Tamame reflected in a recent conversation with this writer, “and there will soon be young audience members who are not familiar with his name. I didn’t want to let my master be forgotten, so when those around me recommended that I take his name, I decided to do so.”
Recalling his first years as Tamao’s pupil, Tamame said, “I was a clumsy child, but he taught me carefully, step by step. He was good at teaching, and when I did well he praised me, and when my training wasn’t going well and I wanted to quit, he gently talked me out of it.
“Operating a puppet with two other people while wearing tall geta is very difficult and it took about 15 years to get used to it. Even when my master was in his 80s, he’d sometimes stand on his toes to make a particularly subtle move- ment while wearing those geta.”
Tamame was only 22 when his father died, and as a result, he said, “Tamao gave me advice about my personal life as well — so he was both my teacher and a sort of father figure. He was methodical while on stage, but in his private life he was friendly and when we did provincial tours we’d take the train together and eat together. It was fun.”
In his last year, Tamao was resting in Osaka when he died on the final day of a series of Tokyo shows — a performance I attended, and still clearly remember the deep emotion on all the performers’ faces.
“It was so like my master to wait until the last show to die,” Tamame said. “I was so impressed and I’ll be chasing the traces of his generosity of spirit and the delicate atmosphere of his puppetry as I work as the second in his line.
“In the ordinary world, 65 is retirement age, but in bunraku it’s just the beginning. Your 60s is when you finally start to hit your stride, so I want to try and showcase the puppets even more, and get into another state of mind when I’m in my 70s and 80s.
“When my master was in his 60s, his body was smaller than mine, but he was more vigorous than I am now, and he was able to show off the puppets in a big way. Even in his 70s and 80s he never complained that he was tired, and the puppets he handled had a really graceful charm. Such expressions would stem from just a little change of the angle, a drop of a puppet’s shoulder, holding it with a light touch and so on — but it’s hard to create that charm like Tamao did.”
Vowing to “devote myself to my work for however many decades I have left,” Tamame will embark on his new life chapter as Tamao II operating the lead character Kumagai Jiro Naozane in “Ichinotani Futaba Gunki” (“A Chronicle of the Battle of Ichinotani”).
“That is a role my master himself liked and was popular in, and it was also the first role I played as the omozukai at a show for up-and-coming artists in 1982. In that performance, my master did the hidarizukai for me, which was exceptional. That year I won a prize, so it’s a special memory for me.
“As bunraku doesn’t use a heredity system, I’m lucky to be able to take on my master’s name despite having no family connection to bunraku. So now I’ll continue my training as the second generation, trying to bring excitement to the bunraku world and carry it forward.”
Tamao Yoshida II’s debut shows are in Osaka in April and Tokyo in May. For details, visit ntj.jac.go.jp/bunraku (Osaka) and ntj.jac.go.jp/kokuritsu (Tokyo). This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.
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