Spurred on by the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, many people involved in Japan’s traditional performing arts are preparing for the surge in overseas visitors expected in 2020 — notably the Japan Council, which manages the National Theatre, the National Bunraku Theatre and the National Noh Theatre.

As Fumio Owada, an executive director of the Japan Council, explained, “Cultural programs surrounding the 2012 London Olympics focused on foreign visitors, people with disabilities, young people and the rest of the country, and we have been doing that as well.”

Last year, the National Theatre ran a popular “Discover Kabuki” program for non-Japanese audiences, featuring talks by performers and a performance complemented by audio guides and booklets in English, Chinese and Korean as well as Japanese.

This year, the NT’s program is set to run again, but built around “Shinsarayashiki Tsuki no Amagasa — Sakanaya Sogoro,” the heartwarming story of a drunken fishmonger named Sogoro. Alongside that, however, a new “Discover Bunraku” event and a “Discover Noh & Kyogen” program have been added.

In the “Discover Bunraku” program, participants will be treated to a performance of that masterpiece of traditional puppetry, “Sonezaki Shinju” (“The Love Suicides at Sonezaki”) by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725).

In this tale that’s sometimes likened to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” an indentured prostitute named Ohatsu and Tokube, the young assistant manager of a soy sauce company, fall in love. Then, realizing they’ll never be able to overcome severe social and financial constraints, they kill themselves together to be united in the hereafter.

For the NT program, the top-flight puppeteers Kazuo Yoshida and Kanjuro Kiritake III will operate Tokube and Kanjuro, respectively, although both have also played the other’s role in their nearly 50-year careers and hence know this piece inside-out.

As Kazuo pointed out, though, “We will be performing ‘Sonezaki Shinju’ in full because it is compact and good for a first experience, but as a bunraku play can take more than 10 hours, we will just be doing extracts of others and the audience will be able to study those stories in advance.”

Then, talking more generally, he said: “I find a resemblance between bunraku narration and Korean pansori or Portugal’s fado — while in the Greek movie ‘O Thiassos’ by Theo Angelopoulos, players hit the floor with hammers for some of the sound effects, and in bunraku we strike a plate. So it is similar.”

For Kanjuro, too, his traditional art has an international dimension. “This play is filled with good memories for me,” he said. “When I first performed ‘Sonezaki Shinju’ in Brazil, it received a hearty welcome from everyone — and many Brazilian-Japanese people, in particular, were in tears.

“I think the movements of bunraku’s puppets are like pantomime,” he continued. “You can understand without sound and you can listen to the narration and music in a kind of ecstasy like it’s an opera.”

Meanwhile, the NT’s new “Discover Noh & Kyogen” program this year features “Kokaji,” one of noh’s less abstruse pieces of classical theater, and “Kaki Yamabushi,” a straightforward traditional kyogen comedy play about mountain priests — both specially chosen as being suitable for beginners.

However, as Owada at the Japan Council pointed out enthusiastically, “This ‘Discover’ series is also about us accumulating the know-how to ensure that these seeds of people’s love for traditional performing arts planted before and during the Olympics will continue producing blooms long after.

“So we aim to provide space at the national theaters where everyone can experience kabuki, noh, kyogen and bunraku in the coming years.”

The National Theatre in Tokyo will host “Discover Bunraku” on May 23 and “Discover Kabuki” on June 17, while “Discover Noh & Kyogen” is on June 24 at the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo. The National Bunraku Theater in Osaka will host a “Discover Bunraku” on June 12. For details, call 0570-07-9900 or visit ticket.ntj.jac.go.jp/top_e.htm.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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