The Buxton Scrapbook - International - Japan

A Puppet Theater in Japan,
by Daphne Lea
source unkown

The Stage of a Japanese Puppet Theater in Osaka. The Operators, in the Background, Have Taken Off Their Veils to Pose for the Photographer

It was snowing hard when made my way through the crowd to the Puppet Theater in Osaka Japan. The people, gathered outside, were shaking the flakes from their wooden shoes, or ghetta, and folding up their oiled silk umbrellas. Only a baby seemed quite unconcerned, strapped firmly on to his mother's back, with nothing but his chubby face to be seen, poking out from under her cozy padded kimono.

It was barely one o'clock, for all Japanese theaters start early, and this was the first performance of the season. Unlike the Italian marionettes, or the English Punch and Judy dolls, the Japanese puppets stand about four feet high. Just over two centuries ago, Gidayu Takemoto, a story-teller, formed his first troupe in Osaka. He was joined by one Chikamatzu, sometimes called the Shakespeare of Japan, and together they made their dolls famous. Other troupes were formed, and for 50 years they quite overshadowed the Kabuki, or ordinary Japanese theater, until the living actors, by studying the puppets' stagecraft and copying their movements, gradually won back the audiences. That is why, today, only one puppet theater remains in Japan.

Enter the Puppets Inside the auditorium babies were unpacked and ghetta removed. A little girl next to me tucked her feet under her orange kimono and clutched the seat in her excitement. Then the performance began. Three solemn figures, In long black robes, advanced through a door at the side of the stage. One carried a stringed instrument called a Samisen, and another a drum. Very quietly they knelt down and started to play and sing as the gorgeously embroidered curtain rose. On the stage two figures in bright green and gold brocade, with comic pointed hats, were dancing.

They were only dolls, for their gestures were so natural, and even their eyebrows and tiny fingers moved. But behind the puppets their heads and shoulders showing above the platform, stood three men, the one in the center wearing a magnificent colored dress, the other two in black, with their faces veiled. They were the operators, working the strings with perfect skill and cooperation. They had worked their dolls since they were children; their fathers had done so before them, and possibly even their grandfathers before that. Behind the Scenes one might have thought that their presence would detract, from the scene, but so exciting was the plot that they were quickly forgotten.

As the play advanced the music grew louder and louder, and more puppets appeared on the stage, spinning round and round one another until the curtain fell. During the interval the audience refreshed themselves with tangerine oranges, or wandered Into the foyer where a hot drink was served, and attractive colored foods were displayed in china bowls or little lacquer boxes.

I had no time to try my skill with chop-sticks, or to sample these delicacies, however, as it was my privilege to go behind the scenes and meet the dolls in person. Following my guide through the pass-door and up a dark, narrow stairway, I came upon these performers, slung up in rows by their strings, waiting for their next entrance: warriors in striped cotton tunics, gentlemen in gorgeous brocades, and ladies in colored kimonos (their elaborately piled hair decorated with flowers and ivory pins), old men with straggly beards, and elderly women with blackened teeth. How helpless they looked, dangling in mid-air, but how marvelously made, their faces and hands exquisitely carved and painted. A Japanese home in rooms behind the stage the living artists were kneeling round charcoal braziers taking their rest. One of them handed a charming scarlet-clad lady doll to me, allowing me to hold her strings in such a way that she flicked her eyelashes as she smilingly grasped my hand with her tiny, jointed fingers. But the curtain was about to go up again, and hurriedly saying good-by, I returned to my seat in the auditorium. In the next play, which showed the interior of a Japanese home, the light, high-pitched voices of girls alternated with the deep, growling tones of an old man-all the work of the storyteller, who knelt at the side of the stage, a fat, jolly-looking person, his round face red with the exertion of playing all the parts in succession. Sometimes tears streamed down his cheeks, at other times his white teeth gleamed as he flung back his head and laughed.

I could not stay to the end. In 10 minutes my boat train would be gone. At the door of the theater I paused for a last glimpse of the battle that was now in progress, with a dozen soldiers hurling one another across the stage, then I crossed the threshold and was once again in the whirling snow.


Banraku: Puppet Play in Osaka,
by Matsutaro Ishiwari, Photos by Yoshio Watanabe and Ihei Kimura
from an unidentified tourist brochure.

the foremost puppet-man,
with his favorite doll, Princess Yaegaki.

In attempting, to write an introduction to the puppet play at the Bunraku-za for the guidance of the tourist from abroad, I find it a task of great difficulty. The task might become a lighter one when a large canvas is available, but a long account will not suit the requirements of the hasty glance of a tourist. To know at a glance may not bring a satisfactory result, but, as a matter of fact, it is important in its own way. I will confine myself in this paper to giving a number of hints on the appreciation of the puppet play for the reference of the foreign tourist. A systematic account of the Japanese puppet play requires references to various social institutions, which are now defunct and which only those Japanese who are acquainted with the classics can understand. This makes it difficult even for the Japanese to have a real appreciation of the puppet play, and as for tourists who are here today and gone tomorrow, such is certainly beyond their reach. But some help may be obtained from the fragmentary information brought together in the following pages.

The constitution of the puppet play

How the " skeleton " of the puppet is put together and dressed

The puppet play consists of three factors—the joruri music, which conveys the plot of a play; the samisen music, which accompanies joruri as an instrumental feature; the puppet, which is manipulated in accordance with the progress of the story. Being a play the joruri music has a plot, the incidents of which are presented to the spectator. A piece of music may be without a plot, arousing of emotion being its sole object, but as joruri is a kind of play, it invariably has a plot. The thought that forms the background of the plot is too complicated to be described here briefly. Suffice it to say that an evolution of some two centuries and a half was involved in the translation of the story of airy nothing into the play with three dimensions. This means that the puppet play has behind it the social institutions of Old Japan in many respects so deferent from the modernized Japan of today. No foreigners who are not equipped with such knowledge can give full justice to the puppet play. How superficial is the observation of the Westerner in such matters is to be inferred from a foreigner's account of a stage scene --for instance, that of hara-kiri, which is usually quite out of bearing. Unless specially interested in the subject, the foreigner should not attempt to understand joruri as story and joruri as music. A student of the puppet play must first equip himself with a sufficient knowledge of Japanese. The question here arises: Can a play be enjoyed without a knowledge of its contents? My answer is: In the puppet play the spectacular aspect alone gives a fair amount of enjoyment

The lure of the samisen As sounds produced by an instrument, the music of the samisen can be enjoyed irrespective of the nationality of the listener. One word of caution to the tourist is that in a Japanese art special emphasis is laid on the individuality of the artist. And in music all records are but a kind of memorandum to the performer-there are individual variations in rendition too delicate for description. For instance, individual color in an isolated sound is produced by a samisen player by the manner of pressing the three strings with the left hand against the neck. It follows then that there is room for the expression of individuality in combinations of sounds thus produce . The spot where the string is pressed against the neck of the samisen is technically called "tsubo" (pot). In the case of the samisen therefore a record of these spots makes a score, which only serves as a rough guide. The play of individuality finds expression in the manner and the strength of the string pressure. The result is that the same score is rendered with varying effect by different performers, and even in the same performer the rendering may vary according to time and place. This feature distinguishes all branches of Japanese art. As the music of the samisen aims more at the excitement of emotion than the narration of a story, it ought to be enjoyed even by those who have the first taste of its charms.

Prominent characters in the puppet play

The doll for Katsuyori, famous feudal warrior

In a puppet play in its most advanced form, one puppet representing an important role is handled by three performers. The advance to this stage was the achievement of three centuries of progress, which space does not allow entering into in detail. The development of the three-to-one-puppet system may be traced in the performance on the Bunraku stage. There you will see three players at work to operate one prominent puppet. The chief manipulator supports the puppet by inserting his left hand from behind and his right hand takes care of the puppet's right hand. His two assistants respectively take charge of the puppet's feet and the left hand. This system represents the puppet play at the highest point In its development. Imagine a puppet performed by a puppetman unsupported by his assistants. Its legs would hang without movement and its left hand would also be motionless. Until about two centuries ago, when the puppet play was yet in its infancy, it had no puppets other than these awkward one-man-operated ones. To camouflage the unsightliness, care was taken to tuck up the left hand and the sleeve to the puppet's body. Such puppets were then known as "katate ningyo" (one-hand puppet). The advent of the three-to-one-puppet system was due to the ingenuity of Kiritake Sanzaemon and Chikamoto Kuhachiro. However, the limitation of the puppet-play stage cannot allow the staying of many three-men puppets, so even on a stage of Bunraku's pretension, only puppets in important roles are handled by three manipulators, the "one-hand puppets " being used for subordinate roles. In such scenes as these from Imcseyama (the Japanese Romeo and Juliet), Chushingura (the Loyal League), and Kotozeme (the Ordeal of the Harp), where so many "supers" fill the stage, one-hand puppets are used for convenience. Thus the history of the puppet play is epitomized on the stage of Bunraku.

Three in team work

Doll representing citizen's wife in the Edo period

Team work is essential in the manipulation of one puppet by three performers so as to give it the reality and naturalness of life. A trio acting in perfect harmony gives a soul to the dead doll. Attainment of such harmony depends on the ability of the principal performer, who, when he has much skill, will match the movement of the puppet's eyes to the motion of the left hand manipulated by one of his assistants and his gesture transmitted to the puppet to its pacing taken charge of by the other assistant, who feeling the gesture instinctively, controls the steps accordingly with his left hand posing as if he were creeping on the stage. Practice alone makes such harmonious operation possible.

Puppet posturing

The puppet's weeping seems as real as that of human being

For the posturing of the puppet a device technically known as "kataita" (shoulder plate) is attached to the neck for the support of its costume. To this plate is fastened a bamboo pole, about one foot long, called "tsukiage" (projector). The supporting mechanism is responsible for the posturing or the puppet. The investment of life-like behavior to the puppet depends on the proper functioning of the "shoulder" ---hence its vital importance in the puppet play. The action of the "shoulder" give animation to an insentient puppet. The "projector" is intended to facilitate the functioning of the "shoulder". As both hands of the principal performer are occupied with the manipulation of the body and the right hand, the "projector" is pushed by the breast, which therefore acts as a third hand.
Objectivity of the puppet play
The points brought out for special notice might easily be multiplied, but sufficient information has already been given to say that there is much objectivity in the charms of the puppet play. It is safe to say that the puppet play is one of those Japanese arts which can be enjoyed by the foreign tourist without any elaborate preparation.

The Stage

The Doll Drama of Japan,
by Henry Albert Phillips,
Philadelphia: Lippincott.

THE DOLL DRAMA, while it has its own repertory of five hundred plays adapted to its own peculiar needs, is really a step-child of the No-Drama. The official name of the genus is the Bunrakuningyo-Joruri. The Joruri is a dramatic ballad sung or recited to the accompaniment of the samisen-after the manner of the No-dance or play--in unison with the movements of the puppets. The puppet plays and their audiences are not markedly different in my estimation from those of the Japanese living drama. The ingenuity, however, exercised in the technique and. management of the puppets and the puppet stage is - among the most diverting things in the theatre. The stage appears to be but a long narrow slit until the curtain is pulled aside and reveals a score or more musicians and reciters seated in the background and sometimes as many as ten characters in the foreground. Or, again, there may be most elaborate scenes of great beauty, with nothing but the characters to be seen on the stage. Sometimes the characters will appear on three different levels-on a balcony, on a street level, and in the bowels of the earth beneath . . . . The chief puppeteer holds the doll, manipulating the head and the right arm from within. He stands in full view, with the puppet held in front of him. Being a great artist, he is supposed to be seen. But the two additional manipulators, being considered merely as property-men, are regarded as invisible . . . . as they are upon the Kabuki stage-and are dressed in long black robes and wear black veils over their faces. They take care of the left hand and legs respectively and make no bones of jumping about violently while carrying out their functions. So trained are the eyes and the mind of a Bunraku-za audience in the convention that it sees nothing but the puppet. -----From "Meet the Japanese" by Henry Albert Phillips. (Philadelphia: Lippincott.)

School of Fine Arts, Depot Campus
6 Bourn Place, U-212 Storrs, CT 06269-5212
(860) 486-4605

All content ©2003 The Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry