Eyes of wood, a heart of cloth on fire


A puppet can sometimes express more with a tilt of her head than we do with several sentences. I was introduced to Bunraku when I watched Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls. The film’s storytelling is interspersed with scenes from a Japanese puppet play. The mix of dramatic narration, movement and beautiful costumes of the dolls immediately became a point of interest. Bunraku originated sometime in the 1600s, thought wasn’t called that until the 1800 after a theater in Osaka. It’s a well-loved traditional art form – puppet plays accompanied by shamisen music and fantastic narrations, that use complex life-size dolls operated by three masters.

The music ascends, building to manic excitement and subsides into sparse tranquil strumming in accordance with the play. The narration, performed only by men, aligns its melodies to the shamisen’s and is adjusted in pitch and tone, ranging from guttural to somewhat feminine. The dolls themselves are sophisticated creations of carved wood, the males equipped with expressive facial mechanisms, and the women mask-like and even more expressive through gesture, instead. Sets used in Bunraku are design masterpieces, minimally conveying any location necessary, rearranged throughout the show by fully-masked attendants.

My fascination with this genre escalated after meeting puppet artist Jusaburo in Tokyo. After all I’d read, I finally attended a Bunraku performance here in LA , where two plays were presented – Oshichi’s Burning Love and Miracle at the Tsuboka Temple – each dark enough to make you cry blood roses. I liked both but Oshichi affected me more, partially because it’s based on a true story that took place in 1657. The play’s synopsis from Theatermania: “Oshichi is…a duty-bound heroine who chooses to sacrifice her own life in order to save that of her lover. Kichisaburo has lost a treasured heirloom and is sentenced to die. Oshichi has recovered the family sword, but cannot leave the city because of the night curfew. In a desperate attempt to reach him, she climbs the fire tower to sound a false alarm, knowing that her actions will lead to her own demise”. According to history, she was burned at the stake as punishment. Ahh, drama.

In spite of my seat being fairly far from the stage I was thuroughly moved. The emotion conveyed by the puppeteers, the realistic gestures and flowing fabric, the rasping narrator, and the clamoring shamisen left a potent impression. It’s hard to believe there were 30 people operating in perfect harmony to create such an enveloping experience. You really must check this entertainment out. As an aside, I’ve been on the lookout for vocal tracks from Bunraku performances – the sound is just that compelling.

4 Responses to “Eyes of wood, a heart of cloth on fire”

  1. Ben Morris Says:

    While I had heard of bunraku before, Dolls was the first place I actually saw any depicted. I love me some shamisen, and shamisen + masterful puppeteering + pathos is a winning combination.

    Also since a Takeshi Kitano film features tangentially in this post have you seen his 2005 film Takeshis’? Its surreal and filled with dark humor, and also functions as an examination of the quirks and themes of his other films. It partly takes place during the filming of a Beat Takeshi film, Takeshi plays both Beat Takeshi the director and Kitano, a struggling actor. I guess you could think of it as Takeshi’s version of Fellini’s 8 1/2, with lots more guns and tap dancing.

  2. Zoetica Says:

    I think someone’s mentioned Takeshis to me, but I’ve yet to see it for myself. Perhaps it’s time to update Netflix – sounds very entertaining!

  3. paul blume Says:

    Away back in the 80s — seems like a century ago — when I was watching a lot of Japanese tv, there was a presentation on bunraku manufacture that left an indelible image in my mind, one that lingers to this day: a puppet of a beautiful ‘cloistered lady’ who, with the pull of a trigger, transformed into a fanged and furious demon. Would that the web were around at the time and I could have archived that image…

  4. Zoetica Says:

    Paul, do you recall the name of the show? Though I suppose a Google search for a “transforming bunraku puppet” could be helpful.