This past November, I visited the Kansai region in Japan for the first time! After discovering that the National Bunraku Theater is located in the heart of Osaka, of course we HAD to go see a show there. The theater is right near the Nipponbashi stop on the Sennichimae train line (pink).
When looking for ticket information, we found that a Bunraku play doesn’t follow the typical 1hr30min standard length. The theater had two shows scheduled: The Vendetta by Two Sisters and The Nine-Tailed Fox, but they were advertised as Part 1 and Part 2 respectively. Part 1 is a matinee, and Part 2 starts later in the afternoon. Both shows are a whopping 4hrs30mins long! Meaning, that if you wanted to see the entire performance, you would be in the theater for 9 hours! Tickets are thereby sold by “section.” Each Part is divided up into 2-3 sections that have intermissions in between and tickets are priced according to the length of the section. A long 2hr section costs something like ¥2,400 (~20USD) and a short 25min section costs ¥500 (~5USD).
I’ve always been interested in kitsune-yokai legends, where supernatural foxes are able to shape shift into people, so naturally, I was more interested in seeing The Nine-Tailed Fox, 玉藻前曦袂 (Tamamo no Mae Asahi no Tamoto). Because bunraku typically consists of humanoid puppets operated by three puppeteers, I was very curious to see how a mythical beast would be translated into a puppet. After asking the box office in broken Japanese when the fox’s appearance (kitsune no deban?) would be, I decided to see the middle section, consisting of acts The Shinsen Garden, The Corridor, The Trial, and The Prayer. Even though we came in the middle of the show, it was relatively simple to pick up the story where it left off, ironically because the play is hard for a foreign viewer to follow anyway, being full of characters, sub-plots, inter-textual and historical references. Down to its bare bones though, the story is based on the legend of Tamamo no Mae:
“Tamamo no Mae is one of the most famous kitsune in Japanese mythology. A nine-tailed magical fox, she is also one of the most powerful yōkai that has ever lived. Her magical abilities were matched only by her trickiness and lust for power. Tamamo no Mae lived during the Heian period, and though she may not have succeeded in her plan to kill the emperor and take his place, her actions destabilized the country and lead it towards one of the most important civil wars in Japanese history. For that reason, Tamamo no Mae is considered one of the Nihon San Dai Aku Yōkai—the Three Terrible Yōkai of Japan.”
Basically, Tamamo no Mae kills the emperor’s daughter and assumes her identity. She conspires with the emperor’s brother to overthrow the country. However, under the suspicions of the royal adviser, she is tricked into participating in a ceremony that reveals her identity as a kitsune.
The theater was quite large and had traditional lanterns strung along the mezzanine. Concealing the stage was the iconic black, orange and green curtain, which I previously thought was only used in kabuki. Off to the side of the main stage is a small revolving stage, where each narrator and shamisen player duo perform. There were probably 6 different pairs that performed in the section I saw, each with their own introduction ceremony. A pair bows after their piece, and while they are hunched over, the stage rotates, revealing a new duo from the other side of the wall! I wasn’t expecting this at all, and had to stifle a laugh the first time it happened. Why are swiveling doors so funny??
The main stage is comprised lowered tracks so that you can only see the upper torso of the puppeteer. This allows the whole body of the puppet to be manipulated by the puppeteers at a full standing position. There was a clear hierarchy among the puppeteers – who are all men by the way – with the older, more senior puppeteer controlling the head and right arm, and his masked apprentices manipulating the left arm and feet. Not only is the head puppeteer unmasked, but instead of a stark black kimono, he also wears a more elaborate kimono. Junior puppeteers only take the lead when performing minor characters.
The main attraction, the fox puppet, is single-handedly manned by perhaps the most experienced member in the troupe. Usually only very minor characters are operated by less than 3 puppeteers, so it was interesting to see such a central character assigned to just one guy. To keep a sense of continuity, the same guy was also the head puppeteer for the fox in disguise as the princess. Amazingly, the two transitions in the play, from fox to human then human back to fox, were both pretty much done onstage. The first transformation was done by having the fox attack the original princess behind a screen door, the lights flash, and the fox reappears as a fox-human. The final transformation back to the fox however, was done even more swiftly. Once the fox’s guise is forcibly revealed in the prayer scene, the fox-human reels forward and is quickly swiped away as the head puppeteer pulls out the fox from the same spot.
The highlight of the show was definitely towards the end when the princess is forcibly reverted back to her original fox form. Being at the “National Bunraku Theater,” I thought that the performance would be done as traditionally as possible. So to my surprise, the fox puppeteer was hoisted up into the air from a wire harness for the kitsune’s escape! It fit the mythical dimension of the narrative very well so I’m glad they took advantage of modern theater facilities.
I have no idea how it was constructed, but the fox in human form had a special flippable head mechanism (called menketsu) that could switch back and forth between a fox and human face. Even the hair changes between white in her half-yokai form and black in her human form. I’ve never seen a puppet head switch like this so fast and smooth. It reminded me of bian lian performers who can almost instantaneously change their masks with a quick swipe of a fan or head turn.
Male and female puppets also have different mechanical designs. Female puppets are literally designed without legs (and even arms), which is perhaps eerily reflective of the constrained life of female royalty at the time. To create the illusion of limbs, the puppeteers would masterfully gesture with the puppet’s kimono by clenching the sleeve in a certain way, etc. When walking, female puppets are able to naturally glide across the stage by the movement of her hem.
This is all to say that should you ever find yourself in Osaka, you must check out the National Bunraku Theater. The tickets are affordable and you can even see a short segment for just ¥500 if you’re on a super tight budget. The narration is accompanied by Japanese surtitles, but you can ask for a program in English/Chinese/Korean. You won’t get a line-by-line translation, but you’ll be able to get a rough idea of the story.