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).
“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.”
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 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.
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.