I think my love of puppets started with watching Fraggle Rock with my dad every week. From there I couldn’t get enough! I even had a portable puppet theatre that was designed to fit in any doorway, so I could trap my parents in their room as I put on a show for them.
I was able to see a completely different type of puppeteering during my residency in Japan two summers ago. On a day off from kyogen rehearsals, our professor took us to see a bunraku performance. I knew bunraku was a Japanese puppet show, but I didn’t know much else. I was excited to find out that we had tickets for a special learning performance designed for Japanese students! The performance started with a scene from a bunraku play complete with puppeteers, shamisen players and narrators.
The performers then stopped and started explaining (in Japanese) the mechanics of bunraku. While we were given short English explanations, it was much more fascinating to watch the puppeteers explain how a puppet was operated, even if I couldn’t understand everything they were saying.
In bunraku, most puppets have three puppeteers (except for minor puppets, which can be operated by one person). The head and right-hand puppeteer (omo-zukai), the left-handed puppeteer (hidari-zukai) and the feet puppeteer (ashi-zukai). Their duties are described in this diagram (see Diagram 1). As with all Japanese performance, an actor has to spend years of his life perfecting the art. For bunraku, training begins with the feet, then the left hand and the final stage is to master the head and right hand. These levels of training are also denoted by what the puppeteers wear. The foot and left hand puppeteers are dressed in kurogo, or black robes and head coverings. The head and right hand puppeteer wears a traditional kimono, hakama and elevated shoes, so he is very clearly seen.
The fact that the head puppeteer does not wear black is an interesting aspect of Japanese theatre that I noticed during my studies. While character performance ishighly revered in Japan, the audience still expects to see traces of the actor. For instance, sometimes famous kabuki actors will ad-lib during performances with lines from previous plays they have done and audience members will frequently shout out actors’ names during short pauses in the performance. This is also true in bunraku, the audience wants to see the master behind the movements, but also wants to be given the opportunity to completely focus on the puppet.
As the performance went on, I became more and more in awe of what these actors do with the puppets. As with most theatre I saw in Japan, I couldn’t understand the intricacies of the plot, but the movements of the puppets and the way the narrators voiced the characters was mesmerizing. You truly forget that you’re watching puppets. When you are reminded, studying the puppeteers harmonious and fluid movements adds another layer to the performance.
Naturally, I took my fascination with bunraku mechanics back to the states. I began to see the Japanese influences in all forms of puppeteering I encountered. Whether it is children’s puppet shows or the Bread and Puppet Theater, the mechanics of bunraku can be clearly seen.
I remember on my first day at the Museum & Theatre Reba and I were talking about Kids on the Block and she described them as bunraku-style puppets. I couldn’t believe it! I was so impressed that the Kids on the Block puppeteers were in middle and high school. I knew first hand how complicated bunraku was and the dedication that was needed to operate the puppets. While puppet shows are always fun and exciting, the relationship our puppet troupe has with their characters is very reminiscent of what I witnessed in Japan. (Although I don’t think Reba would be too pleased if her puppeteers started bringing attention to themselves by saying lines from The Emperor’s New Clothes or Pinocchio!)