Bunraku Your World

The American experience with puppetry, as we now know it, is defined by a cast of loveable characters with either insightful things to say about letters and numbers or advice based on how being green isn’t as easy as it looks. It is with puppetry and its imaginative quality that many of us associate our childhoods, and many of us are probably unaware that its uses can go beyond what is accomplished on the small screen–at least until it is demonstrated to us through foreign culture.

Upon a visit from Iida Japan’s Imada Puppet Troupe, our own International House was crawling with a diverse audience including both families with young children and serious culture buffs. To open any show, the Bunraku puppeteers perform the Sambaso, a celebratory dance piece performed with Shinto priest puppets in order to spread good fortune to their viewers. These were no ordinary giggling Muppets. Instead, the auditorium went dark, and down each of the aisles came groups of three figures covered from head-to-toe in black garb. Among each group of three was a single puppet elaborately decked in traditional Japanese dress. The entrance was enough to send chills down everyone’s spines, but as the puppets began to move to the rhythm of the shamisen, a Japanese stringed instrument, the performance drifted away from a child’s worst nightmare to a wonder in craftsmanship and coordination. As each puppet and its three puppeteers made their way around the auditorium to spread the good fortune that they had promised, a closer look revealed the intricate design behind the eyes, eyebrows, and faces of these puppets that were demanding their operators’ constant attention throughout the entire performance. The synchronization of expressions in both the eyes and mouth gave these puppets an unnervingly life-like quality that was much more advanced in craftsmanship than any typical ventriloquist dummy.

Between pieces, the audience was treated to the trade secrets behind Japanese puppetry by Tamon Sawayanagi, director of the Imada Puppet Troupe. With every word, he revealed the intricacies behind the presentation of the puppet, such as the stride with which certain puppets may walk, the angles created by the knees to show despair, and the necessity to conceal a female’s wrist beneath her kimono. Each aspect of the presentation mimicked human emotion and etiquette so much that the idea of using less than three puppeteers per puppet was out of the question. Each puppeteer retains a specific function and must accomplish that particular function while maintaining coordination with the rest of the team.

Although Sawayanagi’s troupe consists of twenty-four members back home in Japan, only three members of its cast made the journey with him to the States. Doing most of the puppetry with his troupe was the Bunraku Bay Troupe of the University of Missouri, whose enthusiasm for the art form and advanced technique have added to its reputation both here at home and in Japan. While advancing their professional reputations in Chicago, both troupes also succeeded at adding a little bit of perspective to puppetry for those of us who were only familiar with the Jim Henson variety.