Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Japanese Performing Art in the World

December 11, 2006
Bunraku is one of the classical performing arts of Japan, which has been handed down from the early Edo period, in the latter 17th century. It was designated as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by the UNESCO in 2003.

Bunraku is a puppet theatre unparalleled in the world. On the centre stage, each puppet is manipulated by three puppeteers. To the side, a chanter called tayu tells the story to the tune of the shamisen, a three-stringed banjo. Bunraku is stage art which is an ensemble of three players--the puppets, the chanter, and the shamisen.

Of the classical performing arts of Japan, many foreigners are familiar with Kabuki and Noh, but not many are well versed in Bunraku, perhaps because it is based in Osaka. To those foreigners, I explain that Bunraku is somewhere halfway between Noh and Kabuki-Noh's pursuit of spirituality and Kabuki as popular entertainment. This explanation seems to help them understand the position Bunraku occupies within Japan's classical performing arts.

Compared to the profound, highly stylized and abstract expression of Noh, the story of Bunraku is more down to earth and easy to understand. Compared to Kabuki, performed by human actors, Bunraku uses puppets, making super-human expressions possible. The story unfolds following the lead of the chanter and the shamisen, so Bunraku embodies the appeal of a narrated tale as well as the appeal of a musical instrument.

Bunraku is different from other performing arts of Japan in another respect. Noh and Kabuki are supported by the family system where only those born into certain specialized families can perform major roles. In Bunraku, the puppeteers, the chanters, and the shamisen players are all those who learned either as apprentices directly from their masters or through a training program. So if you are good, you have the chance of playing a big role. Even many Japanese do not know this.

For the last few years as a Bunraku advisor for the National Theatre, I have been evaluating Bunraku performances and proposing ideas for attracting more people to the theatre. What has surprised me most in recent years is Bunraku's popularity overseas. Bunraku is sent abroad and performed in different countries almost every year. Every performance plays to a full house. Why is Bunraku, a typically Japanese performing art, so popular overseas? I think it is not unrelated to the changing ways of cultural exchange in this rapidly globalizing world.

Up to the end of the 1980s, during the Cold War, Japanese culture was received in the West as an exotic enjoyment. In the mid-1990s, this changed evidently. People are no longer content just to accept superficial exoticism. Now we are in an age when there are fierce clashes of cultures.

Cultures clash for their own regeneration and revival, producing a lot of sparks. Through the clashes, people try to seek a new life force in their own cultures. I feel that cultural exchange has become a scene of such earnest clashes. Those who have participated in the overseas performances of Bunraku tell me that many in the foreign audience do not regard Bunraku as an exotic art form but accept it as another form of theatre.

The Japanese people, probably out of a sense of modesty, often say to foreigners, "You must find Japanese culture so different and difficult to understand." This is like cutting off the bridge of mutual understanding ourselves. The culture of every country has its own uniqueness but also, at the same time, a certain universality. We should show Japanese culture as it is to foreigners, and hope that they find it interesting. We have entered such an age.

The writer is a poet.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

松平盟子 / 歌人

2006年 12月 11日









一般社団法人 日本英語交流連盟

English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Japanese Performing Art in the World