Note: You’ll notice a lack of photos in this post, and it’s because we weren’t allowed to take photos during the play. For professional photos from someone who was, and for some interesting commentary on bunraku theater from a bunraku shamisen player, check out this story from “PingMag.”
I think puppets freak most Westerns out. Maybe it’s the uncanny valley, maybe it’s too many Chuckie movies and “Twilight Zone” ventriloquist villains clogging our cultural colon. I honestly don’t know if Japanese feel the same way, but I do know that puppets are an important part of traditional Japanese culture, particularly the bunraku theater puppetry that was raised to the level of art by Chikamatsu Monzaemon 400 years ago. I’ve personally never been plagued by puppet-related heebie-jeebies, and am a huge fan of the elaborate bunraku plays that rival Shakespeare in terms of importance, intellectualism, and prodigious length. And so on our first day in Osaka, home of bunraku, I found myself literally running to the National Bunraku Theater to watch several acts of Igagoe Douchuu Sugoroku (Vendetta at Iga Pass). (Spoilers below, if you believe it’s possible to spoil a 230-year-old play.)
Igagoe Douchuu Sugoroku tells the fictionalized version of a real vendetta that played out in 1634. The play is both long—about 10 hours—and complicated, with people shifting loyalties and using disguises, covering the revenge killing itself as well as providing commentary on the spreading pool of collateral damage that surrounds acts of vengeance.
We had arrived in time for the most famous acts of the play, nicknamed Numazu and Okazaki, in which the vendetta is starting to claim innocent lives. I silently geeked out as the characters for Numazu trotted out. The sets, the costumes, the puppets! Far from the creepy marionettes of Italy or the fuzzy muppets of America, bunraku puppets are quite large and lifelike, taking three puppeteers to control. All stagehands and two of the three puppeteers wear black from head to toe, including a black hood to hide their faces, while the chief puppeteer wears no hood. Although initially distracting, the puppeteers and stagehands begin to disappear from view as you watch, your brain ignoring what it knows provides no information.
As we walked in, a young woman, Oyone, is sneaking through the darkness to steal a pot of ointment from Jubei, the young man staying in her home on the invitation of her father, Heisaku. She wants to give the ointment to her fiance, Shizuma—the play’s protagonist—who was been badly injured earlier in the play. As she sneaks through Jubei’s room, she trips and reveals her presence. The house is thrown into chaos as Jubei captures the intruder and Heisaku rushes in to find out what’s happened. As they talk, Jubei realizes that Heisaku is his biological father; Heisaku adopted Jubei to a new family at a young age, being too poor to care for him. Unfortunately, they are also on opposite sides of the vendetta: Oyone, his sister, is engaged to the protagonist, and Jubei is related to Matagoro, the antagonist, through his adoptive family. They separate for the night, Jubei unsure how to react to his realization. He leaves in the morning, leaving behind a pot of the ointment and the certificate of parentage that proves his link to the family.
In the morning, Oyone and Heisaku find the ointment and the certificate of parentage and are equally shocked to discover their link to Jubei, as well as his adoption by the enemy’s family. Heisaku rushes off to catch him, and Oyone is right behind. As the characters exit, the stage hands yanked the set pieces offstage and the backdrop was released from the batten. It cascaded to the ground revealing a new scene, this one outdoors with a mountain in the distance. Heisaku approaches Jubei and asks where Matagoro is so that Shizuma can complete his revenge, but Jubei, loyal to his adoptive family, refuses to tell. In response, Heisaku mortally wounds himself and says that his soul will only rest in peace if Jubei reveals Matagoro’s location. Moved by filial piety and knowing that Oyome is hiding nearby with Shizuma’s retainers, Jubei tells Heisaku what he wants to know. He leaves, looking back only once to see his sister weeping over the body of their father.
The curtain dropped on the Numazu act, and Jason and I were hooked. We’d only bought tickets for Numazu, so we rushed out to the box office to buy tickets for the rest of the play.
In the Okazaki act, Shizuma attempts to cross a border to track down Matagoro, and eventually makes it across the border with the help of Osode, a teahouse maiden who falls in love with him at first sight. (Okay, yeah, gag.) Osode takes Shizuma to her home, where he learns that she is betrothed to Matagoro, though neither she nor her father have ever seen him. She makes no secret that she hates the idea of marrying Matagoro when she loves the mysterious stranger (Shizuma), so he kills two birds with one stone and poses as Matagoro. Her father, Kobei, is overjoyed that “Matagoro” has finally come to marry his daughter, and vows to protect him from the people who are trying to kill him. They’re married on the spot and “Matagoro” goes to the marriage bed with Osode. (Ick. Also, aren’t you engaged to Oyome from Namzu? Bastard!)
Meanwhile Masaemon, a close friend of Shizuma’s who has dropped everything to participate in the vendetta (more on that later), sneaks past the border but is attacked in a bamboo grove. Kobei rescues him and, noticing that Masaemon is a strong swordsman, asks him to come help protect Matagoro. Masaemon agrees, excited to get so close to his enemy. He heads to Kobei’s home, and as they exit the scene my favorite character walks on: Otani, Masaemon’s ex-wife. Earlier in the play, Masaemon had divorced her just days before she was due to deliver their child, wanting to participate in the vendetta. Otani doesn’t accept the divorce, though, and as soon as she’s had her son, she carries him through the Japanese back country to follow Masaemon, hoping to unite him with his son and force him to confront what he’s abandoned.
Having followed Masaemon on foot for hundreds of miles, out of supplies and freezing in the snow, Otani collapses just outside Kobei’s house. Masaemon goes out to investigate and is shocked to find her, but refuses to touch or look at his son, knowing it’ll distract him from his mission to kill Matagoro. He kicks Otani and tells her to leave, but she’s determined and won’t turn back. However, even superhuman willpower like Otani’s must bow before physical necessity, and she passes out in the snow from cold and hunger. Masaemon goes back into the house to report that nothing is amiss, but moments later a passerby calls attention to the woman collapsed at the gate. Kobei and his wife bring Otani and the baby in, but there’s no telling who she is. They look at the certificate of parentage around the baby’s neck and find that he’s Masaemon’s boy. Kobei is excited; they can use the baby as a bargaining chip to discourage Masaemon from fulfilling the vendetta! Masaemon, however, is unwilling to allow his child to become a pawn for the other side and wants to rid himself of the distraction the child represents. He snatches the baby from Kobei’s arms, screaming that taking hostages is cowardly.
The he stabs the baby and flings it out the window.
I’d read a synopsis of the play before seeing it, and so knew this part was coming, but nothing could prepare me for seeing the tiny puppet, barely longer than a man’s hand, fly all the way to the apron of the stage and lay there, lifeless and limp as a dead baby, while the rest of the characters continue to discuss honor and nobility and plans to kill people. All I could think of was Otani, still unconscious in the house, totally senseless of the tragedy and cruelty that had just occurred.
Still, the plot was washing over me. Jubei introduces Masaemon to “Matagoro,” and the two are surprised to see one another. Their shock is palpable, and Jubei laughs, saying that he knows who they really are because he saw the tears in Masaemon’s eyes as he stabbed his own son. Masaemon and Shizuma prepare for a fight, but Jubei suddenly switches loyalty, impressed that Masaemon would go to such an extreme as infanticide to get his revenge on Matagoro. (Nothing is ever said about whether his daughter’s marriage to Shizuma entered into his calculations, although based on Masaemon’s marriage to—and divorce from—Otani, perhaps marriage was much more “easy come, easy go” in feudal Japan.)
Just before the men leave to find Matagoro and kill him, Otani awakes into her worst nightmare. She rushes to the apron of the stage and scoops her tiny baby into her arms, weeping. As she holds the tiny, limp form, she speaks soothingly to it. The most heartbreaking line of all: “You’re just like your father—such a strong and loyal samurai that you would give you life to further your father’s cause.”
Oh my shit, you guys.
It was at this moment that I became aware of the puppeteers once again. But now, rather than the human hands that control lifeless wood and cloth, they were the shadowy hands of fate inexorably pulling each character to their destiny, good or evil. As Otani wept in the snow, still starving, still cold, clutching her dead baby to her dessicated breast, I saw her lead puppeteer. His was face set firm as stone, but with a sadness and sympathy in it, as though he felt in his own heart some part of the crushing grief Otani labored under. I remembered suddenly that this play was based on true events, and wondered whether there was a real Otani somewhere in history left weeping over a dead child, or if she was fully fictional, she and the baby stuffed into the fridge to make the audience think about the horrible cost of vengeance.
There was no time for thought. The curtain dropped on the act and we had another small intermission before the play concluded.
When the play continued, I could hardly think about anything other than what we’d just seen in Okazaki. Act 9 washed over me and I honestly don’t remember much about it. Act 10, however, would not be ignored. This was the final showdown with Matagoro, dammit! Puppets flew at one another, deftly fighting with swords and halberds. The energy was fast and intense, and between the quick pace and the heady monologues about honor and fealty, I felt my concern with Okazaki slipping away despite my horror. Act 10 was like a propaganda poster for the way of the samurai, full of bright colors and evocative action, making me feel things I was sure are wrong but which I couldn’t help feeling anyway. In the end, the “forces of good” triumphed as the evil Matagoro was slain, and I felt an irrational excitement and happiness as it happened, swept up in the characters’ fighting high.
Justice served! Enemies slain! Day won!
But as the curtain closed and the lights went up, I remembered all the women thoughtlessly cast aside to achieve the victory, the image of Otani weeping over her dead baby in the snow lingering in my mind as we walked out into the cold autumn night.
Address: 1-12-10, Nippon-bashi, Chuo-ku, Osaka 542-0073
Get there: Arrive at Nippon-bashi Station (Sakaisuji and Sennichimae lines) and take Exit 7. Walk east on Sennichimae Doori Street. The National Bunraku Theater is about 150 feet ahead on your left.
Price: General admission is 6000 yen (~$51 USD) for first-class tickets and 2400 yen (~$20.50 USD) for second-class tickets. However, this is for the whole play; you can buy tickets for just one or two acts on the day of the play for much cheaper by going to the box office.
- Watch the schedule. Although bunraku plays have quite a long run (often the better part of a month), they only run about once every other month or so. Because of this, if you want to see bunraku, you need to plan your trip around the National Bunraku Theater’s schedule, or plan to see it in a different theater altogether (such as the National Theater in Tokyo).
- Get the audio guide. It’s no good watching a play in a language you don’t understand; even a very complex play like Igagoe Douchuu Sugoroku will put you to sleep if you don’t understand what’s happening. The English audio guide at the National Bunraku Theater is perfect, pitching in with a plot updates and interesting notes about the art of bunraku often enough to keep your interest, but not so often that you feel like you can’t appreciate the play itself. The audio guide costs 700 yen (~$6 USD) with a 1000 yen (~$8.50 USD) refundable deposit.
Based on my diary entries from November 16, 2013.