National Puppet Theatre of Japan appears at Krannert Center

By Andy Kwalwaser

Toyotake Rosetayu kneeled in the spotlight, lifting his script above his head. After two hours of chanting and weeping he fell silent before the crowded theater.

Then the applause.

The National Puppet Theatre of Japan appeared at Krannert Center for Performing Arts Saturday after a three-year international effort launched its first US tour in over a decade. Japan House at the University helped bring the troupe to campus.

Puppeteers and musicians performed bunraku, or puppet theater, on a Midwestern stage for the first time.

“It’s like a sports event,” said Toyotake, a master narrator. “When I come off stage I am dripping with sweat and when I perform I can feel my heart beating.”

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The troupe is performing plays about jealousy and suicide to sold-out audiences who have never seen their art.

“I’ve only seen it in my studies,” said Etsuko Tatsuzawa, an audience member. “I’m so proud of my culture.”

Kenji Shinoda, Japanese consul general at Chicago, said the tour is intended to reach unfamiliar audiences.

“The level of cultural exchange is not sufficient,” Shinoda said. “There are sporadic opportunities for Americans in the Midwest be exposed to Japanese traditions.”

Shinoda is a bunraku enthusiast and recently attended performances in Tokyo and Osaka, where he worked a puppet backstage.

“It was very heavy for me,” Shinoda said. “It requires a lot of stamina.”

It also requires a lot of bodies.

Three puppeteers work together to control each puppet. Assistants manage the legs and left arm, while the master puppeteer controls the right arm and head. Apprenticeships to learn this craft can last more than 20 years.

“To learn to work together in this kind of harmony is why it takes so long,” puppeteer Yoshida Kazuo said. Before the evening performance, members of the troupe demonstrated their puppeteering skills at a demonstration at Spurlock Museum.

Kazuo grabbed a female puppet draped in a glittering kimono, bringing to life as his team moved silently across the stage.

Toyotake, the narrator, provides the a unique voice for every puppet on stage.

He knelt down, relaxed his shoulder-then his eyes lit up and his voice flared into a battle cry.

“Not a single samurai in history spoke that way,” Toyotake said, noting that a good narrator imitates character and not tone. “If they did they would all be exhausted after a few hours.”

Bunraku began in Osaka, Japan when frustrated playwrights abandoned kabuki to write for puppets instead.

“Puppeteers and musicians have egos of their own, but the puppets don’t,” said Peter Grilli, a tour co-chair.

Bunraku’s 300-year history makes it an important part of Japan’s cultural legacy.

“What we are involved in is only a tiny portion of a long history,” Kazuo said. “If people could feel the flow of history, that would be wonderful.”