“I beat my fat belly like a drum” – a bunraku adventure

A demonstration of how the puppets are operated
A demonstration of how the puppets are operated

“Do you want to go and see a Japanese puppetry show?” read the email. I had yet to arrive in Japan but plans for cultural experiences were already afoot. After all, forms of entertainment can say a lot about a society.

I’m a “YES!” kind of person and so naturally I jumped at the chance. However, enthusiastic though I was, I did have my doubts over just how enjoyable bunraku would be. I had previously experienced kabuki, a form of Japanese theatre, which involves five hours (yes, you read that right) of very slow movements across stage.

Call me a philistine but to say that I found kabuki boring would be an understatement. Just the opening scene loaded my eyelids with sleep and I struggled to stay conscious. Then I looked around. Not even ten minutes in and people were nodding all over the place. Sleeping during the performance seemed to not only be sanctioned but commonplace. I can only suppose that insanely long working hours and compulsory work socials mean that there is a quiet consensus that kabuki is the perfect place to take a break.

So, unsurprisingly, bunraku had not set my pulse racing.

How wrong I was. For not only were we seeing a comedy (incredibly rare in bunraku), but we were to see Shakespeare. I mean, not only see an adaptation of his characters but we were to get to see him too. Things got a little bit meta.

To provide a little background information, each bunraku puppet can be up to 150cm in height, may have a different facial expressions (eg. mouth opens and eyebrows raise) and is operated by up to three puppeteers, dressed all in black and with large black veils obscuring their heads and faces. On looking at the stage, to the right is a platform on which the character voices and shamisen (three stringed instrument) sit.

The protagonist of the evening was Falstaff, Shakespeare’s legendary comic character – fat, boastful and cowardly. Confession: I’ve not seen any of the plays in which he features, but I can assure you he was each of those adjectives in the extreme. His fat belly erupts from his clothes beneath a chest thatched with thick hair, and he spends the entire play representing himself as the finest, most macho alpha specimen around. Having not paid his sake bills, he hatches a plan to be allowed to drink for free. As you might expect, things don’t go quite his way…

The ridiculousness and childishness of the plot appealed to my rather surreal sense of humour and I found myself laughing out loud. It had slapstick fight scenes. It had Falstaff beating his fat belly like a drum (with the English narration in my ear making this even funnier). And it had Shakespeare as a punter in a Japanese pub that served fish & chips and bacon & eggs. How quintessentially British.

The whole set up was hilariously incongruous: a Shakespearean character in a Japanese context, spouting Japanese, rolling beneath a cherry blossom tree, drinking in a pub with traditional lanterns, all set to beautiful shamisen music.

What’s more, in stark contrast to the comic and crude plot line, the set was stunning. For the majority of the performance, a large cherry blossom tree filled the stage, the pink contrasting against an inky blue sky.

To add a final touch of class to the play and bring it to a wonderfully charming conclusion, the last character to appear is the silent Shakespeare, who faces the audience, gives us a final salutes and retreats. Brilliant stuff.

Author: Phoebe Amoroso

Phoebe Amoroso is a Tokyo-based reporter, multimedia journalist and storyteller. Hailing from the UK, she moved to Japan in 2014 and has since been shouting about the country to all who will listen. She divides her time between covering breaking news and producing feature stories for TV; writing about everything from business and tech to food and travel; and guiding hungry visitors who want to sample the best of Japanese cuisine. When not working and/or eating, she can often be found running up a mountain or cycling by the sea.

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