Bunraku: Kagamiyama (加賀見山旧錦絵)

  • Bunraku: 加賀見山旧錦絵 (Kagamiyama)

5/20/17 (Sat), National Theatre

A rare Edo piece (puppet plays typically come from Osaka/Kyoto), this is a fuller-than-usual presentation of the Kagamiyama play going beyond the well-known Iwafuji story. The added bit doesn’t have much to do with that part, offering a few scenes from the underlying household succession battle. In the opening scene (oddly narrated by a hidden narrator), a man hides in a river and ambushes a lord crossing on a horse, killing him and laughing heartily at his success. Five years later, he learns to his shock that the man he murdered was actually an ally. In a convoluted plot that I couldn’t quite follow, he kills his young son in atonement for his own sins, and he and his wife (who has returned after having earlier sold herself to a brothel) ultimately kill themselves as well. The complications were way too fast and furious to make much sense, and for all the action, I lost interest part way. The Iwafuji subplot makes up the rest of the show. It’s notably different in some of its details from the later Kabuki adaptation, starting with the impressive opening at a shrine under the cherry blossoms (revealed with the drop of a great red-striped temporary curtain). The black-hearted, sharp-tongued Iwafuji naturally dominates the proceedings as she berates and beats the mousy Onoe with the wooden geta shoe for her low commoner breeding.

The remainder follows the basic outline of the Kabuki story as Ohatsu comes to her mistress’ defense, but the Kabuki in this case is much more dramatic and watchable. The Bunraku version drags considerably in part, especially when the characters are going on (and on, and on) about their suffering. My friend explained after the show that, unlike Kabuki, the Bunraku people do not allow any cutting of the material, no matter how dull or dated or irrelevant. That’s a big mistake if true. Old Bunraku plays are well preserved in written form (Kabuki scripts effectively didn’t exist until Meiji), and improvisation is not possible given the coordination needed with the puppeteers. But things change over the years, and more thought needs to be given to audiences and to what is really important in the shows, especially given the sinking popularity of the art. The reasons for Bunraku’s disappearing audiences are multiple, but the keepers of the flame need to give serious consideration to making obscure scripts more viewer friendly with some judicious cutting. If it’s good enough for Shakespeare, who is sliced and diced all the time, it should be good enough for puppet theater, much of which is hardly great literature anyway.

For the record, Roseidayu gave an impressively dramatic reading in the suicide scenes, and Sakihodayu, who unusually appeared twice (apparently as a last-minute replacement), was memorable as well. The Iwafuji character is unsurprisingly the most vivid in the play, and the dialogue and delivery for her puppet were priceless. Good villains make good theater, and the show perked up considerably whenever she was on stage. So the show succeeded in sheer technical terms. It also made me appreciate how adeptly the Kabuki version molded the material to its own needs. Time for a Bunraku rewrite.

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