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Reviewed by:
  • Ningyo Shimai (The Doll Sisters)
  • Lisa Reinke
Ningyo Shimai (The Doll Sisters). Directed, created, and designed by Setsu Asakura; created by Taeko Tomioka. La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, New York City, New York, 23 October–2 November 2008.

Thirty years after its New York City debut, Ningyo Shimai (The Doll Sisters) returned to La MaMa E.T.C. (see Plate 5). The play is roughly based on the story of the kabuki play Modoribashi by Kawatake Mokuami. This production was mounted to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Praemium Imperiale (Takamastu no Miya Memorial World Cultural Award). The prize in film/theater was awarded in 2007 to La MaMa's artistic director, Ellen Stewart, who sought a return engagement of this watershed performance with the support of the Agency for Cultural Affairs of the government of Japan.

Noted poet Taeko Tomioka and leading stage designer Setsu Asakura began collaborations on The Doll Sisters in 1976. Director and designer Asakura as well as two of the original performers returned to reprise their roles in the current production. Head puppeteer Jun Tanaka, of the Yuki Ningyo Za (Yuki Puppet Theater) of Tokyo, returned to both act and manipulate a marionette with former costar Kazuko Yoshiyuki.

Tanaka brings with him a unique style of marionette puppetry, which makes use of a square frame called the hand board (see Fig. 1). The center of the square hand board is hollowed out and to it are attached two sticks. The puppeteer grasps the hand board from underneath with the left hand and uses the right hand to pull up the strings. Tanaka puppets the samurai marionette, while Kikukata Onoe puppets the female marionette. The puppets, which walk on the ground, make a striking contrast to the human actresses who interact with them. [End Page 359]

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Figure 1.

Puppeter Jun Tanaka and samurai puppet. (Photo: Jonathan Slaff)

The play follows the lives of two sisters, played by Mieko Yuki and Yoshiyuki. The younger, dressed in a pink kimono, is obsessed with finding a man to love her. Thus, she daily waits by a bridge for a married man she wants to entice. The older sister, clothed in lacy but somewhat stodgy Western dress, is obsessed with revenging herself on the man who abandoned her. Following the source story, the younger sister meets a samurai at the bridge. The samurai [End Page 360] cuts off the younger sister's arm. However, at this point the delineation of the characters starts to break down radically.

The younger sister, as an autonomous character, becomes confused when a marionette dressed in the same costume arrives onstage. Woman and puppet exist in four types of relationships: (1) the younger sister character may operate in both the body of the actress and in the body of the puppet simultaneously; (2) the character may alternate back and forth between woman and puppet; (3) the puppet may wholly assume the role of the younger sister while the actress assumes the part of another character, such as the samurai or the older sister; (4) the woman and puppet may take on aspects of the demon from the source play. This type of complication occurs in the other characters as well. For instance, Tanaka is suddenly thrust into the role of an actor when the younger sister, absorbing the thoughts of revenge from her older sister, thrusts a knife blade not into the puppet on whom the action had been focused, but at the puppeteer himself.

The piece also explores tensions in time, which is particularly interesting considering its revival and also considering the prominent display of photos in the lobby depicting the same actors from the production thirty years ago. The younger and older sisters represent two different time periods: traditional and modern. This dichotomy continues as the play must find ways to negotiate the source story. The puppets speak in both modern Japanese and in classical chanting style. The character of the samurai exists in the past for the older sister—he is the man who had betrayed her. The samurai exists in the present for the younger sister—he is the man she loves...