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BUNRAKU MINIATURES Gautam Dasgupta The term Bunraku, although a misnomer, is now synonymous with the eloquent Japanese puppet theatrical tradition that once flourished (and continues to do so) in the city of Osaka. To be more precise in the etymology, this seventeenth-century art form ought to be referred to by its original name of ningyo shibai (or "doll theatre"), since the principal protagonists of this theatre are neither hand, glove or rod puppets, nor are they marionettes . Standing about three to four feet high, they are oversized dolls, elaborately costumed in realistic garb, faces painted to delineate with exactitude the essential features of an old woman or a heroic warrior, and deftly manipulated by three operators dressed in black, one with his face bared, the other two veiled. These doll-puppets are, in essence, played with as they are carried aloft, shunted about, and paraded, at times gracefully, at other times stridently, in front of a sparse, narrowly elongated, realistic set. Seated on a dais, set laterally to the stage proper, are the reciters (oruri) and musicians (samisen players), dressed in stiff, regal clothes that complement their rigid postures as they sit cross-legged, dramatically rendering the play's dialogue with unabashed outpourings of emotion. Interrupting the wail-like chant at irregular intervals is the sound of the plectrum striking its discordant note against the strings of the samisen. This orderly segregation of space and tripartite mode of artistic production (visual, vocal, and musical) within which the Bunraku operates clues us in to the overall aesthetic of this form. As with the truncated life size of the 29 puppets, the Bunraku refuses to serve up an illusory totality of the world on stage. Through an assemblage of disparate, discrete elements does the Bunraku artist, in the manner of a bricoleur, create a world picture. The expansive world picture that finally comes across to us in the audience is a composite (or collage) of the highly specialized activities of the tripartite agents that comprise the artistic structure. But the specialization of the Bunraku theatre, while a glowing examplar of the division of artistic labor, should also be viewed as a sensibility akin to the idea of miniaturization which, owing to Japan's advances in technology, has come to epitomize that country's singular national genius. Miniaturization holds a particular place in Japanese life. Being a tiny island-country where space is constricted, the Japanese have turned to the suggestive powers of the miniaturized model to break open the closure that surrounds them. Poignant uses of such techniques are evident to anyone who has ever seen a Japanese garden or been inside a Japanese home. Through an ordered spatial arrangement of various modes of diminution, the Japanese have created a broadening vista that encompasses the world in the mind, if not in reality. (It would be interesting to consider the Japanese penchant for photography in this context.) Although the aesthetics of Bunraku flow partly from the socio-cultural ethos of Japanese life, the miniaturization/specialization strategy further serves to distill and concentrate the purity of each of Bunraku's threepronged artistic practices. The visual, the vocal and the musical retain their autonomy with none of the three impinging on any of the other's domains. That they can so co-exist is because none of them has the responsibility to overtly prop up or underscore the activities of the others. Embodying by nature a small, specialized area of artistic execution, there is room enough to absorb all three singular activities in the overall aesthetic experience of the Bunraku spectacle. The Bunraku text is considered the purest form of literary writing for the Japanese stage. Legend has it that Chikamatsu Monzaemon, the prominent seventeenth-century author of Bunraku playtexts, teamed up with the Bunraku practitioner Takemoto Gidayu to write lines that would not be mutilated by live actors. He was so distraught at the readings given his lines by the Kabuki actors of his day (Chikamatsu started out writing for the Kabuki theatre) that he was drawn to the puppets, who would remain mute during the course of a performance. This same purity of artistic expression lends itself to the musical and...


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pp. 29-35
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