Web Japan > NIPPONIA No.28 > Cover Interview
NIPPONIA No.28 March 15, 2004

cover interview
Young Talent Energizes Traditional Bunraku Puppet Plays
Written by Tsuchiya Komei, Photo by Saimon Fujio
Toyotake Sakihodayu says that a theatrical performer needs a deep understanding of human emotions. His narrative style during bunraku puppet plays is powerful and convincing.

Bunraku puppet drama, one of Japan's traditional theatrical art forms, has been performed for about 300 years. Three puppeteers manipulate the puppets, a tayu chanter narrates the story and speaks the puppets' words, and a three-stringed shamisen provides the musical accompaniment. These three elements join together and pull the audience into a story of human emotions, perhaps the emotions of a parent and a child, or a man and a woman.
At 28, Toyotake Sakihodayu is a tayu chanter. He is still young, but his expertise in this ancient world of bunraku is bringing him fame. "I was born into a family of bunraku shamisen players, and I suppose it was that environment which made me decide that I wanted to be a tayu chanter. I was 8 at the time. I started studying under a tayu master, and performed publicly for the first time when I was 10. I knew even then that I wanted to spend my life in the world of bunraku. I was already beginning to think of myself as a professional performer. Ever since I was small, that was the only thing that really interested me. And working in bunraku is the only job I've ever wanted to have."
Toyotake seems to have achieved his life goal, because his schedule is crammed with bunraku-related work. He performs a minimum of 250 days a year—more than 400 stage performances—and he is busy offstage as well, rehearsing, training and editing script for the next play, writing, performing overseas, giving interviews to the media. He says that in 2002 he had only two days completely free from work, and life has been hectic like that for the last 10 years.
"Over the last while, we've performed a lot overseas, thanks to the fact that people abroad are interested in Japan's classical theatre. During 2002, we performed on invitation in a drama festivals in Mexico and in Brazil and Sweden. Audiences in Germany and France seem to like bunraku a lot, and we even get standing ovations, something that would never happen in Japan, no matter how much they enjoyed the play. I now look on bunraku as a theatrical art form that can strike a chord in people everywhere, so we should be more confident of our traditions and show them to the world."
In October 2003, bunraku was added to UNESCO's provisional list of masterpieces to be protected under the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. This shows how much it is respected in the world today.
Toyotake says, "Bunraku began in Osaka and became a Japanese treasure, and now it is a treasure for the whole world. I'm really glad it gained this recognition during my lifetime. The UNESCO commendation gives us more responsibility to carry on the traditions. I feel proud that I have an opportunity to keep showing the world a part of Japan's wonderful cultural heritage."NIPONIA

   Special Feature*    Wonders of Japan    Living In Japan
   Why Not Try Growing a Bonsai Tree?    Japanese Animals and Culture
   Bon Appetit!    Japan Travelogue    Cover Interview    In Japan Today