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BUNRAKU is the name for the traditional puppet theater in Japan. Born in the last decades of the 17th century in the city of Osaka, this art combines narrative chant with shamisen music and the puppets, which are manipulated by three men who bring them to life and give an expression astonishingly human. Bunraku was designated UNESCO World Heritage in 2003.

KANJURO KIRITAKE III has been devoted to bunraku theater for more than fifty years, and for today he is the most renowned master of his generation. Son of a National Treasure of Japan, he has brought his puppets to many countries including Spain. With conferences and performances like the one we lately enjoyed in Madrid, the shows in Japan, France, Italy and other locations, and the activities of the cultural NPO he heads, Kanjuro Kiritake III intends to take the refined and emotional bunraku beyond the boundaries of Japan.


2:45 PM. My colleague Jorge and I are crossing the street of Atocha in an odd way, for we are concerned about getting to Hotel Catalonia on time. I am going to interview Kanjuro Kiritake III, the most famous puppeteer in Japan. In the Land of the Rising Sun, puppet theater is taken very seriously, and their artisans are living treasures. For the sake of Art. And for the good of us all who love it passionately.

After reckoning that we have been the first to arrive, we have a glance to the hotel lobby while we are telling white jokes. Just before the third, Risa shows up. Risa is the cultural delegate for The Japan Foundation in Spain, for whose mediation this meeting with the master will take place. Risa greets us gently: ‘I´m so sorry, Maria Jesus, for the master has such a little time. That´s why I told you we have only twenty minutes.’ Shortly after, Kosuke, our interpreter and a person of my acquaintance, joins us. We are all here. Except for sensei.

Kanjuro Kiritake III

Exactly at three o´clock, the elevator opens. Kanjuro Kiritake III, who played the beauty Ohatsu of Double Suicide at Sonezaki in our Teatro Español in 2013, is an elegant and sober man, dressed in coal grey and white. He comes close. Risa introduces us, and the master bows to me in a way I don’t deserve. Just after this we take a corridor which takes us to the main salon. ‘Maybe we could have a ningyô, what do you think?’ asks Kanjuro. I`ve understood the key words (I know a little Japanese). For the rest don´t say a thing, I dare to suggest: ‘Kashira?’. Sensei asks his pupil to go for a puppet´s head.

JE: Oh! It’s handsome. This is a hero prototype, isn’t it?

KK: This is a bunshichi head, used for samurai roles. That´s right, it is a hero.

Bunshichi (how I name him) is tremendously expressive. Made of a delicate wood and pale-painted, his face is of a grump. The master takes the kashira and gives him a glance of endearment. Then he leaves him on the table, just beside us. Bunshichi looks disappointed, but that is the way things are.

JE: Master, it is an honour for me and for Japan´s Eye that you have agreed to talk to us about your marvellous art. Bunraku is the popular name for the theater ningyô jôruri, which means literally ‘chant with puppets’. This implies an essential difference with other puppet styles, for it consists of three elements: narrative chant, shamisen music and the movement of the puppets. Would you please explain what is the purpose and meaning of each one of these elements?

KK: The three elements that you mentioned are the most important, all of them essential. Of them, we could say that katari, the storytelling, is key. Katari, along with shamisen, creates a world, and in that world is where puppets come to life. From the times of Edo, the story is the main pillar; however, this does not discredit the other two components. In fact, we call the three sangyô. This triad has to bear the responsibility for a successful performance; the three must have the same strength. When we achieve this, comes out the art that people see on stage.

JE: The expert in Japanese theater Toshio Kawatake said that bunraku puppets are ‘super-humans’, because their expressiveness is infinite. But the most astonishing of this is that the puppet is manipulated by three men. Would you tell us which the function or competence of each puppeteer is, and how they go together to convey a harmonic, real-life character?

KK: The three-man-manipulation in bunraku is called san-nin-zukai. This style was created in Osaka in 1734 and only two years later it was integrated in all theaters in Japan; moreover, today this kind of manipulation is spread internationally to other styles of puppetry. Since its adoption in Japan it has never changed. We have the omozukai in the first place; omozukai is the person who moves the head (kashira) and the puppet’s right hand. Then there is the ashizukai, the one who moves the puppet’s feet with his own hands; and beside him the hidarizukai, who moves the puppet’s left hand. In the old times, when there was one-man manipulation, puppets were more or less half the height they are now, but when new technique was adopted, puppets increased their size considerably. I think that this way of san-nin-zukai has come to be very valuable and interesting, and I personally welcome it. We must highlight the fact that every single puppeteer in Japan starts as an apprentice of ashizukai, a task which takes him ten years; he needs another ten o fifteen years to be a hidarizukai, and after all this time he can become an omozukai. Therefore, at least twenty five years of practice are compulsory for a person to develop the skills necessary to perform a bunraku leading character.

And I answer to the second question: ‘How do we three manage to act as one?’. All move following the instructions of the omozukai. As we cannot talk while being on stage, this orders are gestures, non-verbal signs only puppeteers know.

JE: One of the most outstanding features is that omozukai, the head puppeteer, has always a very stiff face while moving the puppet. This last one is expressing so much, conveying a rich, even histrionic behavior… and the omozukai, which is actually giving all life to the puppet, always shows a lack of emotions on his face. Why? Is it another trick?

KK: Yes, it is a part of our training. My master also taught me not to show my own emotions on stage. When I was young and I had to move the puppet so it reflected anger, I got angry along with him; when the puppet was sad, I was sad too… (Laughs). But thanks to practice I have learned to follow my master´s rule. If I am going to express my own emotions, what do I need a puppet for?

JE: I see! So, it is a technique to pour out all emotions on the puppet.

KK: Exactly. And my left hand is the one which has to transmit those emotions.

JE: Taking about bunraku’s main topics, there are historical plots (jidaimono) and sewamono or dramas of the common in the 18 th century, pretty much like dorama in Japan or TV series. Which are, from your point of view, the plays which touch spectators’ heart more intensely or at least the most popular among them?

KK: The two genres are popular. The only difference is that sewamono plays are more numerous and certainly easier to understand, so for first-time spectators they may be more accessible. However, jidaimono stories are attractive because of their deep plots and historical relevance. So in short I don’t think one genre is more popular than the other. By the way, I love both (Laughs).

JE: Our last question. Apart from the short visit for this evening’s performance in Matadero Madrid and the same kind tomorrow in Salamanca’s Japanese Week, when do you think you could perform a whole bunraku play here in Spain, or even organise a workshop for attracting bunraku lovers or recruit new talents? When will you come back?

KK: I would love to do something about that, of course. And I will be happy to accept all proposals and invitations related to it. Next autumn I will be in France again, so…

Kanjuro looks closely at Kosuke and me. I feel invaded by a huge responsibility. If it was up to me…!

JE: Sensei, again, thank you so much for having talked to us. We sincerely wish you more achievements in your career and the best for this evening’s performance. We will enjoy it, be sure of that.

KK: Thank you very much to you. I also expect Salamanca’s show and this one in Madrid to be the first step for future events.

Suddenly, Kanjuro takes Bunshichi’s head and passes it to me.

KK: Can you take it?

JE: Yes! Let me see…uhmmm. I already saw you doing this. Do I have to push?

He wants me to play an omozukai. I start touching the lever just behind the dogushi, the puppet’s ‘neck’, in order to move his eyes. No, nothing changes here… Sensei notices my lack of ability. I laugh nervously.

JE: Oh my god, I am so clumsy.

KK: Now, the eyebrows.

The samurai, at last, starts to move his eyes. After it, the eyebrows. This puppet has an adorable angry face. All people in there laugh.

JE: Master, this is a privilege for me.

Our time has come to an end. Mr Kanjuro has a long journey ahead. So we take the last picture of us together and I whisper a ‘See you, master, ganbatte kudasai!’. I don´t know if I spoke properly. But sensei gives us a smile. He seems calm and happy.



Interview and redaction: María Jesús López-Beltrán for Japan´s Eye

Photographs: Kanjuro Kiritake III, Jorge Salvador, María Jesús López-Beltrán

Translation to Japanese: Kosuke Nakamori


We will never have enough chances to express our gratitude to the master
Kanjuro Kiritake III (and also all his team) for his great generosity having
met Japan´s Eye. We also thank The Japan Foundation Spain and specially Risa
Imamura for her kindness and help to do this interview. We are grateful, 
too, to Kosuke Nakamori, for having been our interpreter.


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