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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Unending Pursuit of Bunraku

Hiromi Akimoto

Jan. 27, 2016

Crowds flocked to the National Bunraku Theater in Osaka over the New Year holidays earlier this month to take in a traditional Japanese performance art.

Bunraku, a form of puppet theater, was born in that city around 300 years ago. One of its distinctive features is that three people control each character. And their movements are supposed to symbolize what lies in the depths of people's souls.

But recently, Bunraku has fallen on hard times.

Financial support has been cut as Osaka's local government grapples with financial difficulties.

The most serious challenge, however, is how to train the next generation of puppeteers and ensure the tradition lives on.

There’s a school that specializes in bunraku, and encourages young students to become professional performers. That’s exactly what one of its graduates, 26-year-old Rentaro Sato, intends to do.

He got his first glimpse of bunraku five years ago when he was a college student. And it changed his life.

"I felt I wanted to do this,” Sato says. “Although it was a totally unknown world to me, I wanted to throw myself into it."

He was fascinated by the skills of veteran puppeteer Yoshida Tamao.

"The male puppet looked so powerful,” Sato says. “It was simply amazing, and a moving experience."

After training for two years, he became Yoshida's apprentice. But newcomers like Sato face a tough journey before they’re allowed to take part in a performance with senior puppeteers.

In bunraku, the main performer controls the puppet's face and right arm. Another handles the left arm. The third, and least experienced, is positioned between the other two and maneuvers the legs.

It takes a decade to master the leg movements, another decade for the left arm, and a full 30 years to become a true professional puppeteer.

Sato is in charge of moving the legs. But at first he has trouble bringing the puppet to life.

The puppet he’s helping bring to life represents a noble woman from the age of the samurai. Sato has to manipulate the legs to make her move with dignity and elegance.

He finds the task daunting. So he asks his master, Yoshida Tamao, for special lessons.

"You’re not flipping enough,” Tamao says during one of the sessions. “So the puppet never looks natural."

Sato’s tough training continues. And he starts practicing more on his own.

"I would feel bad for the audience if a show is ruined because of my unskilled techniques,” he says. “I must never lose my concentration."

The first time he's given this special role, he dresses in black from head to toe, as is tradition. He plays his part just behind the puppet.

Sato manages to stay in step with the other performers, and takes extra care not to get in their way.

Discerning bunraku fans pay close attention to how the legs move. And Sato maneuvers them with heart and soul.

"I hope that someday, people will admire how I moved the puppet's legs," Sato says.

His master also has high hopes for him.

"I want him to work hard to become a true puppeteer," Tamao says.

If all goes well, Sato will be able to perfect his skills for decades to come.

"If I continue working hard on my skills, people will be moved by my performance,” he says. “One day, I hope to draw a large crowd."

NHK World’s Hiromi Akimoto joined Newsroom Tokyo anchor Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Shibuya: So Hiromi, puppet shows are performed all around the world. What’s special about bunraku?

Kimoto: Each bunraku show requires three kinds of performers: musicians to play the three-stringed shamisen, chanters to provide narration, and of course the puppeteers. And as we saw, three puppeteers are needed for each character. They act as one to move the puppet in perfect harmony with the chanting and music. Everything comes together to breathe life into the figures. It has a magic that's fascinated Japanese audiences for over three centuries.

Shibuya: When I went to see bunraku the other day, I was taken by the delicate and dynamic movements of the puppets. But I also found myself really enjoying the stories being performed.

Kimoto: Those stories have been quite influential in traditional Japanese arts. They've even inspired modern novels and films.

Shibuya: Are many young performers like Sato pursuing the art of bunraku today?

Kimoto: There are currently 86 professional performers, and 13 of them are in their 20s. But the number of highly skilled bunraku professionals is falling. So we have high hopes for young performers like Sato.

Shibuya: What about the audience? How are people trying to win new fans for the traditional art? I noticed that English translation is available at the theater.

Kimoto: Organizers have been trying to reach younger audiences. They're taking the plays out of fancy theaters and performing them outdoors, or in other places like elementary schools. They're also working with popular playwrights to create new productions, including comedies. Shakespeare has even been performed with bunraku.

Shibuya: So while preserving tradition, they're also thinking out of the box and reaching out.

Kimoto: That's right. They're hoping a more casual way of enjoying Bunraku will help it catch on with a new generation.