Subject: I have found a DVD that I think you would enjoy
|The Lovers' Exile|
Actor: Tamao YOSHIDA; Minosuke III Yoshida; Kanjuro I KIRITAKE
Director: Marty Gross
Genres: Indie & Art House, Drama, Special Interests, Musicals & Performing Arts
Better Than Nothing? I'm Not Sure.
Giordano Bruno | Wherever I am, I am. | 09/21/2008
(3 out of 5 stars)
"During the year I lived in Japan, there were two things I adored enough to counterbalance any frustration I felt with learning that impossible language and any isolation I felt at being a "gai jin", an outsider. Those things were the gardens and the bunraku - the musical puppet theater, a "Living National Treasure" conserved only in Osaka and on one small island. The bunraku does travel to barbarous outposts now and then - Tokyo, Berkeley Ca, Cambridge MA - and when it comes near me, anywhere on Earth, I rush to buy tickets. But if you really want to experience Japan's most sophisticated theater form, you have to make a pilgrimage to Osaka.
Chikamatsu, the author of this Lover's Exile and most other bunraku texts, is the Shakespeare of Japan in terms of his stature, and the bunraku likewise has the stature of the Shakespearean stage. A funny thought, eh? Here's how it works: the 'stage' is a pit, about the size of an orchestra pit, with extremely stylized and cleverly manipulated backdrops. The puppeters stand and walk in the 'trenches' of the stage, visible only from the waist up. They are clad and masked in matte black robes, all except the greatest masters, who are allowed to expose their faces. The puppets are child-sized, extremely 'artful' in construction and elaborately costumed. The puppet faces are immobile. Each puppet is operated by two or more puppeteers, who are plainly in sight behind the puppets. Meanwhile, in an alcove beside the stage, a man sits cross-legged and chants the story that the puppets are enacting, using weird vocal inflections to suggest dialogue. His chant is accompanied by the strumming of a 'shamisen' player sitting next to him. Not all the chanters are old men, but the 'proper' style is clearly an old man's roughened voice. European/American music lovers wll not immediately enjoy this bunraku chant any more than first-time diners in Japan enjoy sea urchin gonads as sushi. It's definitely a 'learned taste,' Japanese classical music of any sort, but once you learn it, it's quite addicting. That's why I rushed to buy this bunraku DVD - the only one on the market - the moment I discovered it.
But it doesn't work. The lighting for cameras and the flat depth of field destroy the illusion that the puppeteers aren't really there. The stage looks cluttered, crowded. The movements of the puppets seem awkward and static. The close-ups of the little painted wooden heads DON'T work like close-ups of Hollywood actors, showing emotions. How silly for the director to suppose they would! Yet when you sit in the bunraku theater, the whole staging is magically graceful. Those little unmoving faces somehow seem to change and light up with expressions. Your eyes never leave the stage - the whole sweep of it - while the wailing voices of the chanters and the clanging of the shamisen surround you and the puppets in a minature world of drama. The Japanese viewers around you, by the way, are likely to be picnicking as they watch, or straining their eyes to follow a printed text, since they can't really understand the archaic language of the chant much better than you can.
So... Will this DVD evoke the truly exotic artifice of bunraku, and give you at least a taste of the experience? I think not. I think it will merely serve to convince you that you wouldn't like it anyway. Save your money. Fly directly to Osaka, bypassing Tokyo except as a literary concept. Get a room in Kyoto, in as old-fashioned a 'minshiku' as you can find. Spend a week lingering - LINGERING! - in the temple gardens. Actually, you'll need to come at least twice, in spring and fall, to begin to understand Japanese gardening. Then, when the gardens have saturated your senses, take the fast train to Osaka and attend the bunraku. You'll need reservations."
Still contemporary after all these years
Paul Hunt | 11/13/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This is the only game in town if you want to see classic Japanese Bunraku short of a trip to Japan. This performance is abridged, and there are no long shots that allow you to take in the whole minimalist staging of singer, musician, and puppeteers, but the essence of the form is still engaging. The play by Chikamatsu is best presented in English by the Donald Keene translation and commentary (also avialable at Amazon The Major Plays of Chikamatsu), and I recommend the book as a libretto for enhancing the viewing of the video. Keene does a very good job of clarifying the historical context of Chikamatsu's work in a way that reinforces the timeless nature of the Bunraku art, and he even makes a pretty good stab at translating Chikamatu's puns and clever Japanese language that is missed in the video sub-titles. (I have the VHS version of this, but I understand the DVD is made from the same Marty Gross film.)"
Flawed, but essential
oldbollweevil | Tokyo | 11/28/2009
(3 out of 5 stars)
"At the moment this seems to be the only bunraku available on DVD with English subtitles. The situation's not much better in Japan: Shochiku's been releasing lots of kabuki on DVD, but nobody's doing that for bunraku.
This is a semi-complete performance of Chikamatsu's Meido no hikyaku. The first thing that should be noted is that the version here differs considerably from that translated in Donald Keene's Major Plays of Chikamatsu (according to the booklet that comes with the DVD, for the film they used a kabuki alteration of the script that dates from the late 18th century). The ending is so different that it may be difficult to use this DVD in conjunction with Keene's translation. Whole scenes and characters are eliminated.
That may be a minus (or it may be a plus, since it makes available an alternate performance tradition that English speakers would otherwise not know of). Another minus is that the transfer to DVD isn't all that great. The picture is faded and slightly blurry, with lots of scratches and whatnot. Clearly they were working from an old print in not very good condition. I suppose you take what you can get, but: be warned.
On the plus side, the documentation is first-rate: the booklet includes essays by Susan Sontag and Barbara Adachi, plus a round-table with director Marty Gross, Northrop Frye, and Robert Fulford, and detailed information on the production.
Also on the plus side, the films seems to stay pretty close to bunraku staging conventions. We see stage sets, puppeteers, and chanters, with no effort to make it seem like this is happening in a real world. It's a stage performance that has been filmed. That makes this useful for teaching bunraku. On the other hand, it makes it less than absolutely compelling as a viewing experience. It's not quite a one-camera point-and-shoot setup, but it's still pretty static onscreen.
A useful comparison would be the 1981 film Bunraku Sonezaki shinju by Kurisaki Midori (and shot by the immortal Miyagawa Kazuo). This was available on VHS with English subtitles, but doesn't seem to have been released on DVD yet. This presents a mostly complete (and close-to-Keene) bunraku performance of The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, but it plays with the staging conventions. It's puppets, and it shows us the puppeteers, but it takes place on puppet-sized movie sets rather than a stage. The goal here seems to be to make the puppets look like they're inhabiting a real world; thus we don't get any views of the chanters. It's a very interesting effect, and it also allows for much more dynamic filming - lots of closeups, etc. - which in turn makes it much more watchable. Not necessarily better than this (it just depends on what you're using it for). But it would be nice to have it available on DVD someday."