“Miss Tanaka” – a case of tradition and modernity meeting on stage

Among the plays I have seen this month at the Ikebukuro Theatre Festival, Youkiza’s performance “Miss Tanaka” was by far the most impressive one.

When thinking of puppet theatre in Japan, the first thing that comes to mind is ningyō jōruri (bunraku), which flourished in the Edo period (1603-1868), where the body of the puppet is maneuvered from the inside, by two or three operators. Nonetheless string puppet theatre (ayatsuri ningyō shibai  あやつり人形芝居) has a tradition just as long – or even longer, according to historical records which mention puppet plays during shrine festivals before Nara period (710-784).

Youkiza 結城座 is a string-puppet theatre company, founded in 1635 in the city of Edo. At present lead by Yūki Magosaburō XII, it has established a name for performances that combine the traditional techniques of string puppetry with contemporary stage artistry (sound effects, computer graphics and projection technology), giving the audience a unique theatre experience.

“Miss Tanaka” was written by the Australian playwright John Romeril, who found inspiration for it in the stories of pearl divers from Wakayama prefecture, who went to work and live in Australia around the beginning of the 20thcentury.

“Miss Tanaka”, performed by Youkiza (September 26th – 30th, 2012)

The play tells the story of Kazuhiko, a youth born in Broome, Western Australia, to a Japanese father and an Aborigene mother. He is haunted by memories of the death of his mother, killed by a shark while she was searching for pearls at sea. The newly arrived chief of the Anglo-Oriental Pearling Company, Charles Mott, a young Jewish trader from London, seeks Kazuhiko’s assistance as a translator for his business. One day, because of his father’s falling into debt, Kazuhiko finds himself in trouble, with two diver chieftains fighting over him. He is saved by the appearance of his father’s beautiful niece, Miss Tanaka Kittso, who asks the two chieftains for pardon on behalf of her uncle. Kazuhiko is thus saved, but Miss Tanaka has to marry one of the chieftains. This is when Mott intervenes. Fascinated by the beauty and manners of Miss Tanaka, he wants her for himself. In order to win her heart he shows her the very precious pearls that he is carrying the pockets of his jacket. However, when he is ready to confess his love to her, Miss Tanaka turns out to be Kazuhiko himself, who had to make use of this deceit to get out of trouble. During the stormy night that followes, Kazuhiko, wearing Mott’s jacket – with the pockets full of pearls, and his father run away to Darwin, and from there to the Philippines.

The memories of the past, the realities of a multicultural environment, and the shadow of the war being fought in Europe (the play is set in the 1930s) create a deep, far- reaching background to this story. Originally meant for human actors, the play revealed surprising possibilities for the puppet theatre.

Youkiza’s interpretation of the play was directed by Amano Tengai 天野天街, famous in Japan for staging the plays of Terayama Shūji 寺山修司 (1935-1983), a central figure of the Japanese avant-garde theatre scene of the late 60s and 70s.

During the performance, the puppets and the puppeteers who operate them had the same appearance. Apart from the puppets backed by their higher, human self, there is scene when one puppeteer operated a puppet that was itself operating another puppet – a very powerful image with meta-theatrical implications. Memories and thoughts of the ongoing war were being projected as images that seemed to tear the puppets and the humans apart.

The background music and all the sound effects were another impressive feature of this performance, as they were played live by three musicians on stage. Aborigene traditional songs were woven into an almost surreal soundscape, fitting perfectly to the stage inhabited by the puppets and their human doubles.

Youkiza’s interpretation of “Miss Tanaka” was a wonderful display of artistry, proving that the art of puppeteering can not only keep pace with the times, taking up the challenges of the contemporary theatre, but can even be one step ahead of the times.

I will leave you with images from of a previous performance by Youkiza, Kangan teitoku no matsuei 『宦官提督の末裔』 and a short documentary video on string-puppet theatre in Japan.

“Kangan teitoku no matsuei”, Youkiza  

Puppet theatre company Youkiza