Yesterday I witnessed my first puppet ritual suicide. It had been a long day. By the time Sakuramaru emerged from an inner chamber, soon met by his father carrying a silver knife from the side room and his young wife crying in short bursts of disbelief, some members of the audience had fallen asleep. Those of us who had come for the entire day’s performances were into our seventh hour of puppet theatre. I was tired, too. My right leg had fallen asleep and the already compact Japanese theatre seats seemed to grow more cramped every fifteen minutes. Yet it all melted away as the show built to its climax.
The stillness of the Sakuramaru puppet, matched by the face of its lead puppeteer in poise and resolve, spoke volumes in silence. The Tayu— the man responsible for narrating the story as well as voicing all the characters— turned on a dime, steering his performance from role to role, his voice bouncing in rhythm and tone while his face passed from one extreme emotion to the next. The puppet of Sakuramaru’s father, who had been striking a bell while repeatedly chanting in prayer for his son, begins to miss the bell with his mallet, unable to fight off his tears any longer. At the last moment, Sakuramaru’s wife tries one last time to stop her husband but Sakuramaru, in a display of intense resolve, manages to pin her down with one knee while still finding the strength to plunge the knife deep into his abdomen.
With the puppet flesh pierced, no blood followed, nor trick lighting, red fabric, or surprise transformation; there was just a lifeless doll, still tucked in the seiza seated position, his torso now collapsed upon his knees. Animated materials turned inanimate once again. And meanwhile we in the audience sat and seeped in prolonged silence. I noticed the woman sitting next to me wiping tears from her eyes and then realized that I, too, was crying. I did not blubber, nor was I struck by overwhelming, uncontrollable sobs. Instead, I felt the slow growth of a few tears in each eye, culminating in one brief bout of blurred vision— certainly a smaller display of empathic response, but somehow one that felt more appropriate for the such simplicity and restraint.
The Bunraku I witnessed effortlessly blended rigorously methodical compartmentalizing with a collective purity of purpose. It was logical yet also improbable, distancing yet also overwhelming, light yet also exhausting. It was something I need to see again.