桜丸 切腹

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.

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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.