Bunraku Workshop in Elementary School

New to Children and Teachers

YOSHIDA Minotaro

Bunraku-za puppeteer

Even many adults think Bunraku is difficult and old-fashioned performing art, and it is harder for us to appeal to the younger generation, especially to children. We were happy to have a chance to lead a year-long workshop in an elementary school because it would be a good experience for children in learning Bunraku. It took place in the Osaka City ‚jouzu Elementary School that was located close to the National Bunraku Theater.

Within the framework of the "Experiencing Class", the sixth graders learnt joruri chanting, shamisen playing, and puppet manipulation by three puppeteers. From Bunraku-za, TOYOTAKE Sakiuhotayu, TSURUSAWA Seiki, YOSHIDA Minotaro, YOSHIDA Minojiro, YOSHIDA Minoji participated the program as tutors.

The first meeting was in January. They were fifth graders at the time. We introduced the structure of puppet and shamisen, as well as voice training.

Children were excited and nervous at this first encounter. The puppeteering training started with the feet manipulation technique that is essential in the three-man puppet operation. It was impossible to provide 24 pairs of puppet legs for the class, so we used plastic bottles instead. Once in the movie I saw Charlie Chaplin playing with folks and loaves of bread to make them tap-dance: I was so impressed, and looked back myself how immature I was as a foot manipulator. The plastic bottles would turn out to be legs, only if they were manipulated well. Everyone got two plastic bottles with pieces of cardboard attached that made them legs. I demonstrated first, and let them practice standing, walking and sitting.

These movements are the fundamentals that should be thoroughly practiced. Children enjoyed trying the movements, but none of them were following the demonstration. I stopped them for a while. I called one of them, and made him walk slowly in front of the class so that they could observe his legs.

"Which part is moving first?" I asked. "A knee" they answered in small voices. Yes, a knee moves forward first when a man walks. We seldom care how human walk, but it is very important in puppet manipulation. Their plastic bottle legs gradually learnt to start with knees. Even after the class, some them were confirming how they walked. They were learning what walking was like.

They had lessons on narration and shamisen as well: texts, voice training and shamisen playing. In April, they became sixth graders, and the their presentation title "sanbaso" and "gojobashi" were set. Rehearsals became harder. The puppeteers were divided to 8 teams of 3 members: each team got

a dummy with head and hands made of styloform, body of small T shirt, and legs of plastic bottles and socks. I made the teams, and it turned out some were not friendly teams in the beginning. However, I let them continue working all the same, as it would be a good chance for them to learn they must work in harmony to make a puppet move.

In each of those 8 teams, every member experienced the chief puppeteer, left hand, and legs. Thus they would be able to take any position, and learn difficulty and pleasure of each role; moreover, they could make a team even if some members were absent. Of course their technique would have developed quicker if I had assigned each of them to specific roles, but I dared to make it open because the main goal was not necessarily to make the first-class performance but to let them recognized their relationship with each other on the stage.

In June, the children separated into 7 tayu (narrators), 5 shamisen players and 12 puppeteers for rehearsal. Shamisen were adult scale futozao, so they must have had hard time just to hold the instruments to make sounds. They did good job, although they didn't have enough time to practice. Tayus were loud and clear, as boys were still in soprano. They were getting expressive as Ushiwakamaru, Benkei as well as noh-like Sanbaso. At this stage, the tayu team was ahead.

Even when the tutors couldn't visit the school, the children rehearsed so Enthusiastically that sometimes they were too excited even as to fight each other. We were encouraged by the motivated children, and managed to see the class in the morning before our Bunraku performance in the Theater. Four month later, the schoolteacher told us how the children worked: one of them did pushups every day in summer vacation, and he was not at all good in gymnastics before then. He trained himself to keep the puppet in the right position: Another child cried in rehearsing, although he never showed his emotion even when his team lost against other school: Another became confident of himself after his narration was approved, and he started to do better in other classes as well; A crybaby became the chief puppeteer of Benkei, became responsible, and started to take care of younger children.

The teacher told us the stories with surprise and gratitude. We were very happy that they learnt and grew far more than our primary goal, that is, introduction to Bunraku.

After the presentation in November, children cried backstage that they weren't as good as in rehearsals. On the next day, some of them asked their teacher "Bunraku is over. What can we do now?". And they set the second performance by themselves, inviting children from other schools, and did a successful performance. All of them go to the junior high school this spring. I hope they wouldn't forget Bunraku that is an old sophisticated (not old-fashioned) puppet play in Osaka, and talk about it to their new friends, and to the new sixth graders as well.

[ Translated by SUGITA Nobuhiro ]