As part of the Asian Puppet Theatre Exchange project, six young members of Japan?fs bustling bunraku scene embarked on a three-city tour of the region for cross-cultural exchange activities with their local counterparts.
The Kansai-based ensemble kickstarted their journey with a visit to the Indian capital, where they shared a stage with seven other groups of professional puppeteers. Held in collaboration with Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust, the event allowed audiences in the country to witness bunraku for the first time, as performed by both native practitioners as well as compatriots who combined elements of the Japanese art form with their own unique folklore. The heavy rain failed to put a damper on the evening as a huge crowd of people packed the National School of Drama for this historic milestone.
A similarly enthusiastic reception awaited the ningyotsukai the next day when they dropped by the Cambridge School of New Delhi to conduct a short demonstration for students. The children were well-behaved during the session, but scarcely a second went by at the end when they suddenly swarmed members of the group for autographs.
The second leg of the circuit marked a return to familiar territory for the group. A few of them had been part of a pioneering entourage that presented South East Asia?fs first full-scale bunraku performance in Kuala Lumpur in 2013. The next year, these masters-in-training came back for a joint demonstration with wayang kulit virtuoso Kamrulbahri Hussin. They then debuted bunraku in Penang at the inaugural Butterworth Fringe Festival in 2015, where they traded know-how with keepers of the Potehi glove puppetry tradition.
Arriving in Johor, they dutifully guided spectators through the techniques that have been handed down over three centuries, before vivifying an excerpt from The Red-Hot Love of a Greengrocer?fs Daughter, one of 160 plays written during the Edo period (1603-1868) that remain in the national archive. Chanter Yoshihodayu Toyotake never lost a beat as he recited line after line of such emotional intensity that was only enlivened by the melodies emanating from Seiki Tsurusawa?fs shamisen. Lead puppeteer Minoshiro Yoshida and the remaining members of the group seemed to bring the puppets to life with each seemingly effortless movement; a flick of the wrist here, a swing of the hips there.
The Kim Giak Low Choon Teochew Puppet Troupe were no slouches either with their stirring rendition of The Love of the Celestial Fox, which chronicles the romance between the titular deity and a mortal after she descends to the human realm. Headed by fifth-generation Chinese opera thespian Ling Goh, the organisation is one of the last of its kind in the country, having persevered since the 19th century. Proceedings at the Mall of Medini concluded with the customary sharing of skills between the two guardians of heritage. Laughs rang out around the hall as Minoshiro attempted to manipulate the three rods of a Teochew puppet while Ling tried her hand at controlling a puppet that would have needed three people to do so.
Manila was the final destination before the merry band bade goodbye. They were welcomed by Teatrong Mulat ng Pilipinas, who derive influences from the Indonesia?fs wayang golek (rod puppet) and wayang kulit as well as bunraku to create their own brand of puppetry. Both shows at the Cultural Centre of the Philippines received full-house crowds, with droves more leaving disappointed as there is not any extra space available. On the morning prior, a workshop was held for students form the Philippines High School for the Arts, members of Teatrong Mulat as well as the bunraku ensemble of the UP Centre for International Studies.