First Bunraku Performance Offered at Ise ShrineLively Oneri led by local dance group
Nippon Bunraku Project

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More than 300 people enjoy one of the performances

The fourth set of performances of the Nippon Bunraku Project, which began in 2014, was held at the Ise Shrine complex for four days from March 11. According to the Jingu Administration Office, this was the first time a full-scale Bunraku (classical puppet theater) performance was offered at Ise Shrine, which can be considered the original starting point of Japanese culture. A lively oneri procession, which is not usually associated with Bunraku, was held on March 10 to announce the performance, and was led by the Ise Ondo Hozon Kai (Ise Folk Dance Preservation Society). The performances had many other unique features as well, including being barrier free so they could be enjoyed by persons with disabilities.

Portable stage creates authentic atmosphere

The performances were held at the Geku No. 2 parking lot. The stage was the portable stage built for the project, which is made of Japanese cypress from Yoshino, the traditional wood for a Bunraku stage, and can be knocked down and reassembled. The stage is surrounded by curtains hand-dyed with the Japanese characters for “Nippon Bunraku,” and for these performances the audience area was able to seat 350 persons. The stage is 19.7 meters wide by 6.7 meters tall, which is slightly smaller than the stage at the National Bunraku Theater in Osaka. Nevertheless, students from the local Ise Technical High School, who watched the assembly at the suggestion of Ise’s mayor, Kenichi Suzuki, were amazed at how a temporary stage could be so gorgeous and elaborate.

Before the first performance, The Nippon Foundation President Takeju Ogata called for a minute of silence to remember the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake, which had struck exactly six years earlier. He then expressed his thanks to the Jingu Administration Office and others, noting that it was very uncommon to be able to stage a performance at a place so steeped in history. Mayor Suzuki also expressed his gratitude to The Nippon Foundation, noting that the Foundation is not only engaged in cultural activities; it is also deeply involved in support for children, persons with disabilities, and older persons.

Classic plays with new features for greater accessibility

The plays performed were “Ninin Sanbaso” (“Two Sanbasos” or “The Dance of Sanbaso”) and “The Travelling Hand Drum Travel-Dance” from “Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura” (“Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees”), a spectacular piece set in the Yoshino district, which is famous for its cherry blossoms and was also the source of the wood for the stage. The performances featured narrator Hanafusadayu Toyotake, who will become the 6th Rodayu Toyotake in April, shamisen (a traditional three-stringed instrument) accompanist Seisuke Tsuruzawa, and puppeteer Kanjuro Kiritake. During the intermission, they gave easy-to-understand explanations of Bunraku and the shamisen, and posed for photographs with the puppets. Many people lined up to have their picture taken.

As a first attempt to make a Bunraku performance barrier free, persons with impaired hearing were provided with tablet computers that displayed the narration, and during musical interludes the tablet would indicate that the shamisen was being played. Sign language interpretation was also provided. Audience members with visual impairment were given earphones to listen to an explanation of the action taking place on the stage.

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‘Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura’ being performed on the dazzling stage (left), Photographs with the puppets were a popular attraction (right)

Lively oneri announces the performances and sets a festive tone

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Despite being a weekday, Oharai-Machi was full of people

The oneri on March 10 began in Oharai-Machi at the entrance to Okage-Yokocho, and went for 700 meters, to Ujibashi bridge. The procession took about 45 minutes, a nd was led by dancers from the Ise Ondo Hozon Kai. Despite being a weekday, the route was very crowded and the procession took 45 minutes. The performers carried two puppets, and many tourists took pictures. Accompanied by the drum and shamisen, the procession with its colorful puppets delighted the crowd of tourists from Japan and other countries.

This was the second time the Nippon Bunraku Project has featured an oneri, the first being the previous set of performances at Sensoji temple in Asakusa, Tokyo, in October 2016. According to Masayuki Nakamura, director and executive producer of the Yokohama Noh Theater and the project’s overall producer, oneri is generally associated with Kabuki and even in Bunraku’s birthplace of Osaka, there are no instances of Bunraku oneri. Before the first performance at Ise Shrine, the participants paid homage and prayed for successful performances at the most sacred shrine on the premises (Mikakiuchi), which is not accessible to the general public.

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Dancers from the Ise Ondo Hozon Kai lead the oneri (left), The ‘Nippon Bunraku’ banner and puppets (right)

Bringing traditional arts to a wider audience

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Group photo in front of Ujibashi bridge

Admission for these performances was free with advance reservations allotted via a lottery, and most of the 350 seats for each of the eight performances (one afternoon performance and one evening performance on each of the four days) were booked in advance. Unfortunately rain forced the cancellation of third evening performance, but some of those ticketholders were able to attend one of the next day’s performances. A train also made a special run from Osaka to Ise on March 12 for tourists attending the performance.

The Nippon Foundation is working with groups like the Bunraku Kyokai (Japan Bunraku Association) to make Japan’s traditional performing arts more accessible than when they are performed in theaters. The Nippon Bunraku Project plans to hold two sets of performances each year until 2020, when Tokyo will host the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

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Group photo after the first performance, with university students who volunteered to assist with the performances

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