Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Bunraku as Coptic Flare

I'm feeling less voluable of late. With Noon almost in the can, tidal forces have noticably begun to shift. Lurching inward, girding for the next phase...

Watching (and replaying) Masahiro Shinoda's extraordinary Double Suicide has served as a kick-start. It's both guileless and (necessarily) manipulative, transparent and resplendent. Such perfect sets of contrasts!

From Jonathan Crow's All Movie Guide essay:

A landmark of modernist cinema, Double Suicide brilliantly recasts traditional bunraku conventions to a cinematic form that is visually stunning and emotionally riveting. Using his trademark graphic sensibility, director Masahiro Shinoda never allows viewers to forget that they're watching an adaptation of a play.

Just as the black clad puppeteers are visible during traditional bunraku performances, so are they seen throughout this film as they hand props to the actors, move sets, and — as if agents of fate — guide the characters to their inevitable bloody end.

The sets turn and break down like a kabuki stage while the walls and floors, blow-ups of voluptuous Edo-period woodblock and abstract calligraphy, threaten to overwhelm the characters completely. Both through Monzaemon Chikamatsu's narrative and Shinoda's deconstructed style, the film seems to push the two doomed lovers toward their destiny while tragically hinting at a world beyond this fate. Shima Iwashita delivers the finest and most honored performance of her long and illustrious career as both the courtesan Koharu and self-sacrificing wife Osan.

A masterful example of modernist filmmaking on every level, Double Suicide pulls off a rare feat: a film that wears its self-conscious theatricality on its sleeve while still creating a drama that is emotionally compelling.

Matthew Johnson's précis of buraku added to my appreciation of Shinoda's uncanny achievement:

Bunraku is the name commonly used for ningyo-joruri, literally puppets and storytelling. This simple name not only describes a puppet performance, but also alludes to its predecessors. There was a long tradition of travelling storytellers who used biwa as their accompaniment. There were also travelling puppeteers. When these two art forms were joined is not exactly clear, but the beginning of what is now called Bunraku was 1684, when Takemoto Gidayu set up his own theater in Osaka.

Takemoto Gidayu began his career as a narrator under some of the most acclaimed masters of the period in Kyoto. He soon became famous in his own right, and was known for intimite story telling that spoke the hearts of the characters. In 1684 he decided to branch out and form his own theater, and was helped in his effort by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, the greatest playwright in Japanese history, and Takeda Izumo, a famous theater owner and manager.

Until this time, Chikamatu Monzaemon's work had mostly been in the Kabuki theater, working with Sakata Tojuro, the actor who created the wagoto, or soft style for which Kansai Kabuki became known. Drawn to Bunraku by Gidayu, Chikamatsu worked as a bridge between old-style joruri and Bunraku. While often keeping much of the fantasy of older tales, Chikamatsu's works are distinct for adding human elements. His drama's usually revolved around the confucian concepts of the importance of loyalty (to one's feudal lord, family, etc.) over personal feelings and the tragedy that arises when one blindly follows the precepts.

Chikamatsu's other great accomplishment was the creation of sewamono , or plays about the merchant class. Greatly received in Osaka, a commercial town, a majority of these sewamono were about shinju, or love suicides. By trying the revolutionary idea of taking a recent event, that of the death of a courtesan and her lover, and dramatizing it into the play Sonezaki Shinju, Chikamatsu captured the imagination of the city. The play spawned not only copies, but influenced others to actually commit double suicide in the hope that their love would live on forever. ..

For the complete text of Johnson's history of bunraku, go here.

Shinoda's Sonezaki Shinju was issued by Criterion, and is available through the usual avenues. You've thus no reasonable excuse to avoid it. Netflix it, buy it, but make the effort to see it.


"Noon" Preview: Live Stream Alert

Chris Grier, To Live and Shave in L.A.'s ever-faithful majordomo, will be previewing fragments of the v0.9a beta version of Noon and Eternity on Melbourne, Australia's Triple R FM ( on the 20th, at approx. 6:00 EST.

Way too fucking early, I know. (I'll be submitting to an interview as well. Place your bets now, as I'll likely be muy incoherent.)

Grab the stream, listen.


To Live and Shave in L.A. 25th Anniversary Tour: Updated Poster

(Click for full-sized image.)