Monday, September 26, 2016

Puppetry... Bunraku... Kabuki

Western and Eastern puppet theaters, Bunraku and Kabuki. What could the thread passing through these art forms possibly be? If there were one, what would it be?
In A short entertaining history of Toy Theater, John Bell states, "toy theater is performing object theater of the mechanical age." By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution brought mass production to every aspect of urban life; the masses were welcomingly caught in the webs of consumerism. And toy theater also went through phases, from "complete dramas in miniature" in the first half of the 19th century to new avant-garde trends found in the works of, say, Janie Geiser or Great Small Works in the 80's and 90's.
Roman Paska's Notes on Puppet Primitives and the Future of an Illusion explicates that in contemporary world of puppetry, puppeteers can be seen as "illusionists" or "primitivists." He points out that in the illusionist attitude, the puppet "succumbs to character representation" like an actor in the cinema, whereas the primitivists see their puppet with "little interest  being in mechanical perfection." Tension during a live performance seems to be the keyword in the primitivist approach, causing the puppet to come alive "without pretending to be alive."
In The Inanimate Incarnate, Paska writes about "the puppet being primarily cast in the role of a surrogate human." He adds that in the puppet theater, the use(fulness) of the object is far more significant than the object itself."
Jan Kott's text Bunraku and Kabuki or about imitation describes primarily that these Japanese art forms are like and how they work. Expounding the role of the three manipulators -- who operate theater puppet -- and the narrator, Kott stresses that the rule in Bunraku's theater is illusion. As for Kabuki, "its aesthetic principle is imitation."
Roland Barthes's The Three Writings revolves around Bunraku as well. Barthes enumerates three sitese  of the spectacle: the puppet, the manipulator and the vociferant, adding that Bunraku separates action from gesture.
Therefore, what would be the thread (or threads) linking these texts be?
The concept of mimesis as we human beings perceive could tentatively be one. The reader learns that the "hiding" of the mechanics -- especially in the Western puppet theater tradition -- seems to be the main goal by the puppet practitioners, suggesting that the puppet is imbued with its own little soul. Soul is a tremendously "dangerous" word to be applied for trying to explain what a puppet is; but it is indeed quite used throughout the texts. We shall go back to the issue later.
"Hiding" the mechanics also seems to be a tool utilized by the Bunraku artists. Two of the puppeteers are supposed to be invisible to the eyes of the audience. The puppet -- in the Western tradition as well -- is "expected" to move and speak by itself. The audience is somewhat asked to try not to notice the actors wearing black costumes, as if the audience were to accept the puppet's being a live entity. As for Kabuki, the onnagata (the boy-girl) does not copy what a Woman is like; he "signifies her." Apparently, onnagata would function as a "human" puppet, mimicking reality.
A second possible thread would be what we understand by "spiritual forces or realm." Paska even mentions that the puppet theater tries to follow in the steps of the Western theater's concept of realism; the puppet being a "substitute" for the human. The puppet would be "an idea, a spirit or god." Kott writes about how fascination of death and cruelty plays an important role in Kabuki. Death and cruelty implies -- not necessarily, of course -- spirit, spiritual forces, god. Having a puppet being murdered on stage would be a possible enactment of the communication between the temporal life and the spiritual life.
According to Bathes's text, Bunraku "recuperates [...] the very qualities (i.e. impassivity, agility, subtlety)", "which the dreams of ancient theology granted to the redeemed body."
And last but not least, the third thread would be an appropriate question that somehow permeates the texts:
Would the puppeteer -- both in the Western or Eastern puppet traditions - be manipulating the puppet or the puppet manipulates the puppeteer?