From Traditional Sources
Directed by Hidehiko Abe
Tonda Traditional Puppet Troupe
Wellesley College /
2003 American tour - Oct. 11 - 17

Reviewed by Will Stackman

Members of the Tonda Traditional Puppet Troupe, a bunraku-style village theatre group from Biwa-cho, Shiga Prefecture in western Japan recently played a short tour in the United States. They were well received in Utah, then came to New England to appear at Wellesley College, sponsored by its Japanese Department and at the renovated Peabody/Essex Museum in Salem, Ma., noted for its oriental collection. Their visit was facilitated by Professor Martin Holman from UMass/Amherst, who has been associated with this unique community organization for a number of years. Designated an Intangible Cultural Treasure by the Japanese government, Tonda is unique among the surviving local puppet troupes, now numbering under 100, down from 400 at the end of WWII. The group began not in association with a Shinto shrine but through a twist of fate.

One February in the 1830's, itinerant puppeteers from the island of Shikoku to the south were stranded in the village of Tonda. There were a number of such troupes, including those from Awaji Island, where the tradition began, who traveled about the countryside in the off-season. In order to get home for their spring planting, these puppeteers borrowed funds from the villagers, leaving their puppets and scenery as collateral. The southerners never returned. To recoup their loss, the farmers of Tonda took up puppetry. Their descendants and other local residents are still at it.

Tonda's repertoire, as represented by the three long dramatic scenes performed on this tour, is drawn from melodramatic 19th century domestic tragedy in the tradition started by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, whose works were central to the foundation of the art in Osaka two hundred years earlier. The first dramatic scene performed was "Watashiba no Dan" by Hidakagawa Iriaizakura , known as The Serpent Woman. In it a young woman, Kiyohime, is pursuing her lover, and is thwarted from crossing a river by a comic boatman who's been paid not to assist her. Her rage transforms her into a demon serpent which dives into the billowing stream to swim to the other side. Both puppets require the usual three operators, with a fourth used to extend the body of the serpent. And of course, all the lines and description was chanted by a tayu accompanied by a samisen player, both seated on stage right.

The second piece was taken from Keisei Awa no Naruto, an almost operatic drama involving a samurai and his wife Oyumi who have been hiding in the forest for ten years incognito, consorting with robbers, while he tries to recover a sword stolen from his master. They left their young daughter with her grandmother. Now the girl, Otsuru, is on a pilgrimage searching for her parents. After much melodrama, punctuated by the samisen, Otsuru is sent away following the famous tear-jerking scene where a long scarf suggests the bond between mother and daughter. But then Oyumi decides she must go after the girl. There are variant additional scenes all of which have tragic conclusions, but Tonda doesn't play them. In the past, the lead puppeteer for Osumi has been Sueko Abe, one of the first women to perform regularly in this style of puppetry. Tonda now has a number of female puppeteers and samisen players, of all ages.

The third piece, Taoya Oshichi, was a showcase for women in the troupe. Based on a novel adapted for the puppet theatre, if features a special effect where Oshichi, in order to ring the fire bell, which will allow her lover to escape the town, climbs a tower center stage. And it's snowing all the while. All three operators were young women, who proved very adept at the histrionics of their charge, drawing traditional applause for various poses. In order to simulate climbing, all three had to get inside the tower to manipulate the kimono clad heroine for her tortuous climb.

The evening began with six puppeteers, including several, who like the director, can trace their ancestry back to the original village puppeteers, performing Kotobuki Sanbaso, a celebratory Shinto dance ritual invoking prosperity and happiness. The two priestly puppets employed gave the troupe a chance to show off the movement skills they've honed during many evenings of practice. Most of Tonda's members have day jobs or private businesses. Their director, Hidehiko Abe is a retired middle-school teacher and principal. And, since the arts in Japan seem to have the same funding problems as anywhere else in hard times, the puppeteers on this tour used up vacation time and paid part of their own expenses. Most theatre people around here would sympathize.

Such a performance might be merely a curiosity, where it not for a fact that Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel will shortly open "The Long Christmas Ride Home" at the Vineyard. This script inspired Thorton Wilder premiered last June at Trinity Rep--AisleSay Revue. The work features bunraku style puppetry and something of the same sense of domestic tragedy which Tonda presents. This community theatre group, in the best sense of that ancient tradition, is not just preserving works from the past, but trying to express their continuing relevance through reverence for tradition coupled with a very modern sense of freedom. No one gets to perform who isn't capable, but no distinctions of age, sex, time with the troupe, or family relations determine who will be a puppeteer. If for no other reason they should be recognized as one of the world's intangible cultural treasures. They're even engaged in educating Westerner's in their art. Information about this summer's intensive course for college credit will be posted on the website above before the end of this year.

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