for National Geographic News
Tamao Yoshida, a puppeteer designated as a living national treasure of Japan, recently agreed to appear in 136 bunraku performances in Osaka and Tokyo over the next year. He is 84.
"As you get older, I think it is important to keep active, to keep my body healthy," he said through a translator.
Aficionados young and old, as well as the newly curious caught up in the 17th-century Japanese art form's resurgent popularity, will pack theaters to watch the acclaimed Tamao perform.
Others who recognize Tamao's artistic achievement include the Inamori Foundation, which today recognized Tamao as the 2003 Kyoto Prize Laureate in Arts and Philosophy. The prize, one of three awarded at a ceremony in Japan for significant contributions to the scientific, cultural, and spiritual development of humankind, comes with a gold medallion and a check worth about U.S. $400,000.
"This is indeed a high honor, not just for myself, but for the art of bunraku," said Tamao, during an interview before the ceremony. "I am speechless, filled with emotions."
Tamao, who started training at age 14, is a master puppeteer. He is credited with helping bunraku maintain its long-held status as the world's most highly developed and refined form of puppet theater.
Bunraku seamlessly combines dramatic narration, music accompaniment on a three-stringed samisen (an instrument resembling a mandolin), and the movement of puppets manipulated by three puppeteers to bring stories charged with human emotion alive.
"One of the most intriguing little tricks is the way the [bunraku puppeteers] keep the puppets in constant slight motion that simulates breathing," said Susan Matisoff, a professor of Japanese literature at the University of California at Berkeley. "If a puppet becomes entirely still, it seems dead."
Barbara Adachi, author of Backstage at Bunraku, said one of the things that makes Tamao so unique is his calm stage presence.
"His face is absolutely blank, expressionless, whether he is performing a passionate love scene or enacting ritual suicide," said Adachi, who lives in San Francisco, California. "That is wonderful because there is a magical moment when suddenly the puppeteers don't exist, and the puppets truly come to life."
It takes three puppeteers to operate a single full-sized bunraku puppet, which is half as tall as a living person and can weigh as much as 45 pounds (20 kilograms).
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