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After some cheap but good Indian food at Naan'n'Curry, Urtatim and I attended a pre-performance lecture last night in conjunction with the appearances of the Imperial Puppet Theatre of Japan this weekend at Cal Berkeley.

1.Take three talking head gaijin:
    *   The Boston Japan Society's Peter Grilli, acting as moderator and translator.
    *   UC Berkeley's Dr. Mary Elizabeth Berry (Chair, Department of History), who managed to overuse finger "quotes" in the first three sentences of her quick'n'dirty overview of the Edo period.
    *  Doctoral candidate Janice Kanemitsu of the frustratingly poor resolution woodblock prints on Powerpoint and the frustratingly nervous and forced delivery of a rather unilluminating summary of Bunraku aesthetics.

2. Then add Living National Treasures. I am appalled, ashamed and mortified that Grilli blew through introductions of the tayu (narrator), shamisen player and master puppeteers in such a way that their names are completely lost - AND APPEAR NOWHERE ON THE SYMPOSIA ANNOUNCEMENT!

The artists demo'ed their various specialties, speaking through Grilli, who was, at one point shouted out of the sightline of one lecture attendee. (Good for her, I thought! I came to see puppets, not some academic's suited butt.)

The tayu, an animated young man who talked with his hands a lot, demonstrated the vocal styles he employs to present the dialogue of male, female and child characters. These characterizations are stylized stereotypes that would be familiar to Japanese theatregoers, passed on by oral tradition (not unlike those used by male kabuki actors portraying female characters, for example).

Despite the fact that I do not speak Japanese, I actually understood a bit of the shamisen player's demo, between gestures, a few Japanese words I DO know and the effects he produced while playing.

And then the puppet master came out. Armed at first with only a male puppet head, he showed how simple leverage with string manipulated movement of the head. Male puppets have articulation to move eyes and eyebrows, while female puppets do not. The joints in the wood which permit the articulated faces of the male characters would spoil their beauty. We got to see the masters operate puppets with their assistants. The master operates the head and right arm of the puppet, one man operates the left arm and a third moves the feet (for male puppets) or kimono skirts (for females). To allow the foot puppeteer to work more easily, the master wears very high geta, the ha (teeth) wrapped with straw). We were also permitted to see a short scene between a blind husband who suspects his wife of infidelity when in fact she has been sneaking out to pray for him at the temple, and one of a samurai telling of a great battle.

I am totally stoked about going to the performance on Sunday!


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