Chikamatsu's play The Love Suicides of Sonezaki is considered to be a classic of the Japanese theatre, so I was very excited to see a production of the play last night as a part of Lincoln Center's White Light Festival.
The production was done in cooperation with Japan's National Bunraku Theatre, Bunraku Kyokai. The theatre was founded in 1963 to bring together narrators, shamisen players, and puppeteers who are all necessary for the creation of Bunraku, a traditional performing art in Japan with deep roots.
In Chikamatsu's time, the puppet theatre he wrote for was called joruri, though the form evolved over subsequent centuries and became known as Bunraku. It involves a chanter who narrates the performance and voices the characters, a shamisen player who provides musical accompaniment, and multiple puppeteers. For the main characters, three puppeteers at once operate a single puppet.
The production I saw added a new element: video projections created by the artist Tabaimo and Hiroshi Sugimoto, who is also listed as artistic director for the piece. Sugimoto clearly wanted to blend together the traditional with the 21st century. The video helped to create the world of the play, supplementing rather than replacing the puppets and set pieces. Occasionally, the audience got to see close-ups of the puppets on the projections, but those moments were rare, as the production kept the focus on the performers (human and inanimate) in front of us.
The Love Suicides of Sonezaki originally premiered in 1703, less than a month after the infamous double suicide depicted in the play actually occurred. The basic idea, two lovers deciding to join each other in death since they cannot be together in life, is both inspiring and disturbing. In 1717, Chikamatsu added some scenes to satisfy demands that the villain of the play be punished, but these additions failed to resolve controversies around the piece. Couples reportedly committed suicide together in imitation of the lovers in the play, and in 1723 the government officially banned the work from being performed.
It was not until 1955 that the play was performed again. By then, any performance tradition specific to the piece had been lost, so modern interpreters of the work have a bit more of a free rein than they might have with other Chikamatsu plays. In that spirit, the video projections seemed to fit right in with the piece.