Lez Zeppelin at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Category Is: Sonic Synesthesia at Baby’s Alright

"The Love Suicides at Sonezaki" at the White Light Festival

by Steven Pisano

Sonezaki_Shinju-hatsu_toku042.final_copyright Hiroshi Sugimoto-Courtesy of Odawara Art Foundation(© Hiroshi Sugimoto/Courtesy of Odawara Art Foundation)

2019 marks the 10th anniversary season of Lincoln Center's White Light Festival, offering works from around the world in music, theater, and dance that explore art’s power to "reveal the many dimensions of our interior lives." The festival opened this past weekend and continues through November 24.

The initial presentation, The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, is a Bunraku play written by the esteemed Japanese dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725). A soy sauce company sales clerk named Tokubei and a prostitute named Ohatsu are in love, but many forces conspire to keep them apart. So, they decide that if they cannot be together in this world, they will commit suicide and be together in the next life. The show was such a big hit when it was first presented in 1703, that numerous young couples were known to commit suicide in the nearby forest, which caused the Tokugawa shogunate 20 years later to prohibit any further performances--a ban that lasted until 1955 (232 years later!).

This U.S. premiere was created by artistic director Hiroshi Sugimoto, one of the world's most celebrated photographers and architects, as well as a theater producer. The music was written by Seiji Tsurusawa, who is known as a Living National Treasure.

Love Suicides White Light FestivalHiroshi Sugimoto/Courtesy of Odawara Art Foundation)
Bunraku is a form of puppet theater most associated with the city of Osaka. Puppeteers devote themselves to their craft for their whole lives. Classically, the chief puppeteer would be fully viewable on stage as he manipulated the controls for the full-body puppets, which are about half life-size. But in this production at the Rose Theater, in the Time Warner Center, all the puppeteers were sheathed in black coverings. (Bunraku puppeteering is traditionally only for men, but still, at the curtain when all the performers could finally be seen, it was surprising to see no women at all.)

In Japan, Bunraku performances typically last 3-4 hours, but this one was a mere 2.5 hours. The story is a compelling one, holding much of the dramatic pull that Shakespeare achieved in Romeo and Juliet. But in all honesty, I found the puppet part of the show to be the least interesting. They did not move much, and if there was fine movement being achieved in the puppets' delicately carved faces and hands, it was hard to see at the distance of the audience in the Rose.

The most compelling part of the performance were the six shamisen players and the four narrators, known as tayu. The shamisen is a 3-stringed instrument played with a plectrum, which offers a sound completely identifiable with Japan. In Bunraku, the shamisen players are on  stage with the puppeteers, but they cannot see the action of the puppets. The narrators sit with the shamisen players and also face out to the audience, unable to see the puppets. Apparently this tension between the puppeteers and the musicians/narrators not being able to see each other, but trying to stay in sync, is what contributes partly to Bunraku's appeal.

Other instruments could be heard throughout the evening--a bell, a stick rapping something, a drum. But these all emanated from a shrouded perch at stage right, in complete darkness, while the shamisen players and narrators sat on the stage in a well-lit substage, sitting on small stools.

Love Suicides White LightHiroshi Sugimoto/Courtesy of Odawara Art Foundation)

The English supertitles projected near the ceiling were hard to read, so even though the performance is in Japanese, it was the voices of the narrators, sometimes singly, sometimes in chorus, that conveyed the depth of the drama and emotions throughout, overshadowing the slowly-moving puppets for most of the evening.

That is, until the final scene. Under cover of darkness in the middle of the forest, Tokubei and Ohatsu embrace and express their undying love for each other. When the time comes near dawn to follow through on their pledge, Tokubei wields a sharp razor and attempts to slit his beloved's throat, but he botches it and does not make a clean cut. He watches her suffer and tries again. When she slumps over, dying but still alive, he cuts his own throat so that the two of them can take their last breaths together in this lifetime. It was a stunning scene, and as the lights on stage began to dim, I suddenly realized how gripped I was by the tragedy, not thinking for a moment that I was watching puppets. I was watching love.