Manami Kimura

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 December, 2008, 12:00am

MAN'S WORLD Women were not allowed to perform traditional bunraku [puppet theatre]. For centuries, performing arts generally in Japan were the domain of men. They were seen as offerings to the gods and were related to festivals, to the Shinto religion, indigenous aboriginal practices, Shamanism and so on. Those who performed were of the Order. It was not entertainment for lay people. In Japan, as in other parts of Asia, women were seen as 'unclean' because of menstruation, so they could not perform for the gods.

The origin of bunraku was as entertain-ment for young girls - adolescents - per-formed by one man. Then it evolved into a performance by three men: one operated the feet, another became the left hand and the third operated the right hand and the head. By moving together and breathing together, they became one.

WOMEN'S WAY Otome [women's] bunraku evolved in the 1920s. It is the performance of traditional bunraku puppetry but by a lone female instead of three men. In the early years, there was not much dance movement involved. Now it has become more like a dance performance. I am a classically trained dancer. I also studied Japanese comedic theatre for about 15 years. There is no longer any formalised schooling for otome bunraku but there's a quality, a sensitivity, that comes from practitioners of the classic arts that are an important part of being an otome bunraku performer. It's a very spiritual art. I've been performing it for 15 years.

EXCLUSIVE TRIO I am one of only three women in the world still performing otome bunraku. I am honoured to be continuing the tradition but sad that I may be one of the last to do so. I am doing everything I can to keep the tradition going but it's a struggle. I understand that traditions need to evolve if they are to survive and at least some deconstructed forms of traditional bunraku continue to be performed by theatre companies. I am fortunate to have been given a fellowship by the Asian Cultural Council so that I can continue to perform and work.

There is rivalry between us three remaining otome bunraku performers. We disagree about how the art form should be interpreted. We have a different philosophy. There is one who is trained in Japanese classical dance and when she performs, she is the star instead of the puppet. I don't agree with that.

BABY LOVE The puppets are like my family. I have about 10. Some people think I handle them with tender care, as though they are my real babies. I see them as individual characters because they each represent a different story. On stage, the puppets are attached to me by wire strings and rods. The strings come from a shamisen, which is like a three-stringed guitar and was traditionally used by musicians to accompany the performance.

My favourite puppet is the one with which I perform the story The Heron Maiden. It's a very dramatic, passionate, emotional and physical performance, which demands a high degree of technical expertise and a great deal of preparation because there are costume changes which take place on stage. The maiden of the title eventually goes mad and throws herself on the ground.

IN THE BLOOD I am proud to belong to the family of Asian puppetry. I come from a small island called Awaji, near Osaka, which is home to a prominent puppetry lineage and I was exposed to the traditional forms from an early age. Through travelling and meeting other Asian puppeteers, I've come to understand that otome bunraku comes from puppetry that has a long bloodline that can be traced back throughout Asia. It's not simply part of a theatre company as it is in western culture. It's maintained by a family structure, a tradition that is still passed down from father to son, mother to daughter.

I feel it's a power or strength that I have that is beyond who I am. It's in my DNA.