Wooden Kabuki

Human beings are kind of strange. I most recently thought this at a Bunraku puppet show that my mom and I went to see this week.

Bunraku is basically kabuki with puppets. In other words, we created wooden figures to emulate our own bodies, but it’s hard to make a Bunraku puppet do kabuki, maybe harder than it is for an actual person to do it. It takes three people to manipulate one puppet.

These black-clad people march the puppet around the stage and make it jump, dance, or weep. You know the people are moving the puppet, but it feels more like they are serving the puppet—not like enthralled minions but rather with love, as if they are lining their actions up with the puppet’s instead of the other way around.

Because the audience was unfamiliar with Bunraku, the puppeteers gave a demonstration of how they move the puppet together. The moves are not choreographed in advance. The two people moving the legs and the left arm follow the lead puppeteer according to subtle signs: the movement of his legs or the direction the puppet is looking. Sometimes. Other times they just have to be in tune enough to know his intentions.

Why do we do this? Why do we carve puppets and train for years to be able to move together as a whole to bring that puppet to life when we could just watch a human being do kabuki far more gracefully?

The show started with a plain puppet—no clothes, no face, just a three-dimensional outline of a human being—that came out and interacted with the audience, bowing and shaking hands. One man looked as if he wanted to treat the puppet with respect and act appropriately. One woman beamed with delight. Each person clearly interacted with the puppet, which displayed a definite personality.

Maybe this question is no different from asking why we write books or make movies or paint representations of our world on canvas. There must be thousands of answers. Perhaps one of them is that we are creators, and when we do these things, the spirit of the One in whose image and likeness we are made flows through us, through our work, and through those who shake hands with the puppets.

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