Japan honors its artists as National Treasures the same way other nations would designate architecture, forests and artifacts “world heritage.” Artists don’t become National Treasures until they are old _ I mean, very old.
This goes against the Western idea of beauty as nice to look at _ usually young, sometimes very young.
Bunraku puppeteer Kanjuro Kiritake, at 52 not yet a National Treasure, surprisingly expressed reservations with the Japanese system of idolizing 80 year old Beauty Queens at the Foreign Correspondents Club, in answer to my question.
He stopped short of debunking the Japanese idea of aging beauty but said he was more concerned about performance opportunities for younger and middle-aged Bunraku artists than he was impressed with the idea that he would be growing ever grander and more beautiful with age and some day become a Treasure himself.
“I think I’m the best,” he said with a smile, in refreshingly typical ecocentric and individualistic (as in stereotype Western) artist fashion.
He is always looking for where the Treasures are doing things wrong, he said. They have rough spots, and the mission is to always improve on those who went before you, he said.
What’s amazing in all this is that Kanjuro is considered practically a novice next to the aging Treasures in the world of Bunraku, and the same holds for the many categories of Japanese art, including music, pottery, sword-making, etc. that has a National Treasure system.
Maybe it’s a bit frustrating to be treated like a kid at 50 but it’s also a blessing and probably beats being treated like a has-been.
It’s a different kind of view on life with a long-term perspective, not as a record of career achievements in an individual life but a march toward death that is about a process that goes beyond death _ about developing an art that goes beyond just your own life, but connects with all the generations that went before you, as well as your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren.
That kind of view on life is so much closer to what is really going on in the natural world (preservation of the species), and Darwin would likely agree.
That is also reflected in the kind of art that represents Japanese culture that some Westerners (ignorant) have brushed off as boring, uncreative and regurgitative.
A Japanese artist must first master form/technique/vision.
The repertoire is often massive and demanding, and it takes years and years just to master that, let alone come up with anything original.
The opportunity for self-expression must be earned.
Bunraku artists younger than Kanjuro must spend years doing the right arm, and years before that (by years, read: decade) doing just the legs, often wearing a black hood so the audience can’t even see their face. (Those in charge of the hand and the legs aren’t even listed in the program credits.)
It is obvious being entrusted as omozugaki, or manipulating the head and left arm, no matter how minor the part, is a big deal.
I went to Bunraku this weekend, and Kanjuro’s wife invited a few reporters backstage, where the giant clogs worn by omozukai are stacked up in shelves, each with the puppeteer’s name.
Minoichiro Kiritake, 49, who also studies with Kanjuro under National Treasure Minosuke Yoshida (My 2002 feature story about Minsouke ), showed us up close how the puppeteer yanks on strings on the bottom of a male puppet’s head to arch its eyebrows or roll its eyeballs.
The puppet heads, costumes and other stage items are property of the National Theater , he said. The only personal belongings of the puppeteer are the clogs and the doll’s torso.
Each puppeteer adds padding of dried gourd and stiches kimono on to the torso, an important part of creating the character and interpretation for the artist, he said.
How do you feel toward the puppet? I asked him, as he held up a princess puppet, tintsel hair ornaments glittering above a demure white face.
Are you a woman when you are holding the puppet, or a male artist manipulating the puppet?
You must enter the character of the puppet, he said, feel her feelings, but you must also be detached as an artist, be aware of the techniques you are using at every moment.
Do you think the puppet is beautiful (“kawaii”)?
I wish I could see her from the front, but I’m always looking at her from behind, he said.
Are performances always moving experiences for you, each and every time?
Oh, you mean, do I get a “high?” he says, using the English word.
I try not to get high too often, because when there’s a high, there’s always a low, he explains, using his hand to show feelings going up to euphoria and then dipping to depression.
He is not allowed to choose roles. No way can he say things like I am interested in doing female roles, as opposed to samurai roles.
Watching old Japanese artists _ be it that 70 year old Kabuki actor playing a virginal maiden, or that Bunraku shamisen player banging out those same notes that herald an opening of a key dramatic act _ we are moved because we are witnessing not only all the years that went before today for that artist (the actor when he was 20 and just learning that role, the shamisen player when he was on the corner of the stage just keeping up in a chorus with the masters) but all the past generations (the great-grandfather masters) and the promise of the future.
It is that link to eternity we witness, and how small we are next to that but how also grand and how totally, totally beautiful life is.
Never mind the actor is covered with wrinkles beneath that pasty white makeup, never mind the shamisen player’s fingers aren’t quite as dextrous as they once were, the essence is there.
And the past _ and the future _ are there in that magical moment.
Sure, we love to see aging Western artists, too, say, Stevie Wonder, who played to a cheering, sing-along crowd of nearly 20,000 people at Saitama Arena, including myself, the other day.
It’s awesome to see so many Japanese love a blind man from Detroit.
Stevie Wonder has left the world all his songs and a Treasure-class legacy that will influence music for decades to come.