‘The Gospel in Bunraku’ or how to announce Christ through Japanese puppets
Toyotake Hanafusa-dayu, a Christian convert from Osaka-born healed after a life of self-indulgence, writes a play based on the Gospel for a traditional Japanese form of theatre. His goal is to spread the Christian message in the Land of the Rising Sun and around the world.

Tokyo (AsiaNews/JCN) – Written as a token of thanksgiving to the Lord for grace received, The Gospel in Bunraku, a puppet play about Jesus created some 15 years ago by Toyotake Hanafusa-dayu, adapts the Christian message to Japan’s traditional puppet theatre. Behind it is a desire to spread as much knowledge about the Gospel as possible in the Land of the Rising Sun. It also shows that inculturation is a two-way street.

A form of traditional Japanese puppet theatre founded in the 17th century, Bunraku is a composite performance that includes three parts: a narrative part with three Tayū or chanters; a musical part with three musicians playing Shamisen (a three-stringed musical instrument), and a more theatrical part with three ningyōtsukai (puppeteers) manipulating large puppets.

Although there are few writers who can produce plays in this style today, Bunraku remains one of Japan’s best loved art forms.

As chief narrator, Hanafusa-dayu opens the ‘Gospel’ performance with a Scripture verse, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” in the Gidayu intonation, a narrative method developed by Gidayu Takemoto in the late 17th century. This is followed by Shamisen music as the puppets' actions begin.

Using the voice pattern of a samurai's hara-kiri ritual, which in Japanese tradition best exemplifies the greatest sacrifice anyone can make for the good of one’s world, the playwright  tries to express the suffering Jesus endured on the Cross.

Hanafusa-dayu, who is now 60-years-old, became a Christian at the age of 23, but abandoned his new-found faith soon after for, as he put it, “a life of drinking, gambling and women: an evil trinity.”

Eventually, he contracted a particular virulent form of hepatitis C in 1999 that brought him to the brink of death.

Following the diagnosis, knowing that he was doomed he looked back on his life and decided to return to the fold of the Church.

At a prayer meeting he felt his liver get warmer. “This may sound unbelievable,” he said, but “I believed that I was healed.” Indeed, the disease was gone. By contrast, three friends died from the same disease around the same time. He also lost his daughter.

“I was the only one saved,” he said. “I felt obliged to return something to God.” And his work in the theatre became his way of giving thank to God.

Yumiko Ozeki, chairperson of the performance's organising group, has known the author for the past 15 years.

For him “the narration enhances the imagination. [. . .]  It looks as if a life-giving spirit is breathed into the puppets. Introductory explanations about Bunraku and a testimony of the faith by Hanafusa-dayu are given prior to the performance. As many are new to either Church or Bunraku they welcomed the explanation and the exhortation.”

The last great recital took place recently in Kita-Ichijo Cathedral in Sapporo before an audience of some 500 people, both Christians and non-Christians. At the end of the performance they held a prayer and moment of reflection.

For Hanafusa-dayu what started as a way to give thanks, turned into a tool for evangelisation using a very traditional Japanese art form, which introduces viewers to Christ in a way that is culturally more accessible to them.

Now the playwright has a new goal for The Gospel in Bunraku. He dreams of taking it to the world as a way of thanking those who brought Christianity to Japan. Similarly, he wants to show that inculturation is a two-way street, evidence of the success of the first seeding.