At Large

Artistry and memory

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“Bunraku,” a type of puppetry in Japan, is by tradition a male preserve. Which makes the Naoshima Onna Bunraku a truly unique ensemble. It is, for one, an all-female troupe based on the island of Naoshima in southern Japan. Shortly after the war, in an effort to raise the spirits of the people, village folk decided to revive their local Bunraku group, but the only volunteers who stepped up, knowing full well how rigorous the training was (it usually took 10 years to master the movements of the right hand, it was said, and another 10 years for the left hand) were women.

The Naoshima Onna Bunraku remains all-women today; many of the women are in their 50s and 60s. They are, according to a representative of the UP Center for International Studies (CIS), which works with them, an all-volunteer force, made up of housewives and teachers and other professionals.

Bunraku performances are usually based on Noh and Kabuki dramas. For the members of the media gathered at the Bulong Pulungan sa Sofitel yesterday, members of the troupe performed the “Pilgrim’s Song” from the drama “Keisei Awa no Naruto” (The Courtesan of Naruto in the Province of Awa). The excerpted portion featured two characters: Oyumi (Mother) who had left her daughter (Otsuru) years before with her own mother. To search for her parents, Otsuru goes on a pilgrimage and meets up with Oyumi, who disguises herself to protect her daughter from her troubles. It was amazing to see how, with a flick of the wrist or a turn of the face (by three puppeteers handling the wooden figures), the puppets could convey anger, dismay, sorrow, surprise—even if the Filipinos in the audience could make neither heads nor tails of the chanted dialogue.

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The UP CIS has been collaborating for some time now with the Naoshima Onna Bunraku, borrowing a few puppets from Japan so that local artisans could base copies on them, and performing local puppet dramas in Japan so that the Bunraku troupe could critique the performances and suggest revisions.

“Will they look Japanese?” Jullie Yap Daza wanted to know, referring to the local puppets. “You’ll see,” she was told, in reference to the performance that same evening to be staged at the Maestranza Park of Intramuros to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Asean-Japan Friendship.

The UP CIS troupe was set to stage last night excerpts from “Ang Paglalakbay ni Sisa, Isang Noh sa Laguna” (The Travels of Sisa, A Noh in Laguna), a retelling of Prof. Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio’s play based on Rizal’s “Sisa” character, which was then converted into a “Shinsaku” or newly created Noh with dance, chant, drums with vocal music, costumes and mask.

For its part, the Naoshima Onna Bunraku was scheduled to perform, aside from “Keisei Awa no Naruto, Dango Uri” (The Dumpling Peddlers), a comedy involving a husband-and-wife pair of rice dumpling vendors, and “Ebisu Mai” (The Dance of Ebisu), a puppet adaptation of a folk dance native to Naoshima.

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Also significant, aside from the performances, is the locale of last night’s celebration. Almacenes Curtain Wall, found inside Maestranza Park on the banks of the Pasig River, served as the military quarters and royal chambers during the Spanish period and was destroyed during the shelling of Intramuros during the war. With the support of the Japanese government, this historical landmark has been restored and is now being developed as a tourist destination and lifestyle center in Intramuros.

Part of the effort to restore the tourist appeal and authenticity of Intramuros is to clear the area as much as possible of illegal settlers. Jose Capistrano Jr., administrator of Intramuros Administration, says the first phase of the clearing project is underway, with the help of Gawad Kalinga which is helping resettle the initial batch of Intramuros settlers somewhere in Laguna.

In a conversation, Capistrano also told me his office is fully behind the guided tours being conducted by guides like the controversial and colorful Carlos Celdran, and Ivan Man Dy. “At the same time, we have other guides like the  calesa  (horse-drawn carriage) drivers, and even sidecar (pedicab) drivers who, however, are unlicensed and have even begun to harass tourists. We are trying to get them organized and better trained.”

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It’s been long controversial how the country marks “Philippines-Japan Friendship Day” in the same month we observe the Liberation of Manila, where an estimated 100,000 Filipinos died in vicious street fighting. Intramuros itself was almost obliterated, after shelling (from huge American guns posted just outside the Walls) meant to draw away Japanese troops holed up in Fort Santiago and other areas of Intramuros. But, as some historians say, the effort resulted in more Filipino dead than Japanese casualties.

There have been bitter commentaries about the irony of “celebrating” such contrasting, contradictory events or occasions in the space of one month. Is one meant to obviate or trivialize the other?

Perhaps marking our friendship with a postwar Japan, and with the Japanese people such as the women of the Bunraku ensemble, won’t dishonor the memory of those who died in the Battle for Manila if we only keep our hearts and minds on the quest for peace.

Our quest, after all, should not be for vengeance or even for justice—the time is long past for that. We best honor the memory of the dead and wounded by forging ahead and bringing back to life everything that the war had seemingly killed, including—especially—the Intramuros of our memories.

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