In all the history of advertising has there ever been a tie-up more unexpected, yet apposite?
The new Terminator movie, Terminator Genisys, set to be released in Japan on July 10th, has had its poster hijacked by the National Bunraku Theatre to market its upcoming summer performances. After all, what is a Terminator if not a puppet with a computer (and guns)?
This is more than just a visual rejig. The Bunraku poster (on the right, just in case you can’t tell) riffs on the movie’s Japanese tagline mirai o torimodose (Take back the future!) as mirai e odoridase (Dance to the future!). The “7.10” for the release date at the bottom of the poster becomes “since 17th century”. The puppets featured are genuine ones from the July performance.
National Bunraku Theatre opened in 1984, which coincidentally was the year the first Terminator film went on general release. Puppets and cyborgs have never been the same since. The novel poster is set to be displayed around the theatre in downtown Osaka, as well as around Osaka Station.
Bunraku, Japan’s most famous form of puppet theatre (ningyō jōruri), is in trouble. Audience numbers are low and the performers are getting older. In 2014 one of the eminent tayū (narrators/chanters) announced his retirement at the age of 89! Another also announced he was leaving due to failing health. The final performance of Takemoto Sumitaryū VII attracted audiences of over 93% to the National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka, the highest the venue has ever seen. Overall 2014 saw record attendance in Osaka, 100,000 higher than 2013.
However, this was an anomaly. The National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka holds four programmes a year, which also tour to the National Theatre in Tokyo. Audiences are typically restricted to hard-core fans or tourists, not least because Bunraku simply doesn’t offer the visceral delights of Kabuki, its more famous cousin (several plays are available in both canons). Moreover, since the puppets are the stars and the form is by its nature austere and slow-moving, it lacks any of the celebrity charm that Kabuki continues to enjoy. That being said, appreciation in Tokyo is better and audiences are increasing. The puppets may well have their roots in Kansai but locals are spurning the traditional theatre — in general, Osakans are not usually the type to care much for high-brow entertainment, as they would be the first to admit.
Aside from the issue of audiences there is the inevitable ageing of the performers. While the puppeteers are also getting older, there is a more urgent need for new chanters to join the ranks of the Bunraku company.
Parodying a movie poster, especially a science-fiction blockbuster, may not be the most obvious way to attract new audiences, but it demonstrates that you certainly can’t label the Bunraku bureaucrats as fusty traditionalists. Just as the Terminator franchise is being rebooted (for the third time), so too does Bunraku hope it can make a box office comeback.
People outside the Bunraku world have taken an interest in its unique aesthetic. Artist Hiroshi Sugimoto turned to the the puppet theatre genre, registered by UNESCO as a World Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003, and brought his own version of The Love Suicides at Sonezaki to Kanagawa Arts Theatre in 2011. He then took it overseas to much success.
Bunraku may well have its friends in the arts, but there are also enemies elsewhere.
When Mayor Toru Hashimoto was determined to tackle Osaka’s debts, he declared war on many of the city’s big loss-making institutions. He had the Bunraku Association in his sights, declaring a freeze on its budget in 2012. The Association was horrified and Hashimoto goaded them into attending a public review session. Hashimoto attended a Bunraku performance but was bored by it, and he pointed to the dwindling ticket sales as proof that Osaka should not be footing the bill for culture that has such esoteric appeal. Ultimately, the subsidy has continued and the controversy over Bunraku’s future actually helped boost audience numbers in Osaka, temporarily at least.
Ironically, Hashimoto’s political star faded this year after he lost a referendum seeking mandate to merge the city into five semi-autonomous wards like Tokyo’s. He has said he will leave politics after his current term is over. Perhaps this new poster is Bunraku’s covert way of giving him a parting message: “Hasta la vista, baby!”