Japanese church explores the Gospel in indigenous art

By Ecumenical News International
October 24, 2007

A Christian narrator in Japanese traditional puppet theatre, an art form known as Bunraku, has performed a special piece called "The Gospel in Bunraku" at a church in Sapporo, on Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido - writes Hisashi Yukimoto from Tokyo.

"I think that Bunraku has something in common with the teachings of Christianity in its content," explained the narrator, Toyotake Hanafusadayu, who is a member of the Japan Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination.

Bunraku is a sophisticated collaboration of three separate arts of narration. It uses a Japanese traditional stringed musical instrument known as a shamisen, and a form of puppetry believed to have begun in the 1680s in the country's central western area of Kansai.

Born in Osaka in 1947, Toyotake attended Sunday school as a child as a result of his Christian mother's influence. He became a Christian prior to his marriage. After he entered the world of Bunraku in 1967, Japan's National Theatre and the Bunraku Kyokai (association) awarded Toyotake prizes for his performances.

In 1990, he performed the first Bunraku piece based on biblical themes, and since then has performed similar shows in Japan and abroad.

Despite what some may regard as an incompatibility between Westernised Christianity and Bunraku, Toyotake discovered in 2004 that since the time of Monzaemon Chikamatsu (1653-1725), who was a dramatist of Joruri, the stylised narrative form upon which Bunraku is based, playwrights have developed themes, such as forgiveness and sacrifice, that fit the biblical context.

"Bunraku is something that dramatised the essential part of the human heart. The gospel is a love letter from God that says Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to earth in order to give people peace and eternal life," Toyotake explains.

Although Toyotake has experienced some opposition for using Jesus as a theme in Bunraku, the narrator says that he has been "especially encouraged" since his non-Christian, respected master, the late Koshijidayu, told him, "This is a good thing. Please keep doing it."

As Japanese traditional performing arts find their origins in communication with gods, Toyotake simply replaced words that are scattered throughout Bunraku melodies, and which inspire people with the Japanese view of religion, and linked them with biblical words.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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