A Japanese ghost story told through the medium of Bunraku puppetry? This was the filter on the Suspense puppetry festival that led me to Kwaidan, and I was pretty excited about it. There are many sort of specialisms in the world of Japanese puppetry, and while I’ll go see all of them I’m particulary fond of bunraku, in which black clad puppeteers manipulate large puppets, the performers’ faces hidden by veils, their bodies disappearing into the shadows. It allows for a very different kind of movement that marionette or rod puppets, and I find the style allows the fourth wall to fall away easily. In addition, traditional bunraku puppets are made to a high degree of artistry, and the stories they are used to tell are ones that really capture my imagination. So, all in all, this show was one I was very interested in, even if I thought it was a bit more modern Japanese horror movie than traditional Japanese folk art.
I could have hardly asked for a better combination of form and content. The story is of a young woman (played, frequently, by an actress, not a puppet) who returns to her childhood home: it is apparently full of ghosts … or are they dreams? Or memories? She looks into a mirror – a lifesized puppet looks back at her, creepy as hell. Then it’s a mirror again. She tries to open a closet door – it won’t budge. Is it stuck or is something holding the door shut? As the story continues, we flip back and forth between the present and the past, and are left to make sense of what we see. A little girl is crying in the closet; a beautiful young woman walks through the apartment, leaving notes in a diary … that the modern young woman sees when she wakes up. The transition between humans and puppets is handled marvelously, with fantastic use of the darkness of doorways, the ambiguity of scrims, and the pitch black borders between rooms.
In the end, we’re mostly clear about what the haunting is about, although the story goes on a tiny bit too long and a bit where the “Red Rose” does a strip tease as a live actoress’s head above a tiny puppet’s body hit an unfortunately comic note when the tension was at its highest. I ended wondering if the house was just full of “hungry ghosts” or if the whole thing was supposed to be a nightmare or to represent the loss of sanity of the lead character – but still, I’d had chills enough for an evening and hugely enjoyed myself, so on that basis I think Kwaidan was very much a success.
(This review is for the first performance, on Thursday, November 5, 2015. It is touring and will be at the Manipulate Festival in Norwich.)