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NHK’s Mt. Imo and Mt. Se

March 12, 2012

imoseyamaNHK has been releasing on DVD complete sets of bunraku (Japanese puppet theater) performances.  It is quite unusual to be able to watch a complete performance; and indeed, each of these sets is a compilation – one act might be from a recent production, another act might be drawn from an archive copy going back as far as the 1950s.

So far the following sets have been released:

Each of these box sets is wonderful, with some of the best performances from the last six decades.  It is true that sudden switch from act-to-act is a little disorienting at first (a little like watching the late Raul Ruiz’s La vocation suspendue.)  But the sets are generous, and each set contains a copy of the yukabon-shu (the Japanese narration read by the gidayu [narrator]).

Sadly, however, while the first three sets contain English subtitles, the latest set omits them.   (It makes up for it partly by including a CD of the Iruka palace scene.)

It is hard to know what NHK was thinking, though, in releasing the set in this form.  They have English on the box set title, and the DVDs have no region lock, and all their other bunraku releases have included English subtitles.   It is difficult for native Japanese speakers to follow 18th century sung Japanese (just as many English speakers have trouble following English opera) which is why the yukabon-shu is included.  And the play itself, with its morbid themes and abstract dialogue and antiquated language is hard difficult for many bilingual speakers to translate in real-time.  (Frankly, although I have strong Japanese skills, I struggled a bit with yukabon-shu.)

So I am posting this note in the hope that someone at NHK will read it – or at least potential buyers of this disk will be forewarned.  I note that Jan Paris has made similar notes in her Amazon Japan review (albeit in broken English):

Like the whole series of NHK about traditional Japanese theatre, video is very well, but unlike all the other volumes this one WITHOUT ENGLISH SUBTITLES!!!!!! I ordered this volume because I have also the others, and expected english subtitles. You can guess my deception. This should have been stated in description of item!! So after I bought a book with description of the story of this beautiful play. Also NHK a bit stupid: it would not take so much extra effort to put the subtitles in such a production… why not?

Gerstle, Inobe, and Malm include a summary of the play in their book.  They analyze in detail the mountain scene. (The cassette tapes included with that Gerstle’s study are probably inadequate – the same recording appears to be available on this CD).

(If you have no access to Gerstle’s book – which after all has long been out of print – then you may get some help from this web page and its links.)

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