05 December 2013

Ningyōgeki Sangokushi 1: The Oath of the Peach Garden

Puppet Theatre: Romance of the Three Kingdoms
(人形劇 三国志 / Ningyōgeki: Sangokushi, 1982-4, 45’ x 68, TV)

Episode 1: The Oath of the Peach Garden
桃園の誓い / Tōen no chikai  (2 October 1982)

Central Characters in Order of Appearance:

Ron-Ron  々 ろんろん
Shin-Shin  々 しんしん
Guan Yu 関羽雲長 かんう うんちょう
Liu Bei 劉備玄徳 りゅうび げんとく
Lu Zhi  廬植 ろしょく
Sūrin  淑玲 すうりん
Zhang Jue  張角 ちょうかく
Cao Cao  曹操孟徳 そうそう もうとく
Zhang Fei 張飛翌徳 ちょうひ よくとく
Mei Fan 美芳 めい ふぁん

Episode Plot Summary:

Part I

  • comic hosts Shinsuke Shimada and Ryūsuke Matsumoto introduce themselves and their puppet counterparts Shin-Shin and Ron-Ron
  • an oppressive regime ruthlessly rounds up people, torturing them, and threatening them with execution
  • Shin-Shin and Ron-Ron are thrown in jail where they meet the mighty Guan Yu (Kan-u Unchō), who demonstrates his super-human strength by busting them out of jail
  • introduction of Liu Bei (Ryūbi Gentoku), with his over-sized ears (apparently a sign of virtue in ancient China)
  • Liu Bei (Gentoku) learns of the preaching of the Taoist sect led by Zhang Jue (Chōkaku).  Suffering people have been told that if they follow his teachings they will be cured.
  • Liu Bei meets the lovely Sūrin and her family, who have been suffering in poverty. Her grandfather is unwell. Liu Bei gives her money and then finds out that she has given all the money to Zhang Jue for a cure for her grandfather.  Liu Bei is suspicious of Zhang Jue’s real motives.
  • Liu Bei and Zhang Jue meet and discuss the need for a revolt against the ruling regime.  Zhang Jue claims that the world is rotten from the inside and the emperor needs to be overthrown.  Liu Bei confronts Zhang Jue about why he abuses his alleged power to heal people by taking poor people’s money
  • Zhang Jue claims that in order for a revolution to succeed that poor people need to first be made desperate for change by starvation and suffering.
  • Liu Bei tells Zhang Jue that he is wrong, provoking Zhang Jue to attack him but they are interrupted by Cao Cao’s soldiers.
  • the soldiers want to punish Liu Bei as a traitor but Cao Cao recognizes that Liu Bei does not side with Zhang Jue.  Cao Cao and Liu Bei acknowledge their respect for each other as great men.

Part II

  • using a map, Shinsuke Shimada and Ryūsuke Matsumoto show the impressive 600km route south that Liu Bei took on foot from south of Youzhou (today Beijing) to Luoyang (洛陽/らくようし).  They compare it to walking from Aomori to Tokyo.
  • Shimada and Matsumoto are wearing yellow headscarves as they introduce the Yellow Turban Rebellion
  • the Yellow Turban rebels are on the move – a group of them attack Sūrin’s home, killing her family. Some of the men try to rape Sūrin but she is rescued by Zhang Fei (Chōhi Yokutoku)
  • Liu Bei returns to the home of Sūrin and finds only an old woman who tells them of their fate.  As he pay respects to the dead he is taken capture by Zhang Jue and his Yellow Turban rebels
  • Liu Bei criticizes Zhang Jue, who angrily tells Liu Bei that they are now enemies, declaring: “This is a world where he who wins is right and he who loses is wrong.”
  • Zhang Jue decides to hang Liu Bei, but moments before Zhang Jue whips the horse out from under Liu Bei, Guan Yu throws his dagger at the rope and rescues him.  Zhang Jue tries to whip Guan Yu but he startles Zhang Jue’s horse.  Guan Yu laughs as Zhang Jue’s men disperse in fear of him.
  • Zhang Fei takes Sūrin home with him and introduces her to his wife Mei Fan. Zhang Fei is a butcher, and he and his wife also sell sake.
  • Zhang Fei’s unusual method of preparing wild boar is to hang it in the well under a large boulder (I hope they don’t drink that water!).  He places a sign at the well telling people that they need to pay a fee for him to remove the boulder.  If they can remove the boulder on their own, they get the meat as a reward.
  • Guan Yu arrives, sees the sign, and easily removes the boulder.  Zhang Fei is shocked and tries to renegotiate his promise and the men start to fight one another.  Mei Fan tries in vain to stop the fight.  The fight is interrupted by the arrival of Liu Bei – much to the delight of Sūrin
  • the men realize that they share the same political aims and they form a brotherhood
  • the episode ends with Lui Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei feasting together at a table in the famous Peach Garden.  
Historical Context:

The Great Wall of China has already been built generations ago to protect the region from invaders from the north and continues to be kept up, or even expanded.  Since the year 168, the Eastern Han Dynasty has been under the rule of the very young Emperor Ling of Han (156-189) with the previous emperor’s wife, Empress Dou initially acting as regent.  168 was a tumultuous year in which Confusion scholars, who had bravely denounced the powerful court eunuchs, were arrested, killed or banished from the capital of Luoyang.  This is the second episode of the Disasters of Partisan Prohibitions, which did not formally end until 184 with the start of the Yellow Turban Rebellion (184-205).

Sometime before 183, a significant Taoist movement has emerged from Ji Province.  The Taoist Taiping Sect was led by Zhang Jiao (1??-184), who claimed that he could cure the sick with his magical powers.  His teachings and followers spread to eight provinces.  Many imperial officials became concerned about Zhang Jiao’s powers and recommended that the Taiping Sect be disbanded; however, Emperor Ling did not heed their warnings.

In fact, Zhang Jiao was actually planning a rebellion.  The plot was discovered in early 184, and one of Zhang Jiao’s commanders, Ma Yuanyi, was arrested and executed. Emperor Ling then called for the execution of all Taiping Sect members, causing Zhang Jiao to incite the rebellion.  The members of the rebellion wore yellow turbans as a declaration of their loyalties. 


In addition to the beautiful puppets, what makes this adaptation of Sangokushi unique is the introduction of modern day hosts to lead the spectator through the complicated historical and cultural circumstances.  The NHK could have chosen historians for this role, but instead have gone for popular entertainment figures Shinsuke Shimada (島田紳助, b.1956) and Ryūsuke Matsumoto (松本竜助, 1956-2006).  They play a crucial role not only in giving the historical context for the action, but also in injecting much needed humour into the proceedings.  As one also sees in Shakespeare, comedy is the counterpoint to tragedy, and Shimada and Matsumoto’s commentary provides much needed moments of levity to a story that is filled with bloodshed and loss. 

Shimada and Matsumoto also act as our bridge from the modern world into the ancient one in the form of their puppet counterparts Shin-Shin and Ron-Ron.  These are not characters found in the original novel but observers of the action, who do interact with the key figures and events of Sangokushi in order to elicit significant story or character information in addition to bringing added laughs.  They are bumbling characters who find themselves caught up in circumstances beyond their control, much like the peasants who are mostly secondary or even background figures in this drama. 

One gets so caught up in the drama that one often forgets that one is watching puppet theatre.  The puppets are so expressive – from Guan Yu’s scowling to Zhang Fei rolling his eyes and knitting his eyebrows, it is truly remarkable what a range of emotion the puppeteers can elicit throw movement and gesture.  While watching the first episode of Gao Xixi’s live action television series (China, 2010) for comparison, I was reminded of Kihachirō Kawamoto’s observations about the differences between puppets and live action in interviews over the years.  Kawamoto felt that puppets were best at depicting historical and mythological figures because they exist in their own puppet world.  I actually was distracted by the casting and performances of several of the actors in Xixi Gao’s adaptation, whereas I got completely caught up in the drama of the puppets in the NHK version.  The main difference is that actors can only play at being historical figures, but the puppets can really embody the characters when the puppet artisan and puppeteers get the balance right.  The great Czech puppet animator Jiří Trnka famously told Kawamoto in Prague in 1953 that when the puppets fail it is not the fault of the puppets but the fault of the director.  The more performances I see of Kawamoto’s puppets, the more I understand what Trnka meant.

The script does not follow the text of the novel religiously.  Many of the events do come from Chapter One, but many are also excluded.  The characters are introduced in scenarios that give some exposition about what kind of a person they are.  Thus, Liu Bei is shown to be noble in his demeanor yet empathetic to the sufferings of the poor, Guan Yu is a fierce fighter with a strong sense loyalty and of what is right, and Zhang Fei is comical in his scheming but his heart is in the right place.

The episode concludes with the lovely spring scene of Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei feasting together at a table under the blossoms of the Peach Garden.  They pledge fealty to one another, forging the famous brotherhood that has inspired generations of male only societies in East Asia.  It is a fitting ending to the introductory episode – as if the men are also toasting the start of a really fine dramatic series. 

Next Post:
Episode 2: The Storm of the Yellow Turbans /黄巾の嵐 / Kōkin no Arashi