20 January 2014

Ningyōgeki Sangokushi 2: The Storm of the Yellow Turbans

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

Episode 2: The Storm of the Yellow Turbans
黄巾の嵐 / Kōkin no Arashi (9 October 1982)

Central Characters in Order of Appearance:
Liu Bei 劉備玄徳 りゅうび げんとく
Zhang Fei 張飛翌徳 ちょうひ よくとく
Guan Yu 関羽雲長 かんう うんちょう
Sūrin  淑玲 すうりん
Mei Fan 美芳 めい ふぁん
Zhang Jue  張角 ちょうかく
Ron-Ron  々 ろんろん
Shin-Shin  々 しんしん
Lu Zhi  廬植 ろしょく

Episode Plot Summary:

Part I

  • Shinsuke Shimada and Ryūsuke Matsumoto introduce some historical context (see more below) for this episode and wish their puppet counterparts, Shin-Shin and Ron-Ron luck.
  • Our three heroes, Liu Bei (Gentoku), Guan Yu (Kan-u), and Zhang Fei (Chōhi), approach the gates of the encampment of the Shōgun, Liu Bei’s former sensei Lu Zhi (Roshoku).  They have come to offer their help in quelling the Yellow Turban Rebellion (黄巾の乱/Kōkin no Ran).
  • The guards do not recognize them and do not want to let them in.  Here the constrasting characters of the three heroes are demonstrated: hot-headed Zhang Fei reacts with anger and indignation, Guan Yu is a moderator who tries to apply logic to the situation, and Liu Bei takes the kid glove approach to diplomacy, apologizing to the guards for the inconvenience and trying to win them over with polite words.
  • It turns out that the Shōgun is away and the guards have never heard of Liu Bei.  They eventually allow the men to enter the soldier encampment, but only if they surrender their arms and wait in isolation in a guarded tent.  Zhang Fei is insulted, but Liu Bei thinks that this a positive demonstration that the troops are well trained and well organised – they would be fools to let in people who may be Yellow Turbans (Kōkintō) in disguise.  Zhang Fei is unhappy about being unarmed and Guan Yu tries to reason with him.  Outside the tent, the head guard tells his troops to be wary that the three may be the enemy in disguise. 
  • Dusk at the camp: Zhang Fei is still restless in the tent. He declares that if her were the Shōgun the Yellow Turbans would have already been defeated by now.  Liu Bei points out that if the Yellow Turbans were defeated then their services would not be necessary.  Guan Yu is clearly tired of Zhang Fei’s complaints and suggests that they get some rest.  Guan Yu and Zhang Fei offer Liu Bei their only blanket as they feel he is superior in status to them (they refer to him as Aniki, or "older brother”).  Liu Bei insists that they are each other’s equals and should share.  Just as they are settling down back to back around the central pole of the tent the sound of drums and horse hooves interrupt the evening quiet.
  • Zhang Fei thinks it must be the Yellow Turbans advancing on the camp, but Liu Bei preaches calm suggesting that it could be the Shōgun returning.  Zhang Fei thinks that it would be an ideal way to show their support and bursts from the tent into the arms of the guards who push him back into the tent. 
  • Zhang Fei is still irritated and Liu Bei tries to explain to him that the guards are only following orders and they need to as well if their want to impress the Shōgun.  An army needs rules of engagement in order to distinguish themselves from a band of marauders like the Yellow Turbans.  The key terms that he uses are gunritsu (軍律/martial law) and kiritsu (規律/discipline).  Zhang Fei asks, “Isn’t it enough just to win?” and Liu Bei and Guan Yu disagree.  They point out that the Yellow Turbans are destroying and pillaging the villages of innocent people and for them that is not the work of an army.  Zhang Fei’s response it to vent his frustration by banging his head on the tent pole. 
  • Meanwhile, at Zhang Fei’s home, a group of Yellow Turbans raid the property and terrorize Zhang Fei’s wife Mei Fan and their guest Sūrin
  • Mei Fan puts up a fight and begs them not to hurt them.  The Yellow Turbans are not moved by her pleas and tell her that they will take them to their leader Zhang Jue (Chōkaku).  Sūrin shocks Mei Fan by declaring to the men that she thinks Zhang Jue will help them.  As they are taken away, a fiery arrow is shot into the thatched roof of the building, setting it alight.
  • Cutaway to Zhang Jue howling like an evil spirit: “Everything must BURN!”
  • Back at the Shōgun’s encampment the next morning, the three heroes have been given chores.  Zhang Fei is, of course, offended by this but Liu Bei says that it is a necessary task.  The guards are surprised and impressed by how hardworking the three seem to be, but they remain suspicious.  A comic scene ensues that begins with Zhang Fei “accidentally” throwing horse manure at the guards.  Then Guan Yu chops wood and a piece flies “accidentally” at the guards.  The three heroes seem to be having a little fun at the guards’ expense.
  • Another comic scene in which the three heroes fight about who gets to cook.  Zhang Fei gets a little over-enthusiastic and taste-tests all the soups until there is nothing left! In the next scene, the three heroes have their heads bent in apology, but “Shin-Shin” and “Ron-Ron”, the puppet counterparts of the series hosts Shinsuke Shimada and Ryūsuke Matsumoto, arrive with a large cart filled with manjū (sweet bean buns) to save the day.   Zhang Fei is, of course, the first one to have a manjū in his hand, but he gets told off by the soldiers for eating everything else.
  • Meanwhile, Sūrin is in the cave to meet the leader of the Yellow Turbans, Zhang Jue.  When he finally appears, she introduces herself and praises him as having saved her grandfather and offers her support for his cause.  Zhang Jue says that he must leave on an errand and that they can talk upon his return.  Sūrin pulls out a knife and tries to strike him.  With the use of special effects that look like they were done with mirrors to make Zhang Jue look like a spirit flying away, Zhang Jue easily escapes her attack.  It turns out that Sūrin’s kind words were a ruse.  She shouts that she will avenge her family.  The scene ends with her crying out “Ken-Ken! Ojiisan!” for her murdered little brother and grandfather.  The final title card of Part I informs us that Sūrin’s “thinking heart” (恒心/kōshin) was unable to reach the heavens.

Part II

  • We return to Sūrin and Mei Fan who are now imprisoned in the dungeon.  Ron-Ron and Shin-Shin are standing guard wearing Yellow Turbans.  They comment on the fact that standing guard is a much easier task than transporting manjū.  Mei Fan begins to moan as if she is ill.  Ron-Ron and Shin-Shin enter the prison cell to see if they can help. Sūrin screams that there is a mouse, and as Ron-Ron and Shin-Shin look for the non-existence creature, the women make their escape and lock the two fools in the cell.
  • Meanwhile, the Yellow Turban rebels are gathered on horseback.  Zhang Jue is preparing his troops for attack with a speech declaring that they have nearly defeated the Chinese army with their great strategy.  Only a handful of soldiers remain.  He declares that they will come at them from two sides and crush them.  He cries: “The Blue Era comes to an end and the Yellow will take over!”
  • Back at the Shōgun’s camp, the guards have fallen asleep on duty.  The Yellow Turbans stab them easily.  Inside their tent, our three heroes become aware that something is going on.  Unarmed, they take on the rebels.  Guan Yu takes down two rebels and commandeers a weapon to attack another on horseback.  To a modern jazzy score, Liu Bei and Zhang Fei join Guan Yu in defense of the camp.  One of the rebels goes to warn the others that there are warriors defending the camp.  Our three heroes discover that all of the guard are asleep with have eaten manjū in their hands.  It seems that Ron-Ron and Shin-Shin had delivered manjū spiked with sleeping medication.  Zhang Fei is relieved that he was prevented from eating them.
  • The next morning, the cry of a rooster wakes the camp.  Zhang Fei complains that he didn’t get a wink of sleep.  The guard tells them that the Shōgun has arrived.  The head of the soldiers is in the Shōgun’s tent taking credit for warding off the rebels.  Zhang Fei overhears and is incensed, but Guan Yu restrains him.  The Shōgun exits the tent to welcome his former student, Liu Bei.  Guan Yu and Zhang Fei introduce themselves.  Liu Bei refers to the Shōgun as sensei.  The head soldier stands behind the Shōgun with his mouth agape as he realizes that the Shōgun really does know Liu Bei and is pleased to see them.  Liu Bei has come to return a favour to his former sensei.  The Shōgun is glad of their support – Zhang Fei is delighted to finally have something useful to do.  The Shōgun says that Chōkaku’s magic is making things difficult for the regular army.  Zhang Fei is certain that they can beat the rebels. 
  • Our three heroes tour the battlefields and express their sorrow at the death and devastation caused by the Yellow Turbans.  They fear they have come too late.   
  • A crow caws from the top of a haystack.  Shin-Shin and Ron-Ron are on the trail of the escaped women.  Sūrin and Mei Fan continue to outsmart them. 
  • Our three heroes see a prison cart being drawn by a horse.  They are shocked to discover that Lu Zhi Sensei has been taken prisoner by his own men.  A general from the imperial court came to see how things were going on the battlefront.  Lu Zhi asked for more time but because he had no money to bribe the general with, a report of his failings was taken back to the emperor (Mikado).  Lu Zhi has been displaced as Shōgun and is being taken back to the capital in a cage.  It seems the corrupt official told the emperor that Lu Zhi had been hiding rather than fighting the enemy and the emperor promoted someone else to take over as Shōgun.  Lu Zhi will be taken to the capital and humiliated.  .  .  and even faces the threat of execution.  Zhang Fei wants to free Lu Zhi.  Lu Zhi feels that he has enough supporters in the capital and will try via political means to redeem himself.  The regretfully allow the party to pass. 
  • Zhang Fei throws himself on the ground in frustration.  He thinks he should have just stayed at home and drank sake.  Liu Bei thinks they should consider joining forces with the new Shōgun.  Guan Yu has heard that the man appointed Shōgun is a real wind bag.  If that is the case, then Zhang Fei threatens to fight him, but Guan Yu points out that this would hurt Liu Bei’s cause.  Zhang Fei gets fed up and leaves in a huff.  
  • Left on their own, Guan Yu wonders aloud if he should go after Zhang Fei but Liu Bei says that he’ll come back once he’s calmed himself down.  The men laugh.  Cut to Zhang Fei who is grumbling to himself as he rides.  He worries that the others will be mad at him and wonders what he can say to apologize to his comrades when he goes back.  He suddenly catches the scent of sake in the wind.
  • In the next scene, Zhang Fei is drunk and shouting about sake.  Flags that read sake () indicate that Mei Fan and Sūrin have set up the business again.  Shin-Shin and Ron-Ron, still in their Yellow Turbans, are spying on them from behind some rocks.  Sūrin asks Zhang Fei how Liu Bei is doing.  Zhang Fei drunkenly claims to have nothing more to do with Lui Bei.  Sūrin jumps to Liu Bei’s defense.  Zhang Fei compliments Sūrin and she tells him to get lost. 
  • In the next scene, night has fallen and Zhang Fei is passed out outside on his back and snoring heavily.  Mei Fan and Sūrin huddle near the open fire – they can’t sleep with all that racket.  Suddly they hear hooting sounds and see that Zhang Fei is being dragged off by his feet.  “Scary!” shouts Sūrin before both women are knocked unconscious by unseen arms. 
  • Liu Bei and Guan Yu come to the remains of the fire and wonder what’s happened.  Guan Yu spots Zhang Fei’s shoe. They realize that something has happened to Zhang Fei and go off in search of him.
  • At the camp of the Yellow Turban rebels, Shin-Shin and Ron-Ron are tying up Zhang Fei and congratulating themselves.  They hear a dog barking and fall into the same trap they played on the ladies – it’s Guan Yu to the rescue!  Guan Yu beats up Shin-Shin and Ron-Ron without the other rebels noticing and unties Zhang Fei.  Together they take on the rebels, giving Liu Bei an opportunity to sneak in and rescue the ladies.
  • Back at the sake tent, everyone is reunited.  Zhang Fei begs “aniki” ( honorable brother) Guan Yu for forgiveness.  They aren’t given much time to enjoy their reunion however as arrows begin to fly into their camp, startling their horses.  They duck behind barrels and look to their hills.  They are surrounding by the Yellow Turban Rebels.  The music here is reminiscent of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western.
  • Our hosts hilariously comment of what a terrible disaster this is.  “They are in a big pinch!” (大ピンチ!Dai-Pinchi!)

Historical Context:

Part I

The comic hosts, Shinsuke Shimada and Ryūsuke Matsumoto, introduce this episode using historical artifacts in the form of figurines called Kojinyō  (胡人俑/こじんよう) of men and horses.  Kojinyō are terracotta Han Dynasty figurines.  The most famous terracotta figures in China are the Terracotta Army of the first emperor of China Qin Shi Huang (260-201BC) which were discovered in 1974, but he was not the only historical figure to be buried with such funerary statues.  The practice continued into the Han Dynasty – one of the most significant burial sites discovered is the Tomb of the Chu King Liu Wu (????-154BC) which was discovered in 1984.

What has always struck me as truly remarkable about the terracotta figures of ancient China is the attention to detail given to figures which were made to be buried.  For us today, these figurines are not only a physical historical record of these ancient peoples who lived more than two thousand years ago, but they are also a demonstration of how deeply the people of that time believed in the afterlife.  The horses depicted in this episode of Sangokushi are wonderfully expressive – and as this episode features horses extensively it is particularly fitting. 

They also introduce a pair of figurines that they call Manzai Figurines (漫才俑/まんざいよう).  I presume this is in reference to the Manzai comedy tradition.  I don’t know how far this tradition goes back in Japan, but my understanding of Manzai comedy is that it is similar to what we would call a comedy double act in English.  Like Abbott and Costello or George Burns and Gracie Allen, the Manzai comedy team (manzaishi) consists of a straight man (tsukkomi) and a funny man (boke) who talk at great speed and engage in a variety of word play.  The Manzai tradition is particularly associated with Kansai-ben (the dialect of the Osaka region) and in this adaptation of Sangokushi, the hosts Shinsuke Shimada and Ryūsuke Matsumoto are just such a pair.  Even my fluent husband struggles with their Kansai-ben banter as he learned Japanese in Tokyo and Hokkaido, so often the jokes in these historical interludes go right over our heads.  

We also became aware in this episode of the expression “Han blue”.  Through a bit of investigation I discovered that “Han purple” and “Han blue” are dyes that were developed in ancient China and were used from the Western Zhou period (1045–771 BC) until the end of the Han dynasty (c. 220 AD).  Made from barium copper silicate pigments, there apparently are no extant records of how they experimented with the raw materials (barium mineral, quartz, copper mineral, and lead salt) to make the dye.  Han purple and Han blue were used in paints on terracotta statues from the Han period.  In this episode, the soldiers of Lu Zhi’s army wear blue uniforms with red vests and red cloth draped from their helmets.   This is in contrast to the rebels with their yellow turbans and yellow vests. 

Part II

The second half of this episode introduces another type of historical record from ancient times: the iryō mokukan (医療木簡/いりょうもくかん).  Iryō refers to medical care and mokukan are long, narrow, thin pieces of wood which were strung together and written upon in ancient times.  The ancient Egyptians, the narrators explain, had used papyrus since at least 3,000 BC.  As papyrus plants are indigenous to Africa, I presume this was not an option in ancient China unless it was imported. 

Paper made from pulp had only been developed in China in the century before the Three Kingdoms period by a court eunuch by the name of Cai Lun (c. 50-121AD) and had revolutionized trade and communication.  Before the availability of paper, practitioners of medicine in China recorded their recipes for treating ailments on strips of wood – as in the recent discovery of 950 bamboo strips attributed to the physician Bian Que (c.401-310BC). 


I was really impressed by the use of the horse puppets in this episode and would love to find some behind the scenes footage of how they did it.  I wonder how many puppeteers were needed to execute the scenes in which the horses are galloping in a long shot.  It would have been much easier to use a medium shot of the men sitting upon the horses, but actually having the legs in frame required much greater planning and careful execution.  I was also amused by the frequency of shots with horse rear ends in the background and to the side of the screen – a constant reminder that this was a time when horses were essential to humans on the move.

In terms of cinematography, there are so many things that are impressive about this series from the depth of frame to the lighting of the night / cave scenes.  When Sūrin confronts Zang Jue they seem to have used mirrors and superimposition in order to make him look like a ghostly shape-shifting creature – an inventive but cost-effective way to do the special effects.   

When our three heroes walk through the devastation of the battle scene, it actually occurred to me why puppets work so well for this adaptation of The Three Kingdoms.  The puppet designer, Kihachirō Kawamoto, in speaking about his independent puppet animation films, has said that puppets are ideal for the depiction of historical and mythical figures because they inhabit their own puppet world (a concept he learned from many puppet masters he himself admired – particularly the Czech puppet animation legend Jiří Trnka).   In the case of The Three Kingdoms, because the death and destruction are in the puppet world and not the real human world, it gives us an objectivity that the emotive depiction of real corpses would not.  I would imagine that this series would be a useful tool for teaching young children Chinese history / literature because the brutality of the war scenes is only suggested rather than graphically depicted.  A live action portrayal of the violence of the Three Kingdoms period would limit the audience to over 18.  Add to this, the addition of humour to the proceedings, and I imagine it would be very successful with children indeed.

 Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014
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