The film is a record of a Bunraku puppet theatre performance of the classic play by Monzaemon Chikamatsu. In Bunraku, storytellers perform with elaborate human-scale puppets to give expression and sophistication to tales which are often compared to Shakespeare in their scope. It combines three separate disciplines — puppets, each manipulated by three men, sung recitation and instrumental music.
The Lovers' Exile tells the tale of Chubei a delivery boy whose care for an underhand prostitute, Umegawa, is doomed to tragedy.
The film is performed entirely by members of the Bunraku Ensemble of Osaka, widely considered today's most sophisticated puppet theatre.
"The movements are as delicate, carefully stylised and traditional as those in classic ballet — the sobs that shake a puppet's shoulders can be eerily convincing, but verisimilitude is not the goal, or at least not the only goal. As in dance, motion abstracts emotion. Recognizing this, Gross includes the puppeteers in most of the shots and never plays with the illusion that these porcelain-faced folk are anything but dolls, the director's strategy is to communicate to his audience the lineaments of Bunraku puppetry as a patron of the Osaka theatre would experience them.
Because the puppeteers are mute, the story is told in recitative by a joruri, a single actor who indicates the voices and reads the narration while being accompanied by the sounds of a samisen, a kind of Japanese guitar. Both the joruri and the samisen player are artists, and to make that point, Gross cuts from two fiercely arguing puppets, a male and female, at precisely the moment when the audience has come to accept their reality — substituted for them, in the manner of Toto pulling the curtain away from Oz's Wizard, is the sweaty face of the joruri, speaking as one possessed, first in the voice of a woman, then of a man.
Everything about The Lovers' Exile, photographed by Kozo Okazaki and Hideaki Kobayashi, adapted and edited by Gross with the assistance of Donald Richie on the subtitles, has been accomplished with rare taste — with taste that brings the subject to life, rather than embalming it. The Lovers' Exile lets us see why Bunraku puppetry lives and breathes for the Japanese: the movie lives and breathes."
Jay Scott Toronto Globe and Mail