Puppet theater can be found in many cultures, but few have refined the art as perfectly as Japanese Bunraku.
Bunraku (文楽) is a classical form of Japanese puppet theater using rhythmic chanting, and traditional music. Luckily, you don’t need to understand Japanese to experience it; bunraku relies heavily on visuals and sounds to tell stories, so it can be enjoyed by speakers of any language. Let’s take a look at the history and elements of this form of puppet theater unique to Japan.
1. What is Bunraku?
Bunraku has captivated Japanese audiences for centuries. Also known as ningyo joruri (人形浄瑠璃), which translates to something like “puppet lyrical drama”, bunraku plays come together though the fusion of visuals and sounds.
The elaborately constructed wooden puppets are the striking visual elements which anchor the action of each performance. The puppeteers clothe themselves all in black, so the viewer’s eye is drawn instead to the life-like dolls they control. Each bunraku puppet is dressed in vibrant robes and has complex moving parts, enabling them to convey a wide array of emotions.
The sounds support the onstage narrative. Joruri is a mix of chanting, which is usually done by a single narrator, and the music of the shamisen, a Japanese string instrument similar to a lute. This music blends together to simulate the dialogue and mood of each scene.
Bunraku performances regale the audience with stories of heroism, tragic love, and the supernatural. These tales typically come directly from Japanese history and legends. Though the plays depict times and traditions long past, they often center on human emotions still relatable to present-day viewers.
Unlike puppet theater from other cultures which tends to cater to children, bunraku is considered a serious artform accessible to all ages.
Bunraku and its components have been named both a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage and an Important Intangible Cultural Property of Japan for its impact on the nation’s culture. You can see the UNESCO video above. Watching a play is truly like witnessing a living piece of history.
2. Where Does Bunraku Come From?
Bunraku theater first began in Osaka in the 17th century. Osaka in the 1600s was then much like it is today: a bustling merchant city revolving around trade from the major ports. To cater to the many travelers passing through, Osaka developed a vibrant entertainment center around its main central waterway, the Dotonbori canal. Many artforms blossomed in the Dotonbori district, including kabuki, but bunraku is one of the few actually created there.
Initially, bunraku was a form of entertainment for commoners, but it evolved into a more artistic practice over time. It rose to popularity when a playwright named Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724) began collaborating with the renowned chanter Takemoto Gidayu (1651-1714). Takemoto created a puppet theater in 1684 showing original plays that captivated the nation. Monzaemon wrote many of these, authoring so many successful scripts in his lifetime he is often referred to as the Shakespeare of Japan.
The term buraku initially referred to a specific theater called the Bunrakuza, established in 1805 by Uemura Bunrakuken (1751-1810). Bunrakuken’s theater revived the artform, which had fallen into decline during the 18th century. Eventually, bunraku became the preferred term, although ningyo joruri is also used today.
3. What Do Bunraku Puppets Look Like?
Bunraku puppets are made of wood and are anywhere between one to four feet in height. The puppets don’t actually have full bodies; only the head, hands, legs, and feet are crafted. These are connected with string while the torso is simulated using a kimono. Male dolls have legs and feet, but the female dolls don’t because traditionally their clothing completely covered their bottom halves. Most of the body as well as the clothing are made by the puppeteers themselves.
The heads and hands are generally carved by specialists, as these tend to be the most complex elements of each doll. Each facet of the head (kashira) is made to move, allowing the puppets to be expressive: the eyes blink, the mouth opens and closes, and the eyebrows move up and down.
Sometimes multiple heads are created for one character and these are switched out during the show to convey different emotions, or the aging process.
Depending on the performance the head might even be made to transform entirely, morphing from the face of a human to one of a demon for example.
The size of the head varies depending on the character. Heroes and powerful beings have larger heads than common villagers and minor supporting characters.
4. What Are the Elements of a Bunraku Play?
The three types of bunraku performers are the ningyotsukai (puppeteers), tayu (chanter), and the shamisen player. The puppeteers perform on the main stage (hombutai) while the tayu and musician sit on a partition off to the side (called a yuka).
It takes three puppeteers, usually hooded and clad in black as not to attract attention to themselves, to operate a single puppet. In lieu of strings, rods extend from the back side of the dolls. The main puppeteer is known as the omozukai. He or she uses their right hand to manipulate the right hand and face of the puppet. The left puppeteer, called the hidarizukai, controls the left hand of the puppet with his or her own dominant hand. A third puppeteer, the ashizukai, operates the entire lower half. Apprentices start as ashizukai and literally work their way up to omozukai. This training can take up to 30 years.
The tayu and shamisen musician work together to create the narration and emotion of the performance, respectively. Typically, a single chanter recites all the roles, though sometimes multiple narrators are used. Tayu are skilled in a variety of vocal ranges to convincingly portray a diverse cast of different ages, genders, and social classes. He reads from a script written in traditional Japanese, so subtitles in modern Japanese are often incorporated so audiences can understand. The tayu sits next to the shamisen player, allowing them to harmonize are create the joruri. The joruri synchronizes perfectly with the puppets movements creating a truly impressive sight.
5. Where to Watch Bunraku?
Bunraku underwent another hiatus during World War II, but performances resumed only a year after the conflict ended. By the end of the 20th century, the two main bunraku theaters of Japan had opened in Osaka and Tokyo, spearheading the revival that continues today.
Bunraku continues to thrive in Osaka, the city where the craft was created. The National Bunraku Theater, which opened in 1984, is its headquarters. It’s located in the city’s Nipponbashi neighborhood, adjacent to downtown Dotonbori. English headsets are available for rental for most performances and English brochures are provided free of charge.
国立文楽劇場 (Kokuritsu Bunraku Gekijo)
Address: 1-12-10, Nipponbashi, Chuo-ku, Osaka (see map)
Hours: Open during performances. See the schedule here.
The National Theater opened in the capital in 1966. Bunraku plays are performed on the theater’s small stage. Earphone guides and flyers in English are available for a fee.
国立劇場 (Kokuritsu Gekijo)
Address: 4-1, Hayabusa-cho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo (see map)
Hours: Open during performances. See the schedule here.
Bunraku is one of the most important and unique facets of Japanese art. Seeing a performance is a valuable way to experience the country’s fascinating history, distinct character, and stunning visual and performance art all in one go. Make sure to check out a showing next time you’re in town!