Performed for centuries, with origins dating from Japan’s Edo period, Bunraku continues to enjoy its time centre-stage.
Known for finely detailed, hand-carved puppets and stimulating storytelling, Bunraku is a timeless form of Japanese theatre.
The Birth of Bunraku
Once considered a poor man’s expression of Noh theatre, Bunraku has come into its own and now many of its plays have been adapted for the Kabuki stage. Composed of three elements – the puppetry, the musical accompaniment of a shamisen (a three-stringed lute), and a singer chanting the narrative – Bunraku originated in Osaka, and remains one of Japan’s most respected dramatic arts.
The roots of Bunraku have been traced to the 15th century, when blind men would gather an audience and tell their joruri tales. The stories were narrated in tune to the rhythms of a biwa string instrument, until replaced by the shamisen in the 16th century, when puppets were added to visually re-enact their stories, creating ningyo-joruri – or puppet theatre.
Eventually, dozens of joruri schools emerged across Japan. The term ‘Bunraku’ came from the Bunrakuza (za means theatre in Japanese) established in 1872 in Osaka, named after a leading pioneer of puppet theatre, Uemura Bunrakuken. Eventually, the descendant of the Bunrakuza theatre, the National Bunraku Theatre of Japan, popularised the name of Bunraku as it is known today.
Ain’t No Strings on Me
Virtually life-size, typically two-thirds the size of a person, there’s little doubt that in Bunraku the puppets are the stars of the show. Without any strings, these Japanese Pinocchios are given life by chief puppeteers – known as omozukai.
Requiring up to 40 years of training to become an omozukai, he is the main puppeteer who controls a Bunraku puppet with the support of two apprentice puppeteers. Though it may appear incongruous, the puppeteers remain visible to the spectators, yet they are dressed discreetly in black robes to blend into the background. Carefully manoeuvred, with a trio of puppeteers working cohesively together to operate each of these string-free marionettes, the puppets act out situations with realistic life-like movements.
All of the puppets are voiced by the tayu, or chanter (narrator). Singing all parts, both male and female, the tayu adeptly alters his voice for each character, liberally adding expression to convey the drama that is unfolding on stage. Sitting next to the tayu, on a revolving platform separate from the puppets, the shamisen player accompanies the narration with appropriate mood music. (The tayu and shamisen players are partnered early in their careers and, once linked, they practice and perform together exclusively.)
The overall experience is like watching a pint-sized actor on stage, although there is something magical and mesmerising about bringing this level of realism to a mechanical doll. Just like Pinocchio, who wished to become a ‘real boy’, Bunraku is about as close as a puppet can get to reality.
Not a kid’s show
Nevertheless, Bunraku isn’t a childish ‘puppet show’ – in fact, many of the popular plays have distinctly adult themes.
Plots and storylines are lengthy, complex affairs, with emotional nuances being interpreted by puppeteers. With themes centred on either historic feudal drama – highlighting the power struggles and events of the Samurai era – or modern tales exploring the clash of social obligation and personal desires, Bunraku is very much on a par with conventional theatre.
Regardless of the particular theme, death is a common climax in Bunraku. Consider the popular historic play Kanadehon Chushingura, based on true events: it is the story of 47 masterless Samurai who, in response to their Lord’s forced suicide, conspire and avenge his death. Another popular Bunraku play is a story called Love Suicide at Sonezaki by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724), the Japanese equivalent of Shakespeare, who penned more than 100 Bunraku plays in his lifetime. Fittingly, the climax of Chikamatsu’s tale results in both main characters taking their own lives, á la Romeo and Juliet.
Since Bunraku’s recognition for its cultural merit in 2003 as a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ by UNESCO, this unique puppetry has received an added boost on the global stage.
Bunraku is typically scheduled five or more times per year – in the months of January, April, June, July/August and November. The government-supported troupe has shows that run for two to three weeks in Osaka, and then moves east to Tokyo, and occasionally travels abroad. The National Bunraku Theatre in Chuo-ku, Osaka, offers English programmes and earphones for non-Japanese speaking spectators.
Visit the National Theatre of Japan for more details and to buy tickets online: