Bunraku: See Art in All Shapes and Sizes with the Magic of Traditional Japanese Puppetry!

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  • The second part of this series features Bunraku (文楽)which is, strictly speaking, performed not by human beings but puppets! Let’s head into this fascinating world of traditional Japanese puppetry and explore the appeal of this art form!

    How Bunraku came about

    Bunraku is a type of Japanese puppet performance which was brought from Awaji to Osaka by Uemura Bunrakuken (初世植村文楽軒) after he set up a theatre there in 1805. The word Bunraku itself used to refer to Uemura’s theatre named Bunrakuza which was the only place then where Ningyo Joruri (人形浄瑠璃) performances were held. Over time, Bunraku has become an interchangeable term with Ningyo Joruri and was designated as an Important Intangible Cultural Asset by the government in 1955. The word Ningyo means puppets or dolls while ‘joruri’ refers to the chanting and playing of the shamisen during the performance. Bunraku was recognised as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003.

    Performers of Bunraku

    One unique feature of Bunraku is that it is performed exclusively by men. On stage, the major characters in a bunraku play will be controlled by three puppeteers who perform in front of the audience while dressed in black robes and/or hoods. There are some exceptions though such as in the National Bunraku Theatre where the main puppeteer does not wear a hood. The three puppeteers are the omozukai (主使い) – head puppeteer who manipulates the puppet’s head, face and right hand, the hidarizukai (左使い) who operates the puppet’s left hand and the ashizukai (足使い) who controls the legs and feet. All three puppeteers will have to work in perfect harmony so as to ensure that the movements of the puppet look natural. Usually, the omozukai will not be wearing black or a hood but rather, he will wear a kimono bearing his family crest with a hakama so that the audience can see him as he performs his master craft.

    There are three main categories of performers i.e. the Tayu (太夫) i.e. narrator, the shamisen player (三味線) and the orchestra. Usually, there is only one Tayu in each performance despite multiple characters appearing in the story. In long plays, however, there will be multiple Tayus. The shamisen player uses a shamisen larger than usual which has a lower pitch and fuller sound.

    Types of Bunraku plays

    There are two main categories of Bunraku plays i.e. the jidaimono (時代物) and sewamono (世話物). Jidaimono refers to stories with the time setting in the past as seen from the perspective of the Edo era while sewamono are stories set in the Edo era. Although most of the stories were created in the Edo era, there are some which were first created and performed from the Meiji era and beyond.

    Elements of Bunraku

    Typically, a large puppet used in Bunraku can be as tall as 1.5m while a smaller one is about 1.3m. Depending on the conditions and size of the doll, the omozukai may wear elevated clogs of 20cm to 50cm high so that the hidarizukai and ashizukai can operate their parts with ease.

    The kashira (かしら) i.e. head of the puppet are carved from wood and hollow which are placed on top of a stick called the dogushi (度串) that is used by the omozukai to manipulate it. Arms and legs of the puppet are attached to the shoulder board using strings. However, there are no legs for female puppets so the ashizukai will have to put his fists in the hem of the robe to give the impression that the female puppet is walking. The heads are largely classified by gender and further divided into smaller categories depending on the age, social class and personality traits of the roles being played. Most heads can be used for different roles except for those made for specific characters. As such, the same head can be modified by a change of wigs or repainting so that it can be used for other characters.

    The kazura (かずら) i.e. wigs used on the puppets are usually made of human hair but in order to add volume to the hairstyle, the hair from the tail of the yaku (ヤク) i.e. a type of cow is added to the wig after being attached to copper plates. There is no styling of the wigs in the form of tying or cutting etc. Due to the nature of hair used in the wigs and to avoid staining the face of the puppet, oil is not used in the process of setting the hairstyle so only water and bintsuke 鬢付け (beeswax) are allowed to be used. All wigs are made especially for the characters.

    With regard to the costumes worn by the puppets, they are smaller than the actual clothes worn by human beings and stuffed with cotton since the puppets have no bodies. There is a hole at the back for the puppeteers to put their hands into so as to control the puppet. A typical costume consists of the juban (襦袢) – under robe, kitsuke (着付け) – inner kimono, haori (羽織) or uchikake (内掛け) – outer jacket, eri (襟) – collar and obi (帯) – sash belt. As for the patterns and types of clothing worn by the puppets, they are designed to suit the characters and meant to provide the best dramatic impact on stage thus may not be in sync with the time setting of the story at times. In jidaimono stories, the costumes tend to be more lavish and colourful while for sewamono stories, the clothes are comparatively simpler and in dull colours as they reflect lives of ordinary folks.

    The props used on stage include swords, fans, handkerchiefs and umbrellas carried in the hand or attached to the puppets’ bodies. They are usually smaller than the puppets and controlled by handles attached to the puppets. However, there are exceptions at times e.g. fans where they are deliberately made bigger for the sake of enhancing stage effects.

    How to watch a Bunraku play

    In order to watch a Bunraku play, you will have to visit the National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka which offers more than 5 shows each year running for two to three weeks before it gets staged at the National Theatre in Tokyo. At times, the Bunraku shows are performed in other places within Japan or overseas. It is best to reserve the tickets in advance via the internet or over the phone as there is a likelihood that you may not be able to secure tickets at the box office on the day of the performance.

    Are you interested in experiencing this unique traditional art form the next time you are in Japan? If so, have fun exploring the charm of Bunraku!

    Japan Arts Council Website


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