Bunraku Puppets: A Research Paper

Bunraku (pronounced boon-rakoo) is a form of traditional Japanese puppet theatre characterized by almost life-sized puppets accompanied by narrative chanting and shamisen music (a shamisen is a traditional Japanese string instrument). While puppet theatre is often seen as entertainment for children, the Japanese people consider Bunraku a serious form of art. Bunraku plays are based on tales or legends of past centuries, with themes devoted to conflict between social obligations and human emotions.

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Bunraku Puppets during a performance (images courtesy of www.bunraku.org)

Bunraku is the name commonly used for ningyo joruri - "ningyo" meaning puppet and "joruri" being a form of chanted narration. The name Bunraku is derived from a puppet troupe founded by Uemura Bunrakuken early in the 19th century. The earliest form of Bunraku was introduced by Japanese storyteller Takemoto Gidaya in 1684 when he set up his own theatre in Osaka, Japan. Takemoto Gidaya was assisted in this effort by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, considered the greatest playright in Japanese history, and Takeda Izumo, a famous theatre owner and manager. Gidayu and Chikamatsu provided the art for Bunraku, while Takeda Izumo funded the theater and provided technical expertise.

Japanese puppet theatre was most fashionable in the 18th century, and the writings of Chikamatsu Monzaemon played a large part in making it popular. Chikamatsu's Love Suicides at Sonezaki is comparable in importance to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. After Chikamatsu's death, Bunraku's popularity declined due to a lack of adequate playwrights, but interest was revived in the 19th century by puppeteer Uemura Bunrakuken.

In 1963, two Japanese theatre troupes joined and formed the Bunraku Association, an organization that today sponsors regular performances held at the National Theater in Tokyo and the National Bunraku Theater in Osaka. A Bunraku performance typically takes around three to four hours.

In the United States, the Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe provides live performances, workshops, and demonstrations throughout North America, and is the only traditional Japanese Bunraku puppet troupe active in the United States.

The Performers

Bunraku puppeteers, narrators, and musicians are traditionally of the male gender. Props are usually minimized so that the audience may focus primarily on the puppets. The main puppeteer is generally the star of the show and who most of the audience comes to see. Popular Japanese puppeteers such as Yoshida Tamao, Yoshida Minosuke, and Yoshida Bunjaku help fill the theaters with patrons.

To learn more about famous Bunraku puppeteers, please click on the following links:
Master Puppeteer, Tamao Yoshida, Honored for Lifetime Achievement
Joruri bunraku puppet master Yoshida receives French order

A Japanese puppeteer literally spends his life learning the art of Bunraku. To perform as a main puppeteer, 22 years of experience is required, including two years in a Bunraku training school, ten years learning to manipulating the puppets legs, and another ten years learning to manipulate the puppets left arm. Then the puppeteer is ready to learn to control the movement of the head and the right arm of the puppet.

It takes three puppeteers to control each of the Bunraku puppets that are the main characters in the play. Unlike most puppet theatres where an extensive effort is made to hide the manipulation of puppets (such as with strings), the puppeteers in Bunraku perform in full view of the audience. The main puppeteer, called an omozukai, is visible to the audience and sometimes colorfully dressed while the other two operators are cloaked in black robes and hoods. The omozukai uses his right hand to control the right hand of the puppet. The left puppeteer moves the left hand of the puppet with his own right hand by means of a control rod that extends back from the elbow of the puppet. A third puppeteer operates the feet and legs. If all three puppeteers do not work together in syncronization, the puppet's movements will seem unnatural and the puppet will not appear to come to life.

The combination of narrative chanters, called tayu, and the music of the shamisen are known as joruri. Traditional Japanese language is used for narration, with sub-titles in modern-day Japanese running simultaneously during the play. The tayu and the shamisen player are constant companions during the performance. The tayu tells the story and the shamisen player conveys the emotion and the essence of each character through his music.

The Puppets

Bunraku puppets range in size from two to four feet tall or more, depending on the age and gender of the character and the tradition of the specific puppet troupe. The heads and hands of traditional puppets are carved by specialists and the bodies are constructed by puppeteers. The elaborate costumes and intricate carving of the puppets make them some of the most prominent and unusual puppets in the world.

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Typical male and female puppet costumes (images courtesy of www2.ntj.jac.go.jp/unesco/bunraku/en/)

The heads of the puppets can be very sophisticated mechanically. In plays with supernatural themes, a puppet may be constructed so that its face can quickly transform into that of a demon. Less complex heads may have eyes, noses, mouths, and eyebrows that move. The controls for all movements of the puppets head and face are located on a handle that extends down from the neck of the puppet, and are reached by the main puppeteer inserting his left hand into the chest of the puppet through a hole in the back of the torso.

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Bunraku puppet body out of costume and detached head (images courtesy of www2.ntj.jac.go.jp/unesco/bunraku/en/)

For more information on Bunraku Puppet Threatre, visit the following links:

Puppet Theatre of Japan, An Introduction to Bunraku
The Puppetry Home Page, A Brief History of Bunraku
Video Clips of Bunraku Plays
Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe, Bringing the Beauty and Drama of Traditional Japanese Bunraku Puppetry to the United States

Additional sources:

"Bunraku." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 21 Aug. 2007
"Puppetry." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 21 Aug. 2007
"Joruri." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 21 Aug. 2007
"Samisen." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 21 Aug. 2007

This is my reseach paper on Bunraku Puppets for Theater Appreciate I, Summer Semester 2007, NVCC.

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