Overview of Bunraku Puppet Theater

One of the three major classical theaters of Japan, with kabuki and noh drama, bunraku is a sophisticated puppet theater written and performed for adult audiences with cultivated sensibilities. It reached its peak in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and at one time even eclipsed kabuki in popularity.

The puppets are one-half to full life-size. Each major character is jointly manipulated by three puppeteers, who appear on stage in full view of the audience. The main puppeteer generally appears bare-faced, while the others are "invisible" in black hoods.

The main puppeteer manipulates the eyelids, eyeballs, eyebrows, mouth, and the right arm. A first assistant operates the left arm only, and a second assistant the legs.

Puppet heads and costumes represent character types rather than individual characters.

Sitting to the right of the stage on a slightly elevated platform are a chanter (tayu) who is the voice of all the puppets - men, women, and children - and a shamisen player, who provides musical punctuation for the drama. The art of bunraku lies in achieving perfect synchronization of these three elements - puppets, chanter and shamisen - for intense dramatic effect. There is much to interest the audience in a bunraku play - not just the action on stage, but also the masterful performances of the chanter and the shamisen player.

The history of bunraku began in the 16th century, its popularity rising spectacularly in 1686 after the outstanding playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724) began a collaboration with the magnificent chanter Takemoto Gidayu I (1651-1714) who established the Takemoto puppet theater in Osaka in 1684. From this time bunraku surpassed kabuki in popularity, and kabuki began adapting bunraku plays for the kabuki stage, the actors even copying the stylized movements of the puppets. Toward the middle of the 18th century kabuki took over again.

Chikamatsu wrote plays of both historical and contemporary interest. As with kabuki, the themes of bunraku plays reflected the prevailing Buddhist and Confucian morals of Edo-period society, in which most contemporary plays were set, especially the conflict between social obligation and personal desire (giri-ninjo).

Bunraku has survived largely with government support and the establishment of the National Theater in Tokyo and the National Bunraku Theater in Osaka.

Bunraku Puppet Theater