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In-Depth Guide to the Charms of Bunraku – One of Japan’s Traditional Performing Arts

Bunraku, a ningyo joruri (Japanese puppet theater) that was established in the early 17th century, is one of the traditional performing arts that best represents Japan. In this article, you will pursue and delve into the appeals of bunraku.

What is Bunraku?

Bunraku is a traditional performing art that has also been registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. It is a composite art that unifies narration, music, and dolls.

History of Bunraku

The history of bunraku dates back to the Edo period (1603 – 1867). It was called “ayatsuri ningyo” (puppet) in the old days, but it came to be called “ningyo joruri” later on, and enjoyed huge success that way. The Takemoto-za theater was eventually built in Osaka in 1684. Amid the rise and fall of several ningyo joruri theaters thereafter, the Bunraku-za troupe that was started in Osaka by the Uemura Bunraku-ken ensemble from Awaji, Hyogo, in 1872, became the most powerful and central figure in Japan’s puppet theater world. This Bunraku-za ensemble had become the sole professional troupe since the middle of the Taisho era (1912 – 1926), which was how the term “Bunraku” evolved into the official name of this genre of performing arts.

Stage and Performers

Bunraku is performed by the Tayu (narrator of the story), the Shamisen-hiki (player of the shamisen, which is a three-stringed lute) who adds more shade to the story, and the Ningyo-zukai (puppeteer) who breathes life to the dolls.

Flow of the Performance

The show starts when the sound of the shamisen rings through the stage and the Tayu begins to narrate the story with all of their might. The dolls will then start to move in unison to the music called “joruri”, making it seem like they suddenly came to life. The Tayu and the Shamisen-hiki are on equal footing in the show. Neither of them is the conductor, and they spin the story through a series of strained breaths.

Tayu

The Tayu narrates the Gidayu-bushi, which paints the world of Joruri. The narrator is tasked to narrate the scene in every act, the background of the story, and the words spoken by all the appearing characters. It is not just plain mimicry wherein they will copy the voices of the old and young, men and women, as they must pursue and properly express the personality, feelings, and other characteristics of the characters through many human expressions.

Shamisen-hiki

The Shamisen-hiki expresses the emotions of the Gidayu-bushi, along with the story of the Tayu. They use the futozao shamisen, which is the heaviest among all the different types of shamisen, and has a large koma (bridge) and bachi (plectrum). This shamisen produces rich, deep sounds. Every sound depicts the background of the story and the feelings of the characters.

Ningyo-zukai

The puppeteers that move a small doll are composed of three people in a group. The Omo-zukai moves the head and right hand while supporting the torso of the doll. The Hidari-zukai handles the doll’s left hand with their right hand, and the Ashi-zukai, in a bent position, takes care of the movement of the doll’s feet. These three people move the doll so that it really feels alive, all while syncing their breathing through silent signs. Furthermore, they wear black apparel and hide their faces like ninjas, so as not to interfere with the appreciation of the show.

Bunraku Dolls

Bunraku dolls express subtle movements, as well as emotions, in detail. While these dolls may be created for new shows, the approximately 40 types of heads that are often used in the performance of classical works are used according to the character, adjusting their expressions and makeup. There are dolls that express emotions by moving their eyes and eyebrows, as well as dolls with special mechanisms that will let princesses transform their faces into that of demons. Each of these dolls measures 130 - 150cm, and weighs between a few kilograms to more than 10kg. These dolls are mainly made out of wood.

Types of Plays

Bunraku plays are roughly divided into three types. Jidai-mono (historical plays), which have the most number of works, paint a picture of incidents and historical figures in Japan’s history prior to the Edo period. Meanwhile, the Sewa-mono (domestic plays) are contemporary plays set in the Edo period. It deals with the love between ordinary people, human emotions, and other matters that occur in the lives of the people who lived during the Edo era. The third type is Keigoto, which are elegant and spectacular plays that have strong elements of dance and music.

Famous Plays

Jidai-mono
For this type, the play entitled “Honcho Nijushiko” (24 Paragons of Filial Piety of Our Country) is popular. Set against the backdrop of fighting among famous feudal warlords during the Sengoku period (late 15th century – 16th century), this play deals with themes like the love between a man and woman, and the separation of brothers.

Sewa-mono
“Sonezaki Shinju” (Love Suicides at Sonezaki) is the famous play for this genre. Adapted from an incident that actually occurred, this play is a tragedy centered on a man and woman that were in love.

Keigoto
“Kotobukishiki Sambaso” is the popular play for this genre. Performed to celebrate special occasions like the New Year, one of the main features of this play is the transformation from a heavy and solemn mood in the first half, to a powerful and lively play in the second half.

Places to Go for Appreciating Bunraku

Aside from the regular performances at the National Bunraku Theater in Osaka and the New National Theater (Small Theater) in Tokyo, there are also various scheduled bunraku shows in many areas. During the periods when there are no performances at the main theaters in Osaka and Tokyo, there may be shows at local theaters. Aside from the above, there are also “appreciation workshops” that are composed of explanations that incorporate actual shows by performers. They also present spectator-friendly plays annually in Osaka and Tokyo. There are workshops in English that are meant for foreigners, so please check those out!

Places to Go for Appreciating Bunraku

1-12-10 Nipponbashi, Chuo-ku, Osaka-shi, Osaka

Bunraku is a kind of stage performance that overwhelms people with powerful and detailed expressions. How about watching and appreciating a bunraku show at least once?

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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