Bunraku is the traditional puppet theater of Japan. However, it only assumed the name bunraku towards the end of the Meiji era. Prior to that it was known as ningyō jōruri (人形浄瑠璃 "puppet narrative drama") or ayatsuri jōruri shibai (操り浄瑠璃芝居 "puppet drama plays"). The name "bunraku" is taken from the theater in which this puppet drama was performed, but gradually it came to be used as the name of the art itself and is today used as the official name of the puppet theater.
Jōruri also refers to a form of shamisen (三味線 "three-stringed guitar") music, and the name reflects that the puppet plays are performed to a jōruri accompaniment. It is the combination of its high-quality artistic technique, the high level of its jōruri music and the unique nature of manipulating the puppets (each puppet requires three puppeteers to bring it to life), that have led to bunraku's world renown.
Two things differentiate bunraku from other forms of puppet theaters around the world. The first is the duration of each play. Whilst most puppet theaters portray simple stories such as myths and legends, only bunraku requires an entire day for its long, serious drama to play out.
Secondly, in most of the world's puppet theaters, great pains are taken to hide the manipulation of the puppeteers from the audience. This is done by either suspending the puppet from strings attached to the ceiling, as with marionettes, or placing a hand within the puppet and moving it with the fingers, as with guignol puppets; or by casting shadows upon a screen, as with the wayan kulit shadow puppets. In bunraku, however, the puppet's manipulators appear openly, in full view of the audience.
In 2003, bunraku was added to UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list as a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity".
History of bunraku
The roots of is today known as bunraku lie in jōruri (浄瑠璃 "ballad drama") and jōruri gidayu-bushi (浄瑠璃義太夫 "jōruri narrative singing"). The latter was created by Takemoto Gidayu (1651 - 1724), and is a distinct form of vocal music.
Vocal music has been divided into two categories in Japan, dating back to ancient times, namely Utai (謡 "chanting or singing") and katari (語り "reciting"). The biggest difference between the two is that utai contained definite melodies, rhythms, and a tempo, whereas the main emphasis of katari was on explaining the plot. Katari itself originated from the tale-chanting style of heikyoku (京華曲), which was used to relate historical dramas from the Heika , to the accompaniment of a biwa (琵琶 "a lute-like instrument").
Although heikyoku was a popular form of entertainment, performers began looking for additional sources of material and it was around the mid-Muromachi Period, during the late 15th century, that jōruri performers began to attract attention. With the addition of the shamisen (三味線 "three-stringed guitar") in the mid-sixteenth century, jōruri made rapid musical advances.
Allied to the development of the musical form, was that of the puppets. The history of "moving dolls" In Japan dates back to at least the in the Heian period (784 - 1185), where there are records of groups of traveling artists who performed as "puppet operators." These performers were known as kairaishi (傀儡師 "puppet players" or "wire-pullers"). By the thirteenth century, these traveling puppeteers had fallen under the patronage of various shrines and temples, and once the connection with jōruri was made at the end of the sixteenth century, the artform moved from the streets to indoors.
In 1684, Takemoto Gidayu established the Takemoto-za theater in the Dotonbori district of Ōsaka and teamed up with the famous playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon. The plays he wrote were divided into two categories, namely those about the noble and military classes, called jidai-mono (時代物 "historical drama"), and those based on the lives of the townspeople, called sewa-mono (世話物 "domestic drama"). Chikamatsu Monzaemon devoted his energy to accurately and vividly portraying the situations in which people found themselves, and in 1703, he published his most famous work, Sonezaki Shinju (曽根崎心中), or "The Love-Suicide at Sonezaki". The foremost of all his domestic dramas, it is important not only historically, but also for its excellent literary content.
At the same time, the puppets evolved too. Initially, the puppeteers would operate from behind shoulder-high curtains, from behind which they would hold the puppets above the curtain as they operated them. The puppets originally had no feet, so the operators had to thrust their hands in the hems to make the "feet" move, but the dolls had movable hands and arms that could be manipulated to perform simple movements. At about the time that the Takemoto-za was opened, the puppets were small and manipulated only by a single operator. But as time went by, improvements were made, so that by 1734 a plan was devised to have three operators per puppet. Two years later, the size of the dolls was doubled, making them close to the size used today, which is about 2/3 the height of the average person. The stage was changed at about the same time in order to accommodate the three manipulators.
Ironically, it was the first performance of Sonezaki Shinju that lead to puppet jōruri's golden age, but for all the wrong reasons. One of Gidayu's apprentices, Toyotake Wakadayu, a gifted and popular chanter, left Takemoto-za and opened his own theater, the Toyotake-za, in the same Dotonbori district. In addition, he took with him Tatsumatsu Hachirobei, Takemoto-za's head manipulator of female puppets, often said to be the best in the country, as well as and Ki no Kaion, Toyotake-za's lead writer and playwright. This, coupled with Toyotake's attention to the jōruri and his stage, resulted in the Toyotake-za becoming a serious rival to the Takemoto-za. However, as the two theaters vied for top position, the art form became ever more popular amongst the populace.
However, the popularity of the puppet theater began to wane in the latter half of the eighteenth century, and both the Takemoto-za and the Toyotake-za went bankrupt. Puppet theater performances returned to the precincts of shrines and temples, as well as in vaudeville-like entertainment halls (寄席 yose), and gradually a number of master performers reappeared who took the art left to them and refined it through great effort.
After the collapse of both the Takemoto-za and the Toyotake-za puppet theaters, a small jōruri hall was opened near Kozu Bridge in Ōsaka, and in 1811 it found itself within the precincts of the Inari Shrine. The proprietor was a man named Uemura Bunrakuken, and it was in 1872, after it was relocated to Matsushima, that the hall became officially known as the bunraku-za, after its owner.
Shortly thereafter, the Hikoroku-za was founded within the precincts of the Inari Shrine in 1884, and it became a rival of the bunraku-za, which had since moved to Ōsaka's Goryo area. Just as in the days of Toyotake-za and Takemoto-za, puppet theater once again became popular. Although the Hikoroku-za was closed in 1893, the Goryo bunraku-za prospered as the main representative of puppet theater, with the name of the theater, being transferred to the art itself, which came to be called "bunraku".
The Goryo Bunraku-za burned to the ground in 1926, and its successor, a new bunraku-za, was built near Yotsubashi in 1930. At the end of World War II, of all the theaters to be rebuilt from the ashes of the air raids, the very first was the Yotsubashi Bunraku-za. This was because bunraku was not only seen as a famous product of Ōsaka, but also a traditional performing art that had to be preserved.
In 1955, the Japanese government recognized the art of bunraku as an "Important Intangible Cultural Property (重要無形文化財 jūyō mukei bunkazai). In 1963, the Bunraku Association was formed, and following the completion of Japan's first National Theater in 1966, bunraku performances in Tokyo were planned and produced by the National Theatre.
The National Theater's policy of performing full plays evoked the interest of the youth, which was instrumental in developing a new generation of audiences. Further, due to the efforts of the Bunraku Association, both the city and the prefecture of Ōsaka, and the Kansai Economic Association, it was planned to build a National Bunraku Theater in the land of its birth, Ōsaka and the National Bunraku Theater was founded in 1984.
Bunraku plays develop through the chanting of gidayu-bushi, and it is their mission is to fill an otherwise expressionless doll made of wood, with the illusion life through the gidayu-bushi. The chanter (太夫 tayu) not only recites the dialogue for all the characters, but also relates the spectacle of the scene and explains the background behind the event taking place. Long pieces last for about 90 minutes, and the number of characters can vary from only a few to around fifteen. The chanter performs them all, both young and old, male and female, warriors and townspeople, in various ways appropriate for each character, all by himself.
The tayu's greatest objective is to express the actual emotions of each of the characters. Someone who listens for the first time to a chanter's performance might feel besieged by exaggerated emotions, but that is due to the uniquely expressive power of gidayu-bushi, which has to convey to the audience a strong impression about the character's personality.
The Shamisen Player
There are three types of shamisen, namely the futo-zao (太ざお "thick-necked"), naka-zao (中ざお "medium-necked"), and hoso-zao (細ざお "thin-necked"). The futo-zao shamisen is the largest and lowest pitched of the three types, and is the one used for gidayu-bushi, as the accompanying chanting emanates from the lower abdomen, which is matched by the powerful timbre of the futo-zao. Unlike most other forms of accompaniment, the shamisen used in gidayu-bushi must "play the strings of the heart" and like as the chanter, when reciting, places more importance on expressing the feelings of the tale than on actual musicality. The ideal performance is for the shamisen player to become one in spirit with the chanter. Unlike with the recitation, which is expressed through words, the shamisen requires extremely difficult techniques to express human emotions through a single tonal colour.
Bunraku puppets differ from any other type of puppet in that it requires 3 puppeteers to manipulate each individual doll. The three puppeteers are the omo-tsukai (面遣い), or the "head puppeteer", who operates both the doll's head and face, by holding a stick with levers in his left hand, and also the doll's right hand with his own right hand; the hidari-tsukai (左遣い), or "left-hand puppeteer", who uses his right hand to operate the doll's left hand; and the ashi-tsukai (足遣い), or "foot puppeteer", who uses both hands to suggest the movements of the doll's legs and feet. Skillful manipulators can even have the puppets handle and manipulate small objects, or even tear up a letter.
The three puppeteers must work together in perfect harmony, otherwise the puppet's motions will seem unnatural and the doll will never appear to come to life. The left hand of the head puppeteer, which supports the weight of the heavy doll, represents the puppet's spine, and it is through his left hand that the illusion of life is first breathed into the puppet. An apprentice puppeteer will begin with the feet, and then move to the left hand, and finally to the head and right hand. The period of study required to progress is so long that the saying is, "Ten years for the feet, ten years for the left".
In order accommodate the left-hand puppeteer's position, the head puppeteer wears special footwear known as "stage clogs" or "elevated clogs". A large doll can be as tall as 1.5 meters, whilst a smaller one is normally about 1.3 meters tall, so the height of the elevated clogs varies between 20 and 50 centimeters, depending on the size of the doll.
In the case of a doll operated by three puppeteers, the puppet appears on the stage with all three operators in plain view of the audience, which could obstruct the viewing of the play. Therefore, they wear kurogo (黒巾 "black robes"). The puppeteers are dressed in black robes and head coverings. However, this is not necessarily so they blend into the background, but because originally, the color black signified "nothingness". Thus, bunraku adopted this concept of "nothing" and started employing black-robed operators, which indicates that they cannot be seen, as there is "nothing" there to see.
However, a situation arose when the manipulation of the puppet was extremely masterful and perfect, the audience wanted to see who was operating the doll. This led to the concept of de-tsukai - an operator who is visible to the audience, usually by having only his face uncovered.
The three puppeteers must all become one with the doll in order to manipulate it, and they must also become one with, and work together with, the chanter and the shamisen player. It is this phenomenal co-operation that makes the bunraku so special, as the beautiful puppets move about freely like humans and look like they are alive.
Heads and wigs
The heads (頭 kashira) of bunraku puppets are divided into male and female, and then further classified into various categories depending on age, social class, and the distinguishing personality traits of the role they portray, and each head has its own name, reflecting their special characteristics. The same head might be used for different characters in different plays, if the characters have the same characteristics or personality. Sometimes, in order better match the character, they may be repainted to give the right skin tone, or have a new wig attached. The heads are the responsibility of the "head master" (頭担当 kashira tanto), who prepares,maintains and repaints them before each performance.
The movement of the eyes, eyebrows, and mouth of each puppet's head is controlled by the main puppeteer, who manipulates, with the fingers of his left hand, the levers attached to the dogushi stick in the doll's neck. In addition, there is a special lever that is attached to the head with shamisen strings, which allows the puppet's head to nod up and down in time to the shamisen music. This movement also relies upon a special construction called the bane (弾機 "spring"), which is made out of baleen.
There are a number of fundamental styles of bunraku wigs, depending upon the type of character being portrayed. It is the job of the "wig masters" (床山 tokoyama), to sew and create an appropriate hairstyle (結髪 keppatsu) for every role, based around the fundamental styles. The tokoyama does not just style the wigs, but also makes them by threading hair through copper plates. Human hair is used most of the time, but occasionally, in order to create the illusion of volume, the hair of a yak's tail is also used. The finished wig is then carefully attached to the head. When creating a special hairstyle, no oil can be used, in order to prevent it running and soiling the face, so the styling is done using only water and beeswax (鬢付け bintsuke).
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- Keene, D, No and Bunraku, Columbia University Press, 1999.
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- Mikiko Utiyama, Theater Research Bulletin, 2002 (『十世豊竹若大夫』、2002年)
- Kiyoshi Mizuochi, Bunraku, 1989 (『文楽』、1989年)