Bunraku is the traditional puppet theater of Japan, with a high-level stage art. Originally, the term Bunraku referred only to the particular theater established in 1805 in Osaka, which was named the Bunrakuza after the puppeteering ensemble of Uemura Bunrakuken (1751-1810), an early 18th-century puppeteer on Awaji, whose efforts revived the flagging fortunes of the traditional puppet theater. Bunraku’s world renown stems not only from its high-quality artistic technique, but also from the high level of its joruri music and the unique nature of manipulating the puppets―each puppet requires three puppeteers to bring it to life. Bunraku puppetry has been a documented traditional activity for Japanese people for hundreds of years. Along with noh and kabuki, it is recognized as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Originally, the art of joruri developed in western Japan, mainly in Kyoto, and soon after was taken to Edo (the old name of Tokyo), and by the mid-seventeenth century, dozens of schools of joruri had arisen. Among them, gidayu-bushi, the colorful expression of the style of Takemoto Gidayu, which had borrowed techniques from the various other schools, become extremely popular. In 1684, Takemoto Gidayu established the Takemoto-za theatre in the Dotonbori district of Osaka and teamed up with the famous playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724), whose works he mainly performed. From that time, all the other joruri schools that had flourished began to fade away, to the extent that gidayu-bushi itself came to be known simply as joruri.Read More
The art became all the more popular, and puppet joruri entered its golden age, which is often called the “Chikuho age” (chiku is another reading of Take, and ho, of Toyo). But the glory of puppet theatre reached its peak in the three years between 1746 and 1748.the Takemoto-za theatre produced each year one of what became the three classics of the Bunraku theatre: Sugawara Denju Te-narai Kagami (The Secret of Sugawara’s Calligraphy), Yoshitsune Senbon-zakura (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees), and Kanadehon Chushingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers). Even today, they are more often performed than any other plays.
However, as the popularity of the puppet theater began to wane in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Later, puppet theater continued to be performed in the precincts of shrines and temples, as well as in vaudeville-like entertainment halls (yose), and gradually a number of master performers appeared 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 joruri hall was opened near Kozu Bridge in Osaka, 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. Soon after, in 1884, the Hikoroku-za was founded within the precincts of the Inari Shrine, and it became a rival of the Bunraku-za, which had moved to Osaka’s Goryo area. Just as in the days of the Chikuho age, once again puppet theater became very popular. Then, from the name of the theater, the art itself came to be called Bunraku. In 1966, the first National Theater was built in Tokyo’s Miyake-zaka area, from which time Bunraku performances in Tokyo were planned and produced by the National Theater.
The unique nature of manipulating the puppets―each puppet requires three puppeteers to bring it to life the main puppeteer, the omozukai, uses his or her right hand to control the right hand of the puppet. The left puppeteer, known as the hidarizukai or sashizukai, depending of the tradition of the troupe, manipulates the left hand of the puppet with his or her own right hand by means of a control rod that extends back from the elbow of the puppet. A third puppeteer, the ashizukai, operates the feet and legs. Puppeteers begin their training by operating the feet, then move on to the left hand, before being able to train as the main puppeteer. Many practitioners in the traditional puppetry world, particularly those in the National Theater, describe the long training period, which often requires ten years on the feet, ten years on the left hand, and ten years on the head of secondary characters before finally developing the requisite skills to move to the manipulation of the head of a main character, as an artistic necessity. However, in a culture like that of Japan, which privileges seniority, the system can also be considered a mechanism to manage competition among artistic egos and provide for a balance among the demographics of the puppeteers in a troupe in order to fill each role.
Bunraku shares many themes with kabuki. In fact, many plays were adapted for performance both by actors in kabuki and by puppet troupes in bunraku. Bunraku is particularly noted for lovers’ suicide plays. The story of the forty-seven ronin is also famous in both bunraku and kabuki.
Bunraku companies, performers, and puppet makers have been designated “Living National Treasures” under Japan’s program for preserving its culture.