Bunraku, an Exceptional Symbiosis of Puppetry, Storytelling and Music

Bunraku, a form of puppet theatre, created during the early Edo period (1603–1868), is without doubt the most spectacular tradition of puppetry in the whole world. Its puppets, approximately one meter high, are manipulated by black-robed puppeteers on a wide stage, while narrators chant the story in a highly expressive manner to the accompaniment of shamisen music.

Either the stories are taken from the story collections depicting the bloody wars of Japan’s feudal period or they focus on the fates of townspeople in the Edo period. The plays include heartbreaking tragedies and represent Japanese dramatic literature of the highest order.

The History

Puppetry has a long history in Japan. It is believed that it has its roots in ancient rites in which puppets served as representatives of deceased persons. When contacts with China were established in the 7th century, puppetry was also adopted from there, among other cultural elements.

Written evidence exists from the Heian period 794–1185 that mentions travelling groups of puppeteers. They used simple, one-man-operated puppets. Another form of art, similarly practised by travelling artists, was storytelling. The storytellers narrated tales about famous battles of the feudal period.

Bunraku, or hingyo joruri, as it was originally called, evolved when puppeteers and storytellers began co-operating by the end of the 16th century. A third group of artists, who participated in this creation of a new art form, were shamisen players. Shamisen, a plucked instrument, which was adopted from China, became the most fashionable instrument of the Edo period.

The new form of puppetry, bunraku, the result of the fusion of three art forms, reached its artistic peak in the early 17th century. During the early 18th century the originally rather small puppets grew to their present dimensions. Their mechanism became so delicate and complex that three puppeteers were required to manipulate one puppet.

It was of the utmost importance for bunraku’s popularity that leading dramatists wrote plays for its repertoire. Among them was Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653–1724), who originally wrote plays for the sensational kabuki theatre. It developed side by side with bunraku. He became fed up, however, with kabuki’s commercial and erotic populism and started to write plays for bunraku.

The decline in bunraku’s popularity began during the early Meiji period (1868–1912), when Westernised forms of entertainment became fashionable. Kabuki, however, was able to maintain its popularity and it included in its repertoire many plays originally written for bunraku.

The continuation of the tradition was, however, ensured by a prolific bunraku artist, Masai Kahei (1737–1810), with the stage name of Ueamura Bunrakuken. He founded his own puppet theatre in Osaka in 1871, and he gave the art form, originally called ningyo joruri, its present name, bunraku.

Thus Osaka became the home of bunraku. There the tradition was continued during the Meiji period and further on until our times. Osaka’s Bunraku-za or Bunraku Theatre is still the centre of the art form, although performances can also be seen at the National Theatre of Tokyo.

The Plays

Bunraku and its contemporaneous sister art form, sensational kabuki, share the same repertoire to a great extent. The plays can be divided into two categories, jidaimono or “historical plays” and sewamono or “domestic” plays, which recount the fates of ordinary people.

Jidaimono is the older of these two types of play, since it had been customary for the joruri storytellers to narrate the great epics of the feudal period, such as The Tale of the Heike (Heike Monogatari) and the Tales of Ise (Ise Monogatari). This tradition was then transformed into the historical bunraku plays.

Plays that originally had six acts were later formed into five-act plays. In their structure they follow the principle of jo-ha-kyu, which is already found in noh. It refers to the play’s structure, which should consist of a beginning, a middle part, and a finale. Nowadays it is common for only one act of a full play to be staged as a bunraku production.

Sewmanono, or the domestic plays, are slightly simpler in their structure. They came into being thanks to the fruitful co-operation of the celebrated playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653–1724) and the joruri narrator Takemoto Gidayu (1651–1714).

Chikamatsu was born into a samurai family and was familiar with noh singing. He later specialised in writing joruri narration. He wrote plays for a famous kabuki actor of the period, but at the very beginning of the 18th century in Osaka he started his collaboration with Takemoto.

It had been customary for bunraku plays to be kinds of collaborative works by several authors including narrators, puppet masters etc. However, now Chikamatsu focused on writing and Takemoto specialised in narration, which led to the golden age of bunraku and to the birth of sewamono plays.

Sewamono indicates a play which deals with the loves, longings, and tragedies of ordinary people of the Edo period. Although the feudal period and its strict samurai ideology already belonged to the past, society was still hierarchical and ruled by rigid moral codes.

The basic conflict between social obligation (giri) and an individual’s personal longings, passions and emotions (ninjo) became the basic theme for the sewamono plays, as has also been the case in many Indian, Chinese and Western dramas too.

Chikamatsu’s plays are characterised by deep humanism and the understanding of the human condition of ordinary people. The theme of suicide became extremely popular, describing the exploits of individuals who were unable to solve the conflict of giri and ninjo otherwise than by killing themselves.

Plays with a suicide theme were often based on cases in real life. The plays, on the other hand, inspired many people to follow their example and end their lives in suicide. This led to an official ban on these kinds of plays.

One special branch of suicide plays is those that recount lovers’ double suicides (shinju). The most famous is Chikamatsu’s early play Sonezaki shinju (Double Suicide in the Garden of Sonezaki Temple), which was based on true events. In its touching, almost melodramatic pathos, the last act of the play, in which the lovers, in the darkness of the night, head for the temple garden, then make their double seppuku, is among the pearls of world drama.

The Puppets

With their skilfully carved heads and period costuming the “actors” or puppets of bunraku are the result of a long process of evolution. Early bunraku puppets were rather simple and small in size, approximately half their present dimensions.

It was in 1734, over a century after the birth of bunraku, that three puppeteers were employed to manipulate the puppets of the plays’ main characters. Soon the puppets grew to their present dimensions, while their mechanism was improved so that their fingers, mouths, and eyes could be moved. However, only some of the puppets have movable fingers or facial features.

The puppets are assembled for each production. At other times they are stored in pieces. The most dominant part of a puppet is, of course, its head (kashira). The size of the head varies according to the type of character. A powerful warlord has a bigger head than, for example, a humble villager.

The puppets’ complexions also vary according to the character from brownish to pure white. Some heads represent stock types, such as a beautiful maiden, a young boy, a villager, a townsman etc., while some heads are reserved for particular roles. In the case of some characters, the puppet’s head is changed during the play in order to show, for example, the character’s ageing.

The stylisation of the facial features reminds one of skilful caricatures, a characteristic that is also dominant in live actors’ facial expressions in bunraku’s sister form, kabuki.

The puppet heads are attached to a rod with which the main puppeteers operate them. In the case of a puppet that has movable parts in its face, strings are added to the rod with which the movable facial features can be manipulated.

The rod is attached to a shoulder board from which pieces of fabric hang. The puppet’s hips, in the form of a bamboo hoop, are attached to the pieces of fabric. The puppets are simply outlined by means of costuming. It replicates, in the case of plays dealing with feudal intrigues, the conventions of the Muromachi period and, in the case of plays dealing with contemporaneous events, the costumes of the Edo period.

Puppets do not have arms. Only a string attaches the wooden hands and the forearms to the shoulder board. Both hands are connected to rods with which they are operated. Only male puppets have feet, similarly attached to the body. In the case of the female puppets, the impression of the feet movements is created by manipulating the hems of their kimonos. The puppets may handle various props, such as a sword, a fan etc.

The Puppeteers

Several puppeteers are often visible to the audience, on a wide bunraku stage. They are dressed in black robes and most of them wear black hoods, which cover their faces from the spectators. In Japanese theatre, black is the colour of invisibility. For first-timers, the puppeteers dominate the stage for a while but soon the attention inevitably turns to the puppets and their surprisingly human-like actions, emotions, and even breathing.

Minor characters, which have no movable fingers or facial features, are usually operated by only a single puppeteer. The more complicated puppets of the main characters are, however, usually operated by three puppeteers. This “three-man operation” is one of the specialities of bunraku and it culminates this complicated art form.

The coordination of these three puppeteers is of the utmost importance, as it makes it possible to create the illusion of life in the inanimated puppets. The puppeteers are divided into three ranks: the chief puppeteer (omozukai), who operates the doll’s head and right hand, the puppeteer (hidarizukai), who operates the puppet’s left hand, and the leg handler (ashizukai).

It is said that ten years of training is needed before a puppeteer is able to operate the doll’s legs properly and another ten years before he is able to manipulate the left hand. Ten more years of training finally enables a manipulator to reach the rank of chief puppeteer. Of course, none of these puppeteers is a soloist. The illusion of a living puppet depends on the perfect coordination of the teamwork of these three puppeteers.

The Narrators

Although the animated puppets are, without doubt, the visual focal point of a bunraku performance, many of the Japanese spectators focus their attention on the gidayu narrator, who together with the shamisen player sits in the full formal attire of the Edo period on a low stool on a small platform on the right side of the actual stage.

The vocal range of a gidayu narrator is simply amazing. While he narrates the story, he also takes the lines of the puppet characters by speaking and singing. He uses both his vocal cords and a deep abdominal voice while changing his expression from whispers to heartbreaking declamations and further on to furious shouts.

The narration technique is divided into three styles. Kotoba refers to the spoken sections; ji refers to the sung sections punctuated by the shamisen, while fushi refers to the emotion-filled songs melodically accompanied by the shamisen.

Mastering the art of gidayu narration takes decades of arduous work and only an experienced master is allowed to make slight changes to the narration, which is bound by centuries of tradition. For many the soul of a bunraku performance is its narrator. It is no wonder that it is usually a venerable narrator who gets the most enthusiastic applause from the audience.

The Music

The art of gidayu narration is organically bound to its shamisen accompaniment. Just as the close co-operation of the three puppeteers creates an impression of life in the puppets, the collaboration of the narrator and the shamisen player elevates the written text to the level of an expressive drama.

Shamisen, a three-stringed instrument, played with a large bone plectrum, accentuates and punctuates the chanted narration as well as the stage action. A century after its introduction from China, the shamisen lute became the fashionable instrument of the Edo period. It was adopted not only by bunraku, but also by kabuki theatre, as well as the musical forms popular in the geisha houses.

Besides the shamisen accompaniment, bunraku also uses atmospheric off-stage music, known as geza, which is also heard in kabuki performances. A particular aural effect is created by wooden clappers, which announce the beginning of the play.

The Stage

A bunraku stage is a rather complicated construction. Its main characteristic is its working space for the puppeteers, which is about one metre deeper than the actual stage. This enables the puppeteers to operate the puppets at the right height for the audience.

The stage structure includes several railings to which various painted backdrops and side drops may be attached. Bunraku usually uses painted scenery, which reflects the aesthetics of kabuki’s complicated stage decorations. The movable painted backdrop and side screens can be quickly changed in order to form, for example, a house with is garden and its cut-away interior, enabling the audience to see both the interior and exterior of the house.

Special tricks may be employed. A stormy sea may be created by blue, movable waves. The impression of walking or travelling is evoked by rolling a backdrop with a landscape painting from one side to another. Illusions are created in much the same way as on the kabuki stage, although mini-sized.

Side by side with the main stage, on the right side of the audience, stands a smaller stage or a platform, on which the narrators sit together with the samisen players. It has a revolving floor, which makes it possible to change the narrators and musicians in the blink of an eye according to the needs of the production.