Bunraku Puppet Theatre



  • An ancient Japanese puppet theater that is one of the world'smost sophisticated and realistic forms of puppetry. The genre beganin the 11th century, reached its height of popularity in the 18thcentury, but is now only performed at one theater in Osaka.

    Named after the puppet-master Vemura Bunrakuken (1737 - 1810),the theater uses dolls that are from one-half to two-thirds full size.The stylized three-act dramas deal with historical or domestic themesand are performed on full-size stages complete with scenery. A speakerstands at the right of the stage to recite the joruri, or dramaticnarrative; this role is considered so exhausting that each act hasa different narrator. Located next to the speaker are samisenmusicians.

    Each principal puppet character has three visible manipulatorson stage. The chief operator wears a ceremonial samurai kimono andinserts his left hand into the puppet's back, controlling the facialexpression by means of a rod attached to the eyes, mouth, and eyebrows.The assistant operators are dressed in black and wear black hoods.A lesser character has only one manipulator.

    The manipulators begin their training in childhood, do notparticipate in plays until in their twenties, and are not given majorcharacters to control until middle-aged. They must memorize numerousconventions: a woman puppet steps forward on her right foot but aman on his left; a puppet steps forward to ask a question, back torefuse a request.

    The best-known playwright for the Bunraku was Chikamatsu(1653 - 1724), who wrote plays for both the puppet theater andfor the kabuki, many being performed by both. One of Chikamatsu'splays, The Double Suicide (1703), caused so many double suicidesin Japan that the government banned plays on the theme.