Bunraku is a type of traditional puppet theater in Japan, spanning from the 17th century into the present day.
Ningyo jo-ouri is the most correct translation for Japan’s traditional puppet theater. The Japanese name for puppet (or dolls in general) is ningyo, and the combination of singing and shamisen performance is known as joruri.
If you are planning to visit Japan then naturally you are going to look for interesting things to see and do. Most people often have some combination of places of interest, parks, and perhaps even a few sports on their list. However, if you are looking to take in as much culture as possible then consider attending a Bunraku theatre performance.
Looking at the lesser-known, or at least less tourist-oriented aspects of Japanese culture Bunraku is a fantastic way to get a unique insight into Japan, its history, and activities popular with locals. So, here we’re going to explore Japan’s art of traditional puppet theater.
What is bunraku?
Bunraku, also referred to as Ningyō jōruri, is a form of puppet play. The art form was developed in Osaka during the 17th century, although there are also references to puppet theater from the 16th century.
The name “bunraku” itself is a reference to the Bunrakuza Theater in Osaka where the first plays were held. This theater was in turn named for the Uemura Bunrakuken, a puppeteer.
The bunraku puppets
Although you may commonly think of a puppet as a small wooden doll on a string, bunraku is quite different in this regard. In fact, bunraku puppets are half to one and a half the size of the average person, making them quite a sight to behold.
Due to the size of the puppets, and the fact that there are no strings attached, each puppet needs up to three people to control it.
Every aspect of the puppet is controlled by one of the three operators, including the facial expressions, mouth, and even the limbs.
Although each of the operators is visible to the audience, they are dressed head to toe in black garments so that they are not the main focal point. This allows the audience’s eyes to be drawn to the puppet.
Although many forms of puppet theater state that the performers must be entirely covered in black, including their faces with a mask, bunraku is one of the few that requires the puppet operators to occasionally have visible faces. This style of theater is called dezukai.
Another feature of bunraku is that the hood of the operators changes and is dependant on their ability.
The main operator of the puppet is known as the omozukai and they are responsible for the puppet’s head (controlled with the left hand) and the puppet’s right hand (controlled with the right hand).
The second operator, called either the sashizukai or the hidarizukai, is the person in charge of the puppet’s left hand (controlled with the right hand using a rod).
The third and final operator, referred to as the ashizukai, controls the puppet’s feet and legs. In fact, when the operators begin their training in handling a bunraku puppet they normally begin by learning how to move the feet and legs.
Bunraku is a skill that is practiced over a very long period of time and the correct technique must be learned before you are able to move up among the rank of the puppeteers.
It is said that each position takes approximately ten years to master. So, by the time you have the skills to be the main puppeteer, you will already have 20 years or more under your belt.
The story of the play is told by a single narrator. This narrator is required to have a very large vocal range as well as be able to sustain multiple voices as they are responsible for the voice of every character. So, no matter if there are both male and female characters or old and young characters, the narrator must be able to voice them all perfectly.
Each play will have its own unique pace that the story is told. And this pace is set according to the accompanying music. The music is played on a shamisen.
The stories themselves are often based on popular tales as well as popular genres such as love stories, legends, and historical events.
Where to watch bunraku
If you have gained an interest in bunraku and would like to see a performance live for yourself then there are still many places in Japan to go. Osaka, as it was the birthplace of the art form, is still the home of bunraku. Indeed, the troupe supported by the government is based in Osaka.
This troupe performs a minimum of five shows every year. The shows typically run for 2-3 weeks in Osaka before they are shown in Tokyo in the National Theater.
Although there were previously many individual theater groups performing bunraku these numbers decreased significantly post World War 2. Now, there are less than 40 troupes in the country.
Most performances now are held in modern theaters and are divided into two showings: morning and evening. If you are looking to book a ticket expect to pay somewhere around 1500 yen but some tickets as much as 6500 yen.
National bunraku theater Osaka
Found in Osaka, the National Bunraku Theater is one of the best places in the world to watch bunraku performances as you can soak up the history in the art form’s birthplace. There are many scheduled performances each year and each show normally runs anywhere from three to six weeks.
If you do not understand Japanese then don’t worry. There are English headsets available for English speaking members of the audience.
National Theater Tokyo
If you find yourself in Tokyo then you won’t necessarily need to travel to Osaka to experience bunraku. You can head to the National Theater where there are also many performances of bunraku to enjoy. Here the run of the show is 2-3 weeks. Again, headsets telling the story in English are normally available.
If there is a particular type of show that you want to see, for example, a play based on a historical event, then make sure to check the schedule ahead of time. However, all bunraku performances are an incredible experience so you won’t be disappointed no matter what play you attend.
Final Thoughts On Exploring Bunraku Theatre
If you are looking to explore Japanese cultural history in a bit more depth, a little bit away from the beaten path, or you simply want to enjoy a puppet theater then bunraku is one of the best things that Japan has to offer.
The unusually large puppets are mesmerizing and the story is timed perfectly to the music, ensuring that you have an incredible sensory experience.
Although bunraku was founded in Osaka, and this is still considered the art forms home in the present day, you can also enjoy the performances in Tokyo as the government-funded troupe travels here several times a year to perform their shows.
In both locations and for all shows there are normally English headsets available. So, the shows are open to those who do not speak Japanese.
Although the number of people performing bunraku is dwindling the shows remain a spectacular sight to see. The mastery of each puppeteer takes many years to master and you are sure to notice their craft throughout the performance. So, if you find yourself in Japan any time soon make sure to leave room in your itinerary for a trip to the theater.
Mini Documentary About Bunraku