A 300 Year Old Traditional Japanese Art form
Osaka is the birthplace of Bunraku, the most surprising and exciting puppet theater in the world. The large puppets are usually manipulated by three puppeteers, and such close control gives them the power to display an extraordinary gracefulness and human-like expressiveness. This is Osaka culture at its best. Be sure to catch a show!
The History of Bunraku Goes Back to the Late 16th Century
Joruri, the stylized chanted narrative form upon which Bunraku is based, is thought to have originated in the 15th century, when blind itinerant entertainers recited ancient tales to accompaniment by lute. The 16th century saw the introduction of a more sophisticated musical instrument resembling the modern shamisen, whose plaintive tones were well-suited to joruri. This instrument helped joruri to flourish in both the Kyoto and Edo areas.
The first use of joruri in puppet (ningyo) theater is believed to have been in the late 16th century. Gidayu Takemoto, a narrative genius who founded his own style of joruri also opened his own theater (Takemoto-za) in the Dotombori area of Osaka in 1684. He joined forces with the playwriting genius Monzaemon Chikamatsu, and the two created ningyo joruri, the wildly popular new style of puppet drama entertainment that would later come to be known as "Bunraku."
The Creation of a New Genre of Puppet Play
Until Chikamatsu's time, the tales told in joruri were mostly historical, legendary or heroic. These plays were called "jidai-mono." Chikamatsu invented an entirely new genre called "sewa-mono," or townsfolk plays, which vividly portrayed contemporary happenings, actual incidents and the way ordinary people lived during the period. Chikamatsu wrote several plays in both styles, and breathed a new life, passion and sophistication into the art.
Rival Theaters and Decline
Also in 1703, one of Gidayu Takemoto's apprentices—known as Wakatayu Toyotake—opened his own theater (Toyotake-za). The rivalry between the new Toyotake-za and its older contemporary, Takemoto-za, spurred ningyo joruri on to great development. This was when moving eyes, mouths and fingers were incorporated into the puppets. It was also when the art's finest all-time classics were produced. Ningyo joruri's popularity had even surpassed that of kabuki.
Bunraku Gets Its Name
In the early part of the 19th century, a puppet play producer named Bunrakuken Uemura built a small theater in the area of Osaka where the National Bunraku Theater now stands (not far from the former Takemoto-za and Toyotake-za). In 1872, the theater was relocated and given official government recognition. The new theater was referred to as "Bunraku-za." In 1884, a rival theater, the Hikoroku-za, was built, and ningyo joruri entered its second golden age with technically dazzling performances that once again thrilled audiences. In time, the Bunraku-za absorbed the performers of the Hikoroku-za, becoming the sole inheritor of the ningyo joruri art form. From that time on, it has been known as Bunraku, and its stories and the elegant movements of the puppets dressed in elaborate costumes continue to amaze audiences today.
Honored by UNESCO
In November 2003, UNESCO declared Bunraku a World Heritage, a masterpiece of the oral and intangible inheritance of humanity. A performance of this extremely elegant traditional art is something any visitor to Osaka shouldn't miss. Bunraku is performed regularly at the National Bunraku Theater, a government sponsored theater built in 1984.
The Three Artistic Components of Bunraku
Bunraku is a combination of three artistic components: the narration, the three-stringed shamisen, and the puppets.
The narrator's main job is to convey the emotion and heart of each character while telling the play's story. Through his recitation, the narrator must master three distinct facets: kotoba, jiai and fushi. Kotoba consists of the script's dialogues, soliloquys and narration. Jiai is the cadence, which rendered together with the shamisen, vocally dramatizes the events and emotions. Fushi is the melody and rhythm of the piece.
Shamisen (Traditional three-stringed instrument)
The shamisen used in Bunraku is larger and heavier than shamisen used in other traditional performing arts. This gives it extra resonance and fullness of tone. The shamisen does not simply accompany the narrator. It expresses emotions and moods musically, emphasizing the drama on stage with punctuation and texture. The shamisen and narrator play off each other, creating a tension which heightens the dramatic setting.
Although some puppets require one only one puppeteer, most puppets are controlled by three men. The head puppeteer (omo-zukai) controls the puppet's facial expressions and right arm. The left-hand puppeteer (hidari-zukai) moves the puppet's left arm and provides the puppet with props. The leg puppeteer (ashi-zukai) is in charge of the puppet's leg movements. Both assistants must be fully in tune with the head puppeteer to match the scale and rhythm of his movements. The puppeteers assemble each puppet before the start of each performance. Movable parts are controlled by shamisen strings, which are attached to levers that control the various facial expressions.