UpdateMarch 5, 2018
ReleaseFebruary 21, 2018
Japanese traditional performing art, Bunraku, with a more than 400 year history.
This is an introduction to Bunraku for beginners who first see it in Japan.
Let’s go and see Bunraku in Tokyo in September or in Osaka in November in 2010!
“Bunraku” is also Ningyo-JoruriAmong traditional performing arts of Japan, Bunraku, a type of puppet drama, is the most renowned all over the world together with Kabuki. Puppeteers manipulate dolls to the cadences of joruri (chanted narration) spoken by tayu (a chanter), accompanied by the sounds of shamisen (a three-stringed instrument). In the past, the performance used to be called “Ningyo-Joruri,” (ningyo generally means “doll”) but nowadays it is officially called “Bunraku,” which derives from the name of the theater that specialized in showing the puppet shows.
World-Renowned Sophisticated Performing ArtOne of the major reasons why Bunraku is a world-class performing art is in its style. It is a composite art consisting of joruri, one form of Japan’s shamisen music, and a unique operation by which three puppeteers maneuver one doll together. In terms of stories, unlike most other puppet plays in the world in which a short play of a simple story of a myth or fairy tale is performed, Bunraku dramas express a serious story depicting human emotions in a lengthy narrative performance, and some of them continue for a full day. In addition, although puppeteers make efforts to hide themselves in most other puppet shows, puppeteers of Bunraku are visible to the audience. Bunraku is truly a one-of-a-kind performing art with characteristics that are markedly different from those of other puppet shows in other cultures around the world.
Brief History of Bunraku
The origin of Bunraku dates back to the early 17th century. Later in the century, in 1684 Takemoto Gidayu founded Takemoto-za theater in Dotonbori, Osaka, and started producing a string of hits of Ningyo-Joruri, thanks to the scenarios of Chikamatsu Monzaemon, the troupe playwright. In the mid-18th century, Ningyo-Joruri was at its heyday, overtaking the popularity of Kabuki. In the 19th century, Uemura Bunrakuken opened Bunraku-za theater in Osaka. It became the center of this performing art, and that’s why the name “Bunraku” became the name commonly used for Ningyo-Joruri. Bunraku was inscribed in November 2008 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
Elaborate Devices and Deep Emotional AppealOne Doll Operated by Three Puppeteers
Bunraku performances are composed of three elements called “Sangyo”: tayu, shamisen and puppeteers. One tayu performs the voices all characters, and also performs the voice of the narrator for each scene. He is the only one performer who makes vocal sounds on the stage. The “spouse,” so to speak, of the tayu is the shamisen, which expresses emotions of characters and scenes by musical sound.
Further, Bunraku requires three puppeteers to manipulate each “doll” or puppet, which is different from all other puppet performance around the world. The three puppeteers are: omo-zukai, or head puppeteer, who manipulates the kashira (the doll’s head and face) with his left hand to animate the doll, and who with his own right hand also operates the doll’s right hand; hidari-zukai, or left-hand puppeteer, who operates the doll’s left hand and also handles props; and ashi-zukai, or foot puppeteer, who uses both hands to suggest the movements of the doll’s legs and feet.
A Bunraku doll is quite large at about 120-150 cm in height, and a bit heavy with 3-10 kg in weight. To reach the final goal of becoming a head puppeteer, it takes, first, a long period of training of about 15 years from the start as a foot puppeteer, and then another 15 years as left-hand puppeteer.
On the stage, the three puppeteers work together in perfect harmony, and it makes the doll seem truly alive. A dolls’ movements are surprisingly delicate and often more beautiful than those of real human beings if they are manipulated by master puppeteers. Dolls are sometimes lovely and sometimes mysterious. They are also good at getting the audience to laugh and moving acrobatically. They win all the more empathy from the audience because they are dolls.
Exquisite Tension of “Sangyo”
During the play, tayu and shamisen players don’t see the stage. The back and forth between these two elements of the “sangyo” as they heighten their emotions and those of the characters in the play, creates a certain tension, and this harmonious tension contributes much to a successful performance. Some dramas feature historic incidents and others feature lives of ordinary people. But in both types, essential emotions of human beings, which are the same now as in ancient times, are portrayed. Indeed, the world portrayed by dolls seems more profoundly human than the human world we are normally accustomed to. This unique Japanese performing art is a must-see in Japan!
Let’s see Bunraku in Japan!Bunraku is usually performed at the National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka, the birthplace of Bunraku, and the Small Theatre of the National Theatre in Tokyo. Theatrical tours to other places in Japan are held in March and October. Basically, Program 1 starts at 11 a.m., and Program 2 at 4 p.m. Each show is about 3-4 hours with a short intermission.
Reservation – Ticket Center: tel, 0570-07-9900 (10 a.m.- 5 p.m.)
An English website of Japan Arts Council –
Tel: 03-3265-7411 Subway Hanzomon Sta., Nagatacho Sta.
4-1, Hayabusa-cho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 102-8656
At the National Theatre in Tokyo, shows can be seen in Feb, May, Sep and Dec. In Dec, a program for learning about Bunraku is held.
1. Earphone guide in English and Japanese *A brief flyer in English is added.
Charge: 650 yen per one set plus 1,000 yen guarantee fee, which is to be back upon
return of the earphones.
2. A program with English explanation (charged)
National Bunraku Theatre
Tel : 06-6212-2531 Subway or Kintetsu Nipponbashi Sta.
1-12-10, Nippon-bashi, Chuo-ku, Osaka 542-0073
At the National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka, shows can be seen in Jan, Apr, the end of Jul-beginning of Aug, and Nov every year. In June, the theater holds a learning program for beginners (first-time audience) and students.
National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka offers “makumi-seki,” a lower-cost ticket for those who wish to see only one act (30-120 minutes, depending on plays). The price of makumi-seki admission depends on plays. Please contact tel, 0570-07-9900 on the day of the play.
1. Earphone guide in English and Japanese. Charge: 650 yen per one set plus 1,000 yen guarantee fee, which is to be back upon return of the earphones.
2. An English leaflet summarizing programs (free of charge)
3. A leaflet briefly explaining Bunraku for beginners in English, Korean and Chinese (free of charge)
4. A display introducing Bunraku at an exhibit room (free of charge). Explanation in English is available (reservations needed: theater tel, 06-6212-2531)