What is Bunraku Theater?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Bunraku is a form of puppet theater unique to Japan. Using traditional legends and plays originally written for Kabuki, the puppet theater has remained popular since its inception. Founded in the city of Osaka, Japan in 1684, bunraku has evolved to be a complex and popular form of theater.

Bunraku is a popular and complex form of theater in Japan.
Bunraku is a popular and complex form of theater in Japan.

Traveling storytellers using puppets had long been a part of Japanese culture, but not until 1684 was the tradition articulated as a distinct form. Takemoto Gidayu formed his Osaka puppet theater with the help of the great playwright Chikematsu Monzaemon and a theater manager and financier named Takeda Izumo. Chikematsu concentrated on adapting kabuki plays for the new theater, concentrating on stories with themes of loyalty and other Confucian values. Using knowledge garnered from other puppet work, Takeda introduced innovations into the puppets’ mechanics, including movable eyes and eyebrows.

The puppets used in this form of theater are carved from wood and are highly detailed, painted and costumed. Special wigs, called kazura are made from human hair and shaped into a variety of character-specific hairstyles. The costumes of the puppets are elaborate and vary according to the class and gender of the character. In basic form, the costumes consist of an under robe, a kimono, an outer jacket, and a sash. Puppets also sometimes carry small props, like handkerchiefs.

Bunraku puppets are very large, sometimes nearly the size of humans. Each puppet is operated by three highly skilled handlers. The lead puppeteer, or Omo-zukai, controls the facial mechanics and right hand of the puppet. The Hidari-zukai operates the left arm of the puppet. Usually the youngest and least-experienced of the puppeteers is the Ashi-zukai, who moves the puppet’s legs or skirts. The puppeteers must work in perfect co-ordination to make movements of the puppet seem lifelike and natural.

The puppeteers, fully occupied with the motions of the puppets, do not speak the lines of a bunraku play. Instead, the form utilizes a narrator, also called a chanter. The narrator sits with the script of the play at a special stand called the kendai. He voices each of the characters, as well as giving general narration of the story and setting. The chanter is charged with making the audience understand the emotion and situation of each character, and the style of narration is often considered poetic or highly emotional.

The third essential component of bunraku is music, provided by three shamisen players. The shamisen, a long-necked instrument similar to the guitar or lute, comes in low, medium and high ranges. Shamisen music is used to help create the setting of the play, and also highlights the emotion of a character or situation. Other musical instruments, such as flutes, bells or drums, may be added, but traditional puppet theater uses only shamisen performers.

Bunraku theater focuses on highly dramatic stories involving love, honor and loyalty. Since the end of World War II, Osaka has funded the National Bunraku Theater, which holds performances several times a year. Outside of Japan, companies have formed in America, including the Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe. This company, based in Missouri, travels the country each year, bringing performances of this unique and complex theater to an ever greater audience.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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