A Tradition of Art
Bunraku, a famous historic Japanese puppetry, has to be one of the most developed form of puppetry in the world. It’s style is close to Punch and Judy as there are no strings, but there is noticeable difference as he puppeteers are actually visible on stage and use the full stage to manipulate the puppets. The puppets are large - usually about one-half life size - and the main characters are generally operated by up to three puppeteers, as the characters will sometimes have facial mechanics that will change and, because of the size, one puppeteer is needed just to properly support the body. Many bunraku plays are historical and deal with the common Japanese theme of giri and ninjo - which is basically the common theme or conflict between social obligations vs emotions. The greatest works by Japan's most famous playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724) are bunraku plays, Monzaemon can be described as the Japanese Shakespeare, many of his stories were about this duality of honor vs love, obligation vs friendship, etc.
Bunraku is actually the name commonly associated and interchangeable with “ningyo joruri”; ningyo meaning puppet and joruri being a specific style of narration. These types of puppet performances are believed to have started around the 10th century.
Bunraku combines puppetry, joruri narration and musical accompaniment provided by shamisen (a traditional three stringed instrument played like a guitar but having more of a violin sound).
Like kabuki (an art form that Bunraku mimics), in the 1600's bunraku became the common man's form of entertainment as Kabuki was entertainment that only the aristocracy of Japan were allowed to study and view. It flourished from the end of the 17th century, thanks particularly to the popular collaboration of the chanter Takemoto Gidayu I with Chikamatsu.
Omozukai (My favorite Japanese word)
The Omozukai, puppet master, generally the head teacher and eldest practitioner, manipulates the head and any extra features the puppet might have, along with the right arm while the two lower ranked puppeteers operate the left arm (the hidari-zukai) and the legs (the ashi-zukai). The lower ranked assistants were known to typically serve up to 10-years as apprentices before becoming an Omozukai (yes, I like saying this word) and heading their own performance team. The Omozukai is the visible puppeteer; he is considered the star of the show, and oftentimes he will be colorfully dressed while the other operators are invisible. More often than not, they are cloaked in black robes and hoods. Puppets of female characters (Musume) usually don't have legs as they are clad in full-length kimono dress and legs would just be unnecessary weight.
Speaking of dress, the clothing of these puppets are just as quality and as ornate as regular clothing; made of silk, hand embroidery and sometimes original hand painting. To come across an original Bunraku puppet is to have a priceless work of art.
A Dying Art Form
Western culture started to become increasingly popular in Japan around 1868 to present (the Meiji Period), at this time, bunraku, such as other types of puppetry around the world, has been in decline and relies on government sponsorship and revenue from organizations such as The National Theater in Tokyo and The National Bunraku Theater in Osaka to keep this art form alive.
When the National Theater opened in 1966, it was the first time in about 150 years that Bunraku had a home again. Nostalgia for the old arts has started gaining a popularity again, but the sad truth is that the artisans who create the puppets and costumes are dying out and modernism has all but destroyed the long apprenticeship concepts that were necessary to fully pass on the old ways; basically younger generations don’t have he dedication, respect or honor for the art form needed to become full fledged Omozukai which is sad.
Even the construction of more modern Bunraku puppets aren’t what they used to be. Mass produced, plastic parts, cheaper materials and lower quality, this art form is slowly disappearing, so if you ever get the opportunity to see one of these performances, do so.
I used to study Japanese so that I could go to Japan and hopefully learn more about this style of puppetry, but I fear I won’t get the chance before all of the traditional masters are gone.
If I missed anything on Bunraku, please let me know and, as always, let me know if there are any topics you want me to cover in more detail.