The Puppeteers

The puppets of Bunraku are different from all other puppets around the world in that it requires 3 puppeteers to manipulate each doll. The three puppeteers are: the omo-zukai, or head puppeteer, who operates the doll's head and face by holding a stick with levers in his left hand, and with his own right hand also operates the doll's right hand; the hidari-zukai, or left-hand puppeteer, who uses his right hand to operate the doll's left hand; and the ashi-zukai, or foot puppeteer, who uses both hands to suggest the movements of the doll's legs and feet. Thus, if these three puppeteers do not all work together in perfect harmony, the puppet's motions will seem unnatural and fall apart, and thus the doll will never seem to come to life. The left hand of the head puppeteer, which supports the weight of the heavy doll, is like the puppet's spine, and it is through his left hand that the breath of life is first breathed into the puppet.

Training to become a puppeteer begins with the feet, and then the left hand, and finally proceeds to the head and right hand. Such a long period of study was required those in olden times, it was said: "Ten years for the feet, ten years for the left." In order to help the left-hand puppeteer maintain a more comfortable position, the head puppeteer wears some special footwear known as "stage clogs" or "elevated clogs." A large doll can be as much as 1 m 50 cm tall, while a smaller one is about 1 m 30 cm, so the height of the elevated clogs to be used can vary from 20 cm to 50 cm, depending upon such conditions as the size of the doll. In the case of a doll operated by three puppeteers, the puppet appears on the stage with all three operators. Above all, they present an obstacle to viewing the play. Therefore, the concept of the kurogo (lit., "black robes," it refers to the puppeteers dressed in black robes and head coverings) appeared. Originally, the color black signified "nothingness," so Bunraku adapted this concept of "nothing" and started employing black-robed operators, which indicates that they cannot be seen, as there is "nothing" there. However, when the manipulation of the puppet is extremely masterful, the more perfect it is, the more the audience wants to see who is operating the doll. Therefore, the idea of de-zukai (an operator who is visible to the audience, i.e., whose face is uncovered) was also adopted. Of course, in almost all cases, it is the head puppeteer who is not in black, but wearing a kimono marked with his family crest (montsuki) and divided skirt (hakama). And in plays involving spectacle, he may even be wearing a special type of hakama skirt over a matching broad-shouldered outer vest (kataginu). The most fascinating thing about Bunraku is that beautiful puppets seem to move about freely like humans and look like they are alive. The three puppeteers all become one with the doll in order to manipulate it, and they must also become completely of one heart with, and work together with, the chanter and the shamisen player―it is this great ensemble work that evokes such emotion through its beauty.

A puppet out of costume

The Mechanism of the Puppets

The heads of the dolls are carved of wood and are hollow, and they are placed atop a special head-grip stick (dogushi), which is placed through a hole in the shoulder board; it is with this stick that the main puppeteer manipulates the doll. There are lengths of fabric draped both in front of and in back of the shoulder board, and they are attached to bamboo hoops―it is a very simple mechanism. Loofahs are attached at either end of the shoulder board to create the roundness of the shoulders. The arms and legs are each attached separately to the shoulder board by strings, but, as a rule, female puppets do not have any legs at all―the foot puppeteer places his fists in the hem of the doll's robe and makes it appear as though she has feet and is walking. A long wooden armature (sashigane) is attached to the puppet's left hand, through the use of which the left-hand puppeteer operates the doll's left arm and hand.

Copyright 2004, by the Japan Arts Council. All rights reserved.