An introduction to BUNRAKU

Introduction

Bunraku is one of Japan's representative traditional theater arts for adults, inscribed on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It is a closely collaborative form which synchronizes narrative recitation, shamisen music and puppetry in performance. Recitation of stories by a narrator letting out his voice with all of his might, the dynamic and delicate sound of the shamisen, and the beautiful movements of the puppets astound the audience. Featuring this outstanding unique style, Bunraku is praised as very sophisticated puppet theater arts in the world.

A traditional art shaped during the Edo period

『牟芸古雅志』
曽根崎心中口上番付
(国立劇場所蔵)

Bunraku, originally referred to as Ningyo joruri, was formed in around 1600. Joruri is the art of narration, with shamisen coming into usage for the musical performance, and merged with puppetry that has existed since ancient times.

Takemoto Gidayu, a master narrator, opened the Takemoto-za theatre in Osaka. The theatre staged plays written by Chikamatsu Monzaemon that became highly popular, and formed Bunraku as we know it today.

A composite art performed by the narrator, shamisen player, and puppeteer in perfect synchrony


The stories performed are complex narratives depicting the transience of the world, a memorial service, sad romance, separation between a parent and a child and so on. Bunraku's important components also include witty humor and brilliant dancing.

The performers are the narrator, shamisen player, and puppeteer. The narrator known as tayu describes the scene and dialogue of the characters, all by himself. Next to him, the shamisen player portrays the setting and the changes in emotion through sound. Puppeteers illustrate the stories depicted in a type of joruri called gidayu-bushi visually. The method of having three people operate a single puppet creates its beautiful, exquisite movements.