Operational innovations and training allow puppets to play their roles
First-time viewers of Bunraku are surprised when they see three adults moving a small puppet. This method, which may seem exaggerated, was invented over the course of Bunraku's long history so that wood-carved puppets can play a variety of roles.
The main puppeteer (Omo-zukai) operates the right hand of the puppet while supporting its torso and moving the head. The left puppeteer (Hidari-zukai) operates the left hand of the puppet with his right hand. The foot puppeteer (Ashi-zukai) operates the puppet's feet in a bent-over position. The three puppeteers make the puppet move as if it were a living person, in perfect synchrony, using cues to signal one another without speaking to each other.
A puppeteer starts out as a foot puppeteer, then becomes a left puppeteer, and finally becomes a main puppeteer. The path to main puppeteer requires many years of training. It is said that it takes 10 years of training as a foot puppeteer and another 10 years as a left puppeteer.
The costumes of puppeteers
Puppeteers wear a black, ninja-like costume called "kurogo" and hide their faces so as not to interfere with the Bunraku viewing experience. This traces back to a convention in Japanese traditional performing arts in which the color black is understood to symbolize invisibility. However, it is becoming increasingly common for the main puppeteer to operate a puppet wearing clothing such as a crested kimono or hakama with his face uncovered. This is called "de-zukai."
The three puppeteers are in close proximity to each other behind the puppet. Therefore, the main puppeteer wears stage clogs (butai-geta) about 20 cm to 50 cm high to support the puppet from a higher height, making it easier for the foot puppeteer to move around.
Poses and movements characteristic to puppets
Rather than copying human movements to give reality, a variety of distinctive poses have been developed which can be done only by puppets, and which place importance on symbolism. There are poses for male roles (tachiyaku) and female roles (onnagata) that have names, respectively.
The poses of male roles are often characterized by dramatic movements emphasizing strength and power. For example, danshichi- (danhichi-) bashiri are movements in which the male puppet runs in large strides while swinging his arms in large motion. This pose makes the daring and dynamic character of his role stand out.
On the other hand, female characters make subtle movements to demonstrate beauty and kindness. For example, the ushiro-buri pose is used in scenes where a female character must repress her sad emotions. With her back facing the audience, she looks back in dynamic fashion—a pose a human could never replicate, showing that her resentment and sorrow have reached their peak, in the most beautiful manner.