Strictly speaking, we should call this form ningyō jōruri, that is a play performed by puppets in jōruri style, but from the beginning of the 20th century the name “bunraku” has gradually been used in Japan and internationally to describe this genre. The strict use of the term is reserved for the Bunraku-za troupe – the only company that specializes in the art. This Japanese genre consists of three elements: text chanted by the tayū or narrator, the music played by the three-string shamisen, and the large puppets that execute the action of the characters, manipulated by visible animators.


The oral delivery of texts is a venerable Japanese tradition that belonged to itinerant storytellers who spread legends and edifying stories. Already documented by the 8th century, it boomed in the 13th century through blind biwa bōshi (monks playing a Chinese lute or biwa). These mostly blind storytellers were under the protection of religious centres. The performer accompanied himself on the four-string biwa. Stories were drawn from the Heike legends, which trace the confrontation between the Taira and Minamoto clans in the second half of the 12th century. Gradually the repertoire expanded to include more fantastical and romantic narratives, such as Jōruri jūnidan zōshi (Story of Jōruri in Twelve Episodes). The tale told of the loves of Minamoto no Yoshitsune, the emblematic hero of Japanese chivalry, and the beautiful Jōruri. She incarnated as Yakushi Nyōrai, the Buddhist warrior to save the hero from death. This story met with such success in the second half of the 16th century that the name jōruri was applied to all stories of this puppet genre.

Shamisen and Tayū

At the beginning of the second half of the 16th century, the jabisen, a plucked string instrument popular in Okinawa, was introduced in the Osaka area. The instrument has three braided silk strings, a long wooden neck, and a small, almost square resonator covered with snakeskin (jabi). This was a local variant of the sanxian, a Chinese instrument influenced by Central Asian music, which appeared in China during the Yuan dynasty (13th century). Lighter and more manageable than the biwa, the jabisen, besides its exotic appeal, offered more musical possibilities. It was soon adopted by Japanese musicians who made modifications, notably replacing the fragile and hard to find snakeskin with cat or dog hide, which vibrated and held up better to the percussive techniques, which included the musician slapping the skin with his ivory plectrum. Now called the shamisen, the new instrument met with great success, especially in kabuki and the geisha song and dance in the entertainment district. There are three types of shamisen, with the biggest and heaviest, the futozao shamisen, reserved for Bunraku.

It was apparently Kyoto storytellers Sawazumi Kengyō and Takino Kōtō, whose titles (Kengyō and Kōtō) show they were members of the guild of blind narrators, who were the first to replace the biwa with the new instrument. Their disciples followed suit. Finally, through the puppeteers of Awaji Ningyō-Za (Awaji Puppet Theatre), a visual dimension was added to these recitations. Bunraku developed as a union of storytellers and puppeteers working with musician specialists. This collaboration represented a major breakthrough, since earlier narrators provided their own accompaniment and were content to punctuate the declamation with a few biwa chords or indicate the rhythm of singing in simple vein. Once each of the artists specialized they could each polish their art.


Today the performances consist mostly of scenes selected from different plays or a short sewamono (domestic play) followed by an act from a jidaimono (historical play). Sometimes, albeit rarely, a classical history play will be performed in a more complete version. The plays themselves are long narratives, interspersed with dialogue; the tayū performs solo, playing all the characters regardless of age, sex, and class. He passes from one register to another, by turns solemn, sarcastic, emotional, simpering, or angry. He is a verbal virtuoso, playing the whole range from laughter to tears. He emphasizes the situation with his very expressive face. There are three fundamental modes of vocal expression: kotoba, which is close to spoken language and used for dialogue without musical accompaniment; jiai, which is written in an elevated poetic style and used in relating events, describing the emotional states of the characters, and developing intrigues; and fushi, which is the only section which is fully sung and is richly melodic.

The musician ornaments the musical interpretation of the tayū, creating the atmosphere, punctuating the story, and throwing in musical passages between narrations. Seemingly impassive, the musician never competes with the dominant tayū, but nonetheless plays a major role. In a certain way the shamisen co-directs the group interpretation and dictates the rhythm. It requires long years of experience to form a tayū-shamisen pairing that is fully harmonious and complementary in balance. So once united, a major pair will play together for many years and rarely change to another partner.

The storytelling tayū and the shamisen player wear formal dress (kamishimo) and sit on a platform (yuka) to the front and side of the stage: they have performed on it since the Edo period. Kneeling, the tayū has the book on a stand in front of him respectfully turning the pages (though he already knows the text by heart). Hands on knees, he performs with the musician kneeling to his left, accompanying his interpretation. The physical demands on the tayū are intense, and therefore there are many pairs of narrators and musicians to spell each other after each scene or act. To facilitate this transition between narrators the dais they sit on is mounted on a turntable. Some scenes, though infrequently, demand multiple tayū and shamisen players. Additional sound effects are produced by percussionists from the wings and occasionally the shamisen is accompanied by a koto (a thirteen-stringed zither) or another instrument.

Scenic Devices

The exemplary stage of the Kokuritsu Bunraku Gekijō (National Bunraku Theatre) is divided in three parts by wooden dividers called tesuri. The first hides the footlights and forestage. This area is not used as a playing space and a curtain puller is the only one who enters here. The two other areas help mask manipulators and provide small platforms on which the figures stand so they do not appear to be walking on air. The second divider is lower than the forestage from which it gets the name funazoko (boat hold). The third divider is used for interior scenes (house, shop, temple, or palace). The scenery is proportioned to the puppets. The set displays, as does kabuki, an open façade in a way that viewers can look into the interior. Sometimes there is scene painting in the flat and colourful style of kabuki to depict a landscape. Sometimes the scenery can be rolled laterally, giving the illusion of movement while the puppets themselves walk in place, miming movement.


During the whole 17th century small puppets of 60-70 centimetres were manipulated on outstretched arms, but from 1730 the three-man manipulation system was adopted, allowing the puppet size to grow. The technique was developed by Yoshida Bunzaburō, master puppeteer of the Takemoto-za and required three manipulators: the master (omozukai) holding the wooden head and its control in his left hand and the right hand of the puppet in his right hand; the first assistant (hidarizukai) holds the left hand of the puppet; meanwhile the second assistant (ashizukai) controls the puppet’s feet. Usually, puppets are manipulated by three puppeteers, on occasion, only one puppeteer when the puppets are playing a minor role. Minor characters – soldiers, guards, servants, peasants, and sometimes animals – are controlled by a single person. The puppeteers are dressed in black and masked, but the master puppeteer often leaves his face showing and wears formal dress similar to the tayū. Of course in such a system there is a long apprenticeship. Tradition has it that one spends ten years on the feet and ten more for the left arm before assuming the stature of a head manipulator.

The puppets are large (between 90 and 140 centimetres), especially the males, and once dressed a figure can weigh 4 to 5 kilos. The carved wood head is fixed on the end of a rod which descends from the neck. At the handgrip there are small levers for the strings that move the parts of the face of the puppet (eyes, mouth, eyebrows, or nose) as springs and whalebone facilitate the movement. The central rod passes through a sack that forms the body, with a horizontal crosspiece representing the shoulders which hold up the character’s costume. The limbs of the puppet are suspended from cords attached to the shoulder crosspiece. Therefore the structure is light. Thick strips of paper run from the shoulders to the strip of bamboo that curves to become the waist. This forms the trunk.  A rod to each hand has a control, permitting articulation of the fingers. The rod on the left arm is much longer since the assistant who operates it is further away. The foot manipulator moves the legs of the male figures via handgrips attached to the figure’s heels, but he simulates the steps of females by just manipulating the hem of the kimono. With his stomps the foot manipulator creates the sounds of walking or running for the puppet. If the scene needs a female foot to become visible, a detached foot is supplied at the needed moment. There are all sorts of hands and feet that are more or less sophisticated to suit the needs of the role. Accessories – swords, pipes, fans, etc. – are held directly in the puppeteer’s hand, which remains hidden in the puppet’s kimono. Puppet heads correspond to fundamental types rather than specific characters. They are classed by sex and social status – young lead, warrior, old man, young female, nurse, etc. – and are split between “positive” and “negative” characters. Some heads are constructed to execute spectacular effects – faces that split into two pieces to show a demonic personality or heads that split vertically with the strong slash of a sword. There are puppet heads whose faces can transform in a flash; for instance, when a beautiful maiden changes into an ogress with horns and fangs. The heads are lacquered and coiffed with elaborate wigs – important because in earlier Japan hairstyles immediately showed the rank and social status of a person.


The repertoire is fundamentally that of new jōruri, which dates from the late Genroku era (1688-1704) or a little later. Narrators hired librettists who were specialists to create works, for example Takemoto Gidayū (1651-1714) ordered libretto specifically for his theatre. Playwrights were attached to set troupes and sometimes worked collaboratively, especially on the long history plays, dividing scenes hierarchically in the sakusha-beya (backstage “playwright’s room”). Astonishingly prolific, the great authors were relatively few in number and essential to the creation of the repertoire. The best work came from Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724) and his immediate successors Takeda Izumo (1691-1756, see Takeda (family)), Namiki Sōsuke (1695-1751), and, finally, Chikamatsu Hanji (1725-1783), who was almost the last of the notable playwrights for puppet theatre.

As in kabuki, there is a distinction between sewamono, which gives scenes of ordinary people, usually merchants and geisha, and jidaimono, historical plays, which tell the great deeds of warriors and lords with action prudently set in the epic past rather than in the contemporary period. The Tokugawa government forbade plays that depicted incidents that concerned samurai of the present period. For sewamono the essential repertoire is made up of the twenty-four “domestic tragedies” of Chikamatsu Monzaemon. For the jidaimono the most popular and frequently presented are the great history plays of 1730-1760. These include Sugawara denju tenarai kagami (Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy), Yoshitsune senbon zakura (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees), and Kanadehon Chūshingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers). Given their length, these plays are seldom presented in their entirety, but the best-known acts are frequently staged. As in kabuki, dance has a major role: in the form of interludes or choreographies inserted into the action.

The only true Bunraku troupe is the Kokuritsu Bunraku Gekijō (National Bunraku Theatre) in Osaka, but the puppetry of Awaji Ningyō-Za (Awaji Puppet Theatre) is very close to it in style.

(See Japan.)


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