Bunraku is known to be one of Japan's traditional form of entertainment. Three types of performances by—Tayu (chanter), shamisen (three-stringed guitar-like instrument), and Ningyozukai (puppeteer) combine and become a sublime, “true Japanese tradition” kind of show. Now we would like to introduce you to the history, highlights, where to go, and more on this traditional Japanese form of entertainment that has been around since the Edo period.

What is Bunraku? What is its definition?

What is Bunraku? What is its definition?
“Bunraku” is Japan's world-class traditional form of entertainment, designated as Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2003.

Bunraku is most accurately called “Ningyo Joruri Bunraku.” It is mostly performed by men, and there are roles —Tayu, Shamisen, and Ningyozukai. Bunraku is characteristic for the harmony of the three, and each role is quite different.

First, the Tayu. The role of the Tayu is the story telling, and the name is officially, “Joruri-katari.” The Tayu's major role is to explain the scenes and express the emotions of the puppets for the audience to understand easily, and to convey the overview of the story. Basically, one Tayu preforms for one story, but in rare cases, there are more than one Tayu in a play. The Tayu is the key person who conveys the core part of the story by describing the characters and progress of the story.

Since the Tayu must act the roles of all the characters alone by moving the story along using just his voice and the shamisen music, high skills is required. The storytelling of the Tayu is composed of three bases— “kotoba,” the lines of the characters, “jiai,” the depiction of the scenes, and “fushi,” the singing along with the shamisen performance.

The Tayu uses a script called “yukahon” as his guide. It is a copy of drama, method of recitation, etc. that have been copied out using a writing brush, and the Tayu reads the yukahon as he goes along. The quality of the show can be very different depending on the skill of the Tayu, even though the yukahon being used and the storyline is the same.

By the way, before the performance, the Tayu always raises the yukahon to eye level. It is a routine gesture to show respect to the words and techniques of the predecessors passed down from the olden days. When you go to see Bunraku, you may want to pay attention to this, too.

Livening up the show along with the Tayu is the Shamisen. It is a traditional Japanese stringed instrument like the lute. The Shamisen is played by using the bachi (plectrum), which is in the shape of the ginko leaf, to pluck the strings stretched across the sao (neck) that goes through the do (body), which is made of a flat and square wood with leather covered front and back. For the Gidayu-bushi, the type of Shamisen with a thick neck called “futozao” is often used.

The “futozao” is characteristic for its low, deep, and resonating sounds. It livens up the play by producing melodies and beating out rhythms. Although it is a stringed instrument, it can also serve as a percussion-like instrument because of the playing method.

Compared to the Tayu, who leans forward and chants with all his might, the Shamisen player hardly moves. He looks straight ahead, without changing his expression. However, the sounds of the Shamisen clearly depict the scenes and the emotional fluctuations of the characters by using various playing techniques.

The Shamisen is the partner of the Tayu, who is leading the play, supporting him and at times leading the Tayu.

Finally, the leading role of Bunraku, the “Ningyozukai (pupeteer).” The Ningyozukai makes various moves on stage, skillfully operating the puppet along with the chanting of the Tayu, and at times, making the puppet dance in tune to the lead of the Shamisen.

Originally, one Ningyozukai operated one puppet, but the puppets are 130 to 150 centimeters in height, and a bit heavy at 10 kilograms. So today, three Ningyozukai moving one puppet is mainstream.

Three people moving the puppet may seem somewhat exaggerated, but it is quite a lot of hard work to operate a puppet composed of “kubi,” the head and the “do,” the body. Further, depending on the storyline, fine movements are necessary, so it takes three to make the detailed moves.

Each puppeteer has his own role. The Ningyozukai that mainly operates the right hand is called the “Omo-zukai,” the Ningyozukai that bends over and moves the legs is “Ashi-zukai,” and the Ningyozukai that operates the left hand is called “Hidari-zukai.” Acquiring the technique is difficult, requiring 10 years of experience to become the foot puppeteer, which is the easiest, and over 10 more years before becoming a full-fledged left hand puppeteer, which is said to be the second easiest.

Unlike the Tayu or Shamisen player, Ningyozukai do not appear on stage as a firsthand performer, but merely the supporter of the puppet. Thus, they wear ninja-like black costumes called “kurogo” so as to interfere with the viewing, and the face of the Ningyozukai is also hidden. This is based on the rule of Japan's traditional entertainment that “black is a color that cannot be seen.” However, in recent years, only in the case of Omo-zukai, more of them show their faces and wear crested kimono, hakama, etc. which is called the “Dezukai” style.

What is the history of Bunraku? What is its origin?

What is the history of Bunraku? What is its origin?
If you look into the history of Bunraku, it has its origin going as far back as the 16th century, during the Azuchi–Momoyama period. Today, the trinity of Tayu, Shamisen, and Ningyozukai is the basic norm, but in those days, there were various combinations. The rule of trinity was fixed almost 100 years later, during the 17th century, in the Edo period.

In Japan, there was a vocal music system of singing in a unique tune, the “The Tale of the Heike,” which was created in the 13th century, along with other stories, in front of an audience using biwa (Japanese lute) music in the background. One of the most popular acts among them was titled, “Joruri Hime Monogatari.” Using the word from this performance, the style of chanting with music in the background was eventually called “Joruri.” Then, in early Edo period, the shamisen that became popular via Okinawa started to be used in the performances.

So this chanting with the accompaniment of the shamisen called Joruri and a puppet show that was popular as nomadic entertainment since around the Heian period combining was inevitable. The puppet shows with Joruri in the background become popular in Kyo (Kyoto) and Osaka, and eventually, in Edo (Tokyo). At the time, it was called “Kojoruri,” and became the basis of today's Bunraku.

There were many Joruri chanters in each region, but Takemoto Gidayu was the cream of the crop in popularity. His best-selling point was his rich voice which had a wide range, allowing him to perform different characters by himself. It was said that Takemoto Gidayu alone changed the tone of the acts dramatically.

Eventually, Takemoto Gidayu left his troupe and become independent, starting “Takemoto-za Theatre” in Osaka in 1684. Many great plays such as “Shusse Kagekiyo” and “Sonezaki Shinju” were created here by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, who was born a samurai, but came to live in the entertainment world. In time, the position of chanter was always Takemoto Gidayu, and the name of chanters in general eventually became “Tayu.”

Everything seemed to be going well for the Takemoto-za, but in 1703, his former apprentice, Toyotake Wakadayu became independent, and opened Toyotake-za, and thus became rivals with Takemoto-za. Performances of Toyotake Wakadayu's great acting skills inherited from his master, plus his high pitched beautiful voice became popular, and in time, this popularity threatened the original Takemoto-za. But not to be outdone, Takemoto-za tried various measures to be more creative, and the relationship of the two theatres developed into one that would enhance each other. As a result, the popularity of Joruri soared among the people, and eventually became greatest of all forms of entertainment.

The reason why Joruri became so popular among the people is said to be because many of the themes of stories were familiar incidents. Before, most stories were “Jidaimono,” dealing with historical samurai and aristocrats as the main characters. However, Chikamatsu Monzaemon wrote Joruri stories with common people as main characters or incidents from everyday lives of these commoners, so for the audience who were common people, the plays were quite familiar.

The category of stories dealing with commoners or incidents of the commoners was called “Sewamono,” and this category was established during this period. This Sewamono was so popular among the people, that many imitated the stories. The most serious cases that happened were people imitating “Sonezaki Shinju,” a story based a real Osaka incident, resulting in many people actually committing murder-suicides. The popularity of the performances was so great, that the shogunate government, concerned with the trend, prohibited performances of murder-suicide storylines.

Around this period, there was some transformation in the Ningyozukai performance. One Ningyozukai operating one puppet was mainstream, but the structure of the puppets became for sophisticated with moving eyes, mouth, fingers, and so on, and legs that had not been on the dolls were attached, enabling the puppets to make more human-like moves. This made it difficult for one Ningyozukai to move the puppet, thus, in “Ashiya Doman Oouchikagami” performed by the Takemoto-za in 1734 and beyond, the style of three Ningyozukai operating a puppet became the norm.

As Joruri became more and more popular, the storylines became more sophisticated. In order to make the stories more dramatic, the style of more than one dramatist creating one play, called “Gassaku” increased. This is how what is known to be the three greatest Bunraku plays, “Sugawara Denju Tenaraikagami,” “Yoshitsune Senbonzakura,” and “Kanadehon Chushingura” were created.

Joruri enjoyed dominating popularity in the 17th century, but as the end of the Edo period approached, the number of theatre-goers decreased. On the other hand, the people started to enjoy puppeteering and performing Joruri themselves. During this period, Uemura Bunrakuken, who opened a training institute in Osaka, emerged. As he started to perform Ningyo Joruri, he became the talk of the town, and in the Meiji era, his troupe started to use the name “Bunraku-za” for their theatre. This is how Joruri began to be called “Bunraku,” as it is called today.

Unlike when the Joruri developed, it was more important for Bunraku to heighten its quality rather than create new plays. Thus, Bunraku eventually became more sophisticated as an entertainment, and a platform emerged for new theatres to be created, and many more outstanding performers to hit the scene. This Bunraku-za performances carried on through the Meiji, Taisho, and Showa eras, until the Bombing of Tokyo in 1945.

Even after WWII, Bunraku never seized, and surprisingly, the year after WWII, in 1946, Bunraku was performed in a temporary theatre. Nine years later in 1955, Bunraku was designated as National Important Intangible Cultural Asset. Bunraku has been playing in Tokyo's National Theatre established in 1966, and also the National Bunraku Theatre which opened in Osaka in 1984.

As a result, UNESCO proclaimed Bunraku as “a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity,” and in 2008, Bunraku was listed on the “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” Bunraku has become a world-class traditional entertainment both in name and reality.

What is the difference between Bunraku and Kyogen?

What is the difference between Bunraku and Kyogen?
“Kyogen” is another form of Japanese traditional entertainment admired together with Bunraku. It seems to be similar in category, but it can be said that the contents are completely different.

Unlike Bunraku that has its origins in vocal music, Kyogen is based on “Sarugaku.” Kyogen takes in only the comical element of Sarugaku, and then makes it a more sophisticated form of theatrical farce. Originally, the word “Kyogen” came from the Buddhist terminology “Kyogen kigo,” which means unreasonable excuse or decorative word. Eventually, the word Kyogen was established as meaning the humorous mimicry entertainment of Sarugaku.

Similar to Bunraku, which is made up of the performance of Tayu, Shamisen, and Ningyozukai, Kyogen cannot be performed by just one person. There are only two, though, which are “Shite,” the main actor and “Ado,” who plays opposite the Shite. Further, unlike Bunraku, where puppets perform, Kyogen is performed by human actors on stage, which is a big difference.

Also, contents of Bunraku can be roughly classified into two, which are Jidaimono and Sewamono, but Kyogen is classified into surprisingly, ten — Honkyogen, Aikyogen, Betsu Kyogen, Waki Kyogen, Daimyo Kyogen, Shomyo Kyogen, Muko Onna Kygogen, Oni Yamabushi Kyogen, Shukke Zato Kyogen, and Atsume Kyogen. Plus, there are different schools, so depending on which school is performing, the same program can seem like having a different story because of the unique ways of acting of each school.

The characteristic of Kyogen is acting while “emphasizing the funny elements of humans in everyday settings,” so it may seem a bit similar to Bunraku's Sewamono, but unlike Bunraku, Kyogen does not use Shamisen. Instead, they use large and small drums, flute, etc. to enliven the show. Unlike the Shamisen that makes low and deep sounds, the attraction of Kyogen is its relatively jaunty rhythm of drums and flutes to make the audience laugh.

Where can I see Bunraku? Here are that places to go in Japan

There are only two Bunraku theatres in Japan. At times, there are regional productions, so you may have a chance to see Bunraku near your hotel. But most times, tickets for performance dates that are close are sold out if you try to buy them after your arrival. If you definitely want to see Bunraku, you should check the following two theatres.

“Kokuritsu Bunraku Gekijo (National Bunraku Theatre)”

Where can I see Bunraku? Here are that places to go in Japan
In 1984, a theatre you can call the “headquarters of Bunraku” was established here. In Japan, Osaka is a prominent city of Bunraku, because this performing art originated when Takemoto Gidayu and Chikamatsu Monzaemon collaborated. The National Bunraku Theatre opened as Japan's fourth national theatre, and is known to have Ningyo Joruri Bunraku performances.

The Bunraku Theatre is large, boasting a total of 753 seats. Other than Bunraku, there are Buyo (dance), Hogaku (traditional Japanese music), Taishu Geino (public entertainment), and more performed at this theatre. For foreigners, they have audio earphone guides that interpret the Bunraku lyrics, etc. into English.

On the first floor is a restaurant named “Bunraku saryo” and on the third floor is library with many Bunraku related books. You may enjoy going to the library to get more details on the art after watching a performance. On the second floor is a shop called “Bunraku Senbei Honpo,” a shop where you will find senbei, a representative Japanese confectionary.

“Kokuritsu Bunraku Gekijo” (National Bunraku Theatre)
●1-12-10, Nippon-bashi, Chuo-ku, Osaka

“Kokuritsu Gekijo” (National Theatre)

Where can I see Bunraku? Here are that places to go in Japan2
Established in 1966, the Kokuritsu Gekijo is the only theatre in Tokyo, the capital of Japan, where Bunraku is performed. Other than Bunraku, Kabuki, Buyo (Japanese traditional dance), drama, Japanese music, Ryukyu Dance, Gagaku (Japanese court music), Shomyo (Buddhist chant), Minzoku Geino (folk performing arts) are performed. The best thing about this theatre is that it's a place you can enjoy not only Bunraku, but various traditional forms of Japanese entertainment.

The Kokuritsu Gekijo has many seats — in the main three-story “Large Theatre,” there are 1,610, and even in the “Small Theatre,” there are 590. There is a restaurant on each of the second and third floors, and many souvenir shops, too. There are other great services especially for foreign visitors such as a nursery where they will take care of small children, and like the Bunraku Theatre, they have English audio earphone guides for those who do not understand Japanese.

“Kokuritsu Gekijo” (National Theatre)
●4-1, Hayabusa-cho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo

Summary of Bunraku

Bunraku was established 400 years ago during the Edo period, and its tradition has been passed down for generations. The depth of the world of Bunraku cannot be understood without actually seeing it. We hope you will be able to appreciate Japan's culture by enjoying its ancient traditional performing arts.

*The above information was last updated June 8, 2018. For further information, please contact the facilities directly.

"Like" if you think this article is interesting

New Information Column

Read more columns