The professional puppet theater of Japan. Like the KABUKI theater, bunraku is an enduring form of art developed by city-dwelling commoners of the Edo period (1600-1868).

The term bunraku is of relatively recent origin. Of the many puppet theaters of the Edo period, only that known as Bunraku-za, organized in the early 19th century by Uemura Bunrakuken in Osaka, survived commercially in modem Japan, and bunraku came to mean "professional puppet theater." The more precise term, ayatsuri joruri denotes the component elements of the theater: ayatsuri means "puppetry," and joruri refers to the dramatic text and the art of chanting it. Historically, it was the fortuitous joining of two independent art forms, puppetry and joruri, that gave birth to bunraku.

Conventions of the Theater

The bunraku theater presents dramas both serious and entertaining, as well as beautifully choreographed dances, for an audience primarily of adults with cultivated sensibilities. The performance is a composite of four elements: the puppets, which are approximately one-half to two-thirds life size; the movement given to the puppets by their operators; the vocal delivery by the tayu (chanter); and the rhythmical musical accompaniment provided by the player of the three-stringed SHAMISEN. To add to the complexity of the performance, each puppet portraying a major character is operated jointly by three men.

Bunraku puppets are not operated the strings. With his left arm and hand the omozukai (principal operator) supports the puppet and manipulates the mechanisms that contra the movable eyelids, eyeballs, eyebrows, and mouth; with his right hand he operates the puppet's right arm. The hidarizakai (first assistant) functions solely to operate the puppet's left arm, and the ashizakai (second assistant) operates the puppet's legs. Most female puppets do not have legs, for Japanese women generally wore flowing robes of ankle length or longer which concealed the lower body. The movements of a female puppet's legs are simulated through manipulating and shaping the lower part of the kimono. In the play Sonezaki shinju (1703; tr The Love Suicides at Sonezaki 1961), however, a turn in the plot hinges on the hero's caressing the heroine's foot, which the audience must see. In this instance, a reproduction of a foot is held so as to protrude from the hem of her kimono.

The puppeteers are usually dressed in black robes; the assistants wear black hoods over their heads to become "invisible"in the audience's eyes. Although the omozukai may be similarly hooded-usually in scenes that require the utmost delicacy in the expression of emotions-he is most often seen full face by the audience, for he is a celebrity in the theatrical world. At times bedecked in a robe of lustrous white silk and ceremonial vest of brilliant hue, he becomes an important part of the total visual spectacle.

A single tayu speaks on behalf of all puppets on the stage men, women, and children-and so his voice must cover an extremely broad range, from a raspy bass to a silky falsetto. Several tayu may perform simultaneously, as in the spectacular opening scene of the best known of all bunraku plays, Kanadehon chushingura (1748; tr Chushingura The Treasury of Loyal Retainers, 1971). Pageantry is, in the main, a borrowing from the kabaki theater.

A distinguishing aural feature of bunraku is the melodious, deep-toned thrumming of the solo shamisen, which contrasts with the lively, high-pitched tone of the tenor shamisen of the kabuki theater. In kabuki, an ensemble of 10 or more shamisen may play in unison or heterophonically in extravaganzas. In bunraku, the exceptional use of a shamisen ensemble may occur when a kabuki spectacle is adapted for performance in the puppet theater.

In bunraku, the puppets' movements must be synchronized with the tayu's chanting and the shamisen accompaniment. Seldom is there visual contact between the puppeteers onstage and the tayu and shamisen player, who face the audience from the yuka, an elevated platform projecting from the stage. The shamisen player, by his strumming, normally dictates the pace of the narrative and the timing of the action.

Early History

The earliest extant written reference to puppetry in Japan dates from the 11th century. Doubtless even earlier intinerant hunters and their women eamed money by entertnining in the cities, the men presenting episodic plays with small puppets that they operated with their hands and the women working as prostitutes. Eventually a large number settled in Sanjo on the island of Awaji (Awajishima), which became known as the birthplace of professional puppetry.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, blind bards (BIWA HOSHI) garbed in Buddhist robes were chanting historic episodes described in the Heike monogatari (13th century; tr The Tale of the Heike, 1975, 1988). These bards accompanied themselves on the BIWA (lute), an instrument that had originated in Persia. Other entertainers chanted tales taken from the Gikeiki (15th century; tr Yoshitsune, 1966) and the Soga monogatari (15th century; tr The Tale of the Soga Brothers, 1987).

The chanting style of medieval narratives changed remarkably in the 16th century with the evolution of a style of chanting called joruri. Also around that time the shamisen was imported into Japan from Okinawa and came to be preferred over the lute by chanters of joruri. Shamisen players composed new melodies that, in turn, influenced the style of joruri chanting. This collaboration was the beginning of bunraku, which caught the fancy of the townspeople-commoners who were low on the social ladder but who came gradually to dominate the economy, art, and material culture of the new era. With little access to the no drama, by then largely restricted to samurai and others of the upper class, the townspeople welcomed the colorful, quickpaced, lively spectacle of the new popular theater-first kabuki and then bunraku.

Stages of Development

By the mid-17th century the puppet theater was flourishing in Osaka and Kyoto, where puppeteers and chanters of joruri were reaching new heights of artistry. Bunraku became the rage in 1685, when the tayuTAKEMO GIDAYU I of Osaka garnered accolades for the virile beauty of his chanting style. It was his collaboration, however, with the greatest playwright of the Edo period, CHIKAMATSU MONZAEMON, that led to the transformation of bunraku from popular entertainment to artistic theater.

Chikamatsu employed the imagery, diction, and literary techniques of classical prose, drama, and poetry in writing plays that focused on both historical and contemporary subjects and that emphasized prevalent codes of morality and ethics as thematic material. The success of his Love Suicides at Sonezaki in 1703 started a vogue for dramas treating love affairs between merchants and prostitutes. In most of these the tragedy results from the inability of a pair of lovers to resolve the conflict between accepted social codes (giri) and their own emotions (ninjo).

Originally in bunraku, only the puppets were seen by the audience; all performers were hidden from view by a curtain stretched across the stage. The puppets were held aloft and operated by hands thrust up through the skirt. When Love Suicides at Sonezaki was presented, the puppeteer operated the doll of the heroine in front of the curtain. His good looks are said to have contributed to the success of this daring experiment, which gave rise to the tradition of including the dol1 operators in the visual aspect of bunraku. In 1705 Takemoto Gidayu chanted one act of a new play in full view of the audience; this marked the beginning of the tradition of inclu~ing the tayu and the shamisen player in the total visual spectacle of the theater.

Many of the techniques used in bunraku today were developed after Chikamatsu's death. In 1727 puppets acquired movable eyelids and mouths and prehensile hands. In 1728 the tayu and shamisen player were elevated from a position below stage center to the yuka. The puppet operated by three men was introduced in 1734, and by 1736 puppets could roll their eyes and move their eyebrows. Set designs and stage mechanisms became far more elaborate.

These innovations enabled bunraku to compete successfully with kabuki, which enjoyed a surge in popularity with its host of talented actors and repertory of delightful plays (many of them borrowed from bunraku). Kabuki actors were influenced by the style of the bunraku tayu and even imitated the stylized gestures of the puppets. A kabuki play based on a bunraku play was called maruhomono, dendenmono, or gidayu kyogen. If a certain innovation in a kabuki production delighted its audience, on the other hand, the bunraku producers would incorporate it into their own productions.

The Final Stage

Gradually overshadowed by kabuki, bunraku went into a decline after the mid-18th century even though its performers attained new heights of artistry and skill. With the Japanese welcoming Westem fomns of theatrical art and developing their own "moden" theater, bunraku fared poorly in the competition to attract audiences. After Japan's defeat in World War II, bunraku languished as many Japanese fumed away from the traditional aspects of their own culture, and in the early 1960s it tottered on the verge of commercial extinction. It has survived largely with government support and the establishment of the National Theater in Tokyo and the National Bunraku Theater in Osaka. Because of the meagemess of the rewards, few youngsters are willing to endure the many years of training needed to acquire the skills of a professional. Traditionally, a puppeteer must spend 10 years operating the legs and 10 years the left arm before he may become a principal operator. Bunraku may enjoy a mild revival because of a new appreciation of tradition among younger Japanese, but its future is uncertain. (Japan 142-46)