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Bunraku is the Japanese form of puppet theater. Japanese consider it as a serious art form and not as entertainment for children. Bunraku is more than making puppets appear lively on a stage. It is also narrative chanting and shamisen music, by which the Japanese puppet theater is accompanied.
First Publication: November 2002
Latest Update: May 2013
Bunraku puppets are pretty different from the ones known from European puppet theater.
First of all, the Japanese puppets are big - up to nearly life-size. And secondly, the mechanism of Bunraku puppets is more sophisticated compared to their mechanically challenged European relatives. A Bunraku puppet cannot only move its arms and legs. It can roll its eyes or form its fingers into a fist.
I recommend to watch this video ducumentary about bunraku from the beginning to the end. It is an excellent introduction to the subject. Thanks to worldmusicxx for sharing this with us.
No strings attached to Japanese Bunraku puppets! When Sandie Shaw had her number one hit in 1967 - Like a Puppet on a String, she probably had never heard of Japanese puppets. Bunraku puppets are not manipulated by strings from above a small stage window. They are rather displayed on a normal theater stage by one to three puppet operators - the puppeteers. And the puppeteers are fully visible!
Next to the puppeteers comes the joruri performer. He is the great story teller and singer. The joruri narrator recites the story in a mixture of chanting and emotional telling. Narrators must have a strong voice and be able to get emotions across to the audience. Good narrators can create dozens of teary eyes or a big laugh in the audience in no time.
Next to the joruri narrator sits the shamisen player - another indispensable element of bunraku. The shamisen is an old traditional Japanese string instrument. It looks like a fancy three-string guitar and is pretty long.
The shamisen music is more than just some background entertainment. It has a similar function like the orchestra in an European opera. The music supports the action and the mood required by a special play or scene.
The narrator and the shamisen player must be a good team. The harmony of their performance is important.
Bunraku theater as it is known today, is about 400 years old - roughly as old as its big cousin, the kabuki theater. Compared to its snobbish, aristocratic relative, the noh theater, which traces go back to 1375, it is still pretty young in age.
As for the plays performed on bunraku stages, the situation is similar to their kabuki and noh relatives. Classic is best! Although new plays have been written after the war, the oldies and goodies from the 17th and 18th century are the ones performed most often.
One name should be mentioned - a famous playwright named Chikamatsu (1653-1724). Chikamatsu had written plays for the kabuki theater in the 17th century. Later he became interested in bunraku and wrote many of the classical stories.
The official Japanese administration tries to preserve and support the old Japanese cultural heritage. Bunraku is among those art forms which were declared an intangible cultural treasure by the government.
Today Osaka City has a large, modern bunraku theater for up to 750 spectators - the National Bunraku Theater. It is the largest in Japan and was founded with government support. Another large theater with bunraku performances is the National Theater in Tokyo with four performances per year - not much for a big city like Tokyo.
Depictions of Bunraku puppets have been a popular subject for woodblock prints - although not as frequent to be found as Sumo wrestlers or images of courtesans. In the 1950s the artist Sadanabu III, Hasegawa, 1881-1963 designed a series of bunraku puppets, which was published by Uchida in Kyoto.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
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