I'm a puppet maker with a degree in theatre. A former lighting techie, stage manager and producer. And I like to think that with puppetry, the only limit is your imagination. More...
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Bunraku (pronounced boon-rah-koo), is an ancient art of puppetry that was developed in Japan. The puppets, also known as ningyo joruri in Japanese, used in bunraku performance are beautifully handcarved wooden rod puppets, which have been in use for around 200 years. (This isn’t to be confused with table-top puppets, which are a bastardised version of bunraku. Puppeteers seem to use the terms interchangeably, but actually they’re quite different)
|Browse some photos I took of a female bunraku at UNIMA 2008 festival. This puppet was displayed at the Perth Museum during the event.|
The heads are highly stylised, with some including moving facial features, such as mouths and eyebrows; the head and other features are all moved by means of special string/rod mechanisms. The head has a wooden neck piece, which slots into the body - a hollow cloth structure that is reminiscent of how whale bone was used to create underskirts. This cloth structure is then outfitted with a costume, either a male or female traditional Japanese dress depending on the puppet’s character and status. At the back of the body is a hole, from which the master puppeteer can operate the head piece. Some puppets have feet, others don’t.
The female puppets don’t have feet because in real life, Japanese women have their feet hidden underneath their long kimonos. Since the puppets are based on the styles and customs in Japan, it makes perfect sense for no feet to be added to the female bunraku. Instead the youngest puppeteer will bunch up the lower edges of the trailing costume/kimono to create the look of feet and feet movement. The arms, which are carved wooden pieces, are manipulated by rods, and if gestures are required, sometimes with a string mechanism.
The puppet itself requires a lot of dexterous manipulation, and so three puppeteers perform with each main character. Smaller characters may be performed by just one person. Traditional training in bunraku requires that the newest puppeteer operate the feet - for as much as ten years - before they move up to the next rank. The intermediate puppeteer operates the left arm - again for about ten years - before they can become the master. The master operates the right arm and the head. Each master puppeteer is also responsible for the maintenance of their respective puppet.
While this sounds over the top, the art of bunraku is not only higly stylised, but highly defined. Any audience member will notice that each movement is clear and precise; and to the untrained eye it seems as if the puppeteers move as one without communication. Actually, the master cues the intermediate puppeteer, by moving the puppet’s head or right arm in a certain manner. From there, the intermediate puppeteer can move the left arm, and the novice takes cue from those movements. There is a great deal of skill and training that goes into bunraku performances.
The puppeteers themselves wear black costumes with hoods, except for the master, who wears a costume without a hood. There is a narrator, who speaks all the character’s lines, as well as offering third-voice notations on the events, much like a chorus speaker in Greek tragedy. Additionally, there is a shamisen player - Westerners might consider it like a lute - which provides much of the atmospheric music. Other musicians are also onstage, with drummers and percussionists to provide additional sound effects. The set can be minimal, offering a small glimpse of a bell tower, or distant temple; or it can be the inside of a rich person’s house, with rooms and gardens, and a range of props and set pieces necessary to the play.
Naturally, these performances take place in the Japanese language, and so for non-speakers of Japanese, it can seem quite daunting. Some performances offer subtitles, which can both detract and add to the experience - subtitles mean you stop watching the puppets! The style of the Japanese bunraku play can seem unusual for Westerners, used to Shakespeare or Ibsen. The style combines spoken text, poetry, song, and character speech, much of which combined with the music seems too stylised. But as you watch, you will be entranced by the skill of the performers, as well as the beauty of both the puppets and the storyline. The stories include tales of war and heroism, as well as religion and pioty, comedy and farce, as well as romance.
Japan has a National Bunraku Theatre, and though it doesn’t travel often overseas, it is worthwhile taking in one of their performances if you are in their current area. I was lucky enough to see a short piece by the company last year, and included two excerpts from performances (like other traditional Japanese performance styles, many of the bunraku plays actually come from shows that run for more than several hours long), as well as a short introduction to bunraku by the performers themselves.
If you’d like to learn more about bunraku, I recommend:
Bunraku might not be for everyone, but every new puppet maker or performer should learn about it, as it has influenced the current puppetry industry a great deal, and continues to inspire and develop puppetry around the world.
You may also want to read the post about light curtain staging, and rod puppets. And you may also want to read my post on where to buy bunraku puppets. [link to be added] Or you could check out my very own bunraku puppet that I made in a masterclass. Read about how to make a bunraku puppet here. [link to be added]send feedback / have a question?
Australians may want to buy locally. Where? I explain here.