Bunraku is generally used for ningyo-joruri which means puppets and chanted narration/storytelling. There were travelling storytellers and puppeteers and these two forms combined together and formed as Bunraku in the Edo period. In 1684 the first Bunraku Theater was set up by Takemoto Gidayu. Bunraku is the official name of the puppet theater. Previously, Bunraku was known as ayatsuri joruri shibai or ningyo joruri. The name Bunraku comes from the only commercial theater Bunraku-za and is not a children’s theater.
Bunraku is a serious art form of Japanese and not for an entertainment. It is a form of Puppet Theater appearing live on stage. The Japanese puppet theater is narrative chanting and shamisen music. Bunraku puppets are complicated and different from that of European Puppet Theater. A Bunraku puppet moves its hands, legs, rolls its eyes and forms the fists. Bunraku puppets are displayed on the theater stage by the puppeteers and not by strings above the stage.
It is of approximately 400 years old. In the Heian period(794-1185) puppeteers known as “kugutsumawashi”, these people traveled around Japan playing from door to door for donations and this continued up to the Edo period. The 17th and 18th century plays are most often performed. Many of the classical stories were written by Chikamatsu Monzaemon for Bunraku Theater. Bunraku is described as the intangible treasure in terms of culture by the Japanese Government.
The National Bunraku Theater started in 1966 is located in the Osaka city for about 750 spectators and is the largest in Japan. National Theater in Tokyo is also the largest theater with nearly four bunraku performances a year. During 1950’s Sadanabu III and Hasegawa from 1881 to 1963 devised a sequence of bunraku puppets, published by Uchida in Kyoto. The Bunraku puppets mostly found as Sumo wrestlers or images of courtesans. Theaters get usually filled up because of much popular puppeteers Yoshida Tamao, Yoshida Minosuke and Yoshida Bunjaku.
The puppets are about one-half size life like figures. Bunraku plays are mostly the theme of girl and ninjo, social obligations and human emotions. Bunraku is a combination of puppetry, joruri and music by three stringed shamisen in Osaka (1600-1868). The famous Bunraku play is Chushingura: The Treasury of Loyal Retainers. The main puppeteer (Omozukai) controls the head and right arm and the two lower ranked puppeteers’ or apprentice controls the left arm and the legs. To be an Omozukai they have to undergo ten year long training. Basically Omozukai is the star of the show visible to the audience and are dressed colorfully. Female character puppets do not have legs as they are covered completely with kimono.
Bunraku puppets have wooden head, shoulder board, trunk, arms, legs and costume and the head has a grip inserted into a hole in the center of the shoulder board to move the eyes, eyebrows and mouth. Arms and legs are hung from the shoulder board with strings, a bamboo hoop is hung forming the hip and the costume fits over the shoulder and trunk. There are 70 varieties of puppet heads in use such as young unmarried woman, young man etc. Puppeteers wear black suits and hoods and the main puppeteer wears a white silk robe not particularly the black top.
Joruri performer is a story narrator and singer. He recites the story in a mixture of chanting and emotional telling. A joruri performer should have strong voice and should make the audience to cry and laugh in no time.
Shamisen Player is another indispensable element of bunraku. It is an old traditional Japanese string instrument. It is a fancy three string guitar and long instrument. It is just like as orchestra in an European era. Both Joruri and Shamisen should be a good team and their performance must synchronize.
Bunraku was seemed to decline because of the increase in the western culture and dependent on the government sponsorships. The costumes and puppeteers are dying out and young generations are lagging behind as they require long training. The puppets were operated by single hidden puppeteer and later on by three puppeteers. Musicians are also visible.