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Traditional Performing Arts

During the Edo Period in Osaka, Bunraku started as popular entertainment for the commoners. It is the traditional puppet theater of Japan. It is also recognized as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, along with noh and kabuki.

In the past, the performance was called ningyo joruri - ningyo meaning puppet and joruri being a kind of chanted narration. Now, it is officially called bunraku because the name was derived from a troupe organized by Uemura Bunrakuken in the early 19th century.

Each operated by three performers (a principal operator and two assistants), bunraku puppets are approximately one-half or two-third life size. Instead of using strings, the puppeteers collaborate to maneuver the limbs, eyelids, eyeballs, eyebrows, and mouths of the puppets to produce life-like actions and facial expressions. The puppeteers can be seen by the audience, but are dressed in black to express that they are "invisible".

The three puppeteers work together on stage in perfect harmony to make the puppet doll seem truly alive. Its movements are surprisingly delicate and beautiful when controlled by its master puppeteers. The puppets can be lovely, mysterious, and comical as they can make the audience laugh. They seem to win more empathy from the audience being dolls.

The story is narrated by one person (the tayu), who also voices all the puppet characters. Therefore, the tayu must have a diverse range of vocal expressions to represent all ages and genders.

Shamisen players are musicians that determine the pace of the narration with their accompanying music. Synchronized with the narration and the music from the shamisen, it’s enjoyable to watch the sophisticated puppets come to life.

Similar to kabuki, bunraku is often based on adaptations of tragic love stories, heroic legends, and historical events. The most distinguished compositions by Japan's famous playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653 - 1724) are bunraku plays. Many of which are portrayed around this kind of conflict.

Bunraku is performed in mostly modern theaters including Western-style seats. It can be watched in venues such as the National Theatre in Tokyo and the National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka. English headsets are usually available for most performances.

photo of Bunraku performance second photo of Bunraku performance