Bunraku – the most exquisite form of puppet theatre

Bunraku – puppet theatre has never been so intense.

Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to bunraku, which the tickets are usually almost impossible to put hands on. The show was held in the Tokyo National Theatre and it took my breath away.

Bunraku (文楽) is a Japanese traditional puppet theatre, it started in Osaka during the Edo period (1603-1868) as an entertainment for the commoners. It involves 4 kinds of performers: the Ningyōtsukai (puppeteers), the Tayū (chanters), the musicians (of shamisen, stringed instrument and taiko, drums) and of course the puppets.

The puppet’s size varies but it usually is the half a human size and it requires up to three performers to move: a principal (omozukai) which face can be seen, and two assistants fully covered in black.
Each has a specific role: to move the arms, legs, fingers and facial traits. The final performance is so real and exquisitely done that after a couple of minutes, you forget totally that the puppets are operated and they seem very well alive.

The training for such a perfection in movement and synchronisation is obviously very long: it begins with the feet that require ten years of practice, ten other on the left hand, and then ten years of the head of secondary characters before being able to finally move the head of the main character.

The story is always narrated in a deep chant by only one speaker, representing all the characters. The rhythm and intensity is created by the shamisen and the taikos and yes, it gets super intense (usually there is always a murder or a seppuku (ritual suicide) at some point).
The bunraku’s narrative are usually based on kabuki themes: love stories, family dramas, treason, heroic tales…

Enjoy!

 

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