Happy Saturday!

Sorry we’ve been a little quiet lately as we were busy handling some policy changes, but today, we are back again to talk about another form of Japan’s traditional performing arts; Bunraku.


(Bunraku Performane. Image © A For Radio)

Bunraku is the more commonly used name for Ningyo Joruri; ningyo refers to the doll/ puppet and joruri, a form of traditional Japanese narrative music. It is Japan’s traditional puppet theatre which has also been inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, just like Noh and Kabuki.

This form of theatre depends heavily on the synchronization of the narrator (known as Tayu), shamisen player and the puppeteers.

  • The tayu tells the story and lead the performance.
  • The shamisen player punctuates the narration, as well as add sounds to suggest the scene and enhance the characters’ emotions. The shamisen instrument supports and sometimes lead the Tayu.
  • In Bunraku, there are three puppeteers. The main puppeteer (known as omo-zukai) is in- charge of the head and the right hand of the puppeteer. Usually, the face of the omo-zukai is visible to the audience. Another puppeteer hidari-zukai operates the left hand and the other puppeteer ashi-zukai operates the legs. The path to become an omo-zukai requires many years of training. A Bunraku puppeteer starts out as a ashi-zukai, then becomes a hidari-zukai and finally becomes an omo-zukai.


(Bunraku Stage. Image © https://ich.unesco.org)

The narrator’s platform is called a yuka. It juts out into the audience area at the front right area of the seats. The yuka has a special rotating platform where the narrator and the shamisen player make their appearance. The platform will half rotate again to bring the first set of narrator and shamisen player backstage. While the second set of narrator and shamisen player will now perform to the audience.

Most bunraku plays are based on Japanese history and deal with the common Japanese theme of conflict between social obligations and human emotions. You can catch Bunraku at regular performances that are held at the national theatres in Osaka and Tokyo. Below is an excerpt of a Bunraku performance: