Ningyo Johruri Bunraku Puppet Theatre


Ranking along with No and Kabuki as one of Japan's foremost traditional stage arts, the Ningyo Johruri Bunraku puppet theatre is a blend of sung narrative, instrumental accompaniment and puppet drama.

Marionette Photo© H. Kawahara


This theatrical form emerged during the early Edo period (c. 1600) when puppetry was coupled with Johruri, a popular fifteenth-century narrative genre. The plots related in Ningyo Johruri, as this new form of puppet theatre was known at the time, derived from two principal sources: historical plays set in feudal times (jidaimono), and contemporary dramas that explored the conflict between affairs of the heart and social obligation (sewamono).


Bunraku puppetsPhoto ©Sunrise

In the mid-seventeenth century numerous permanent commercial theatres were devoted specifically to puppet performances and Kabuki, and by the mid-eighteenth century, Ningyo Johruri had adopted its characteristic staging style. Three puppeteers, visible to the audience, manipulate large articulated puppets on the stage behind a waist-high screen. From a projecting elevated platform (yuka), the narrator (tayu) recites the action while a musician provides musical accompaniment on the three-stringed spike lute (shamisen). The tayu portrays all of the characters, both male and female, young and old, and takes on different voices and intonation for each role and situation. Although the tayu "tells" based on a scripted text, there is ample room for improvisation. The three puppeteers must carefully coordinate their movements to ensure that the puppet's gestures and attitudes appear realistic. The impressive puppets, replete with elaborate costumes and individualized facial expressions, are painstakingly handcrafted by master puppet makers.


The genre acquired its present full name - Ningyo Johruri Bunraku - in the late nineteenth century (the Bunrakuza was a leading theatre of the period). Today, the pre-eminent venue is the National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka, but its renowned troupe also performs in Tokyo and regional theatres. Approximately 160 works out of the 700 plays written during the Edo period have remained in today's repertory; however performances, once lasting the entire day, have been shortened from the original six acts to two or three.


In 1955 the Japanese Government designated Ningyo Johruri Bunraku an Important Intangible Cultural Property. This popular stage art attracts numerous young performers, and the plays' aesthetic qualities and dramatic content continue to appeal to modern audiences.


(Text: © UNESCO, Intangible Heritage Section)



Manzai, an episode from The Celebration of the four Seasons


Osono, a Tragic Love Triangle


The Secret of Sharing in Bunraku Theatre, the puppets's inner life, the Shamisen, the Tayu



Back to: Bunraku performance at UNESCO (26 February 2004)


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