From Academic Kids

Bunraku (文楽) is a form of traditional Japanese puppet theater. Founded in Osaka in 1684, the school was eventually overshadowed -- perhaps literally -- by the developing school of kabuki, and ultimately succumbed to a lack of competent playwrights.

Three kinds of performers take part in a bunraku performance:

The combination of chanting and shamisen playing is called joruri. Since the Japanese word for puppet is ningyo, bunraku is sometimes called ningyo joruri.

The puppeteers manipulate the puppet by means of handles located inside the puppet. An important character requires three puppeteers: in order of seniority, these are one for the head and right arm, another for the left arm, and the last for the legs. Puppeteers are in many cases in full view of the audience, but wear black outfits and black hoods over their heads so as to remain inconspicuous. In a good performance, the audience's attention is drawn to the puppets, and the puppeteers become "invisible". Some master puppeteers may remove their hoods during a performance, knowing that the audience is too absorbed in the story to be distracted.

Many sources state that the puppets are 4/5 life size. This may not be precisely accurate, but they are at least half the height of an adult. Bunraku puppets can be quite mechanically sophisticated. In plays with supernatural themes, for example, a puppet may be constructed so that its face can quickly transform in the face of a monster.

A single chanter recites all the characters' parts, using techniques such as pitch to distinguish the characters. The chanter sits next to the shamisen player on a revolving platform, and from time to time, the platform turns, bringing replacement musicians for the next scene.

The shamisen of bunraku has a sound that's different from other shamisen. It's lower in pitch, and has a fuller tone.

Bunraku shares many themes with its contemporary, kabuki. In fact, several plays were adapted for performance both by actors in kabuki and by puppet troupes in bunraku. Bunraku is particularly noted for lovers' suicide plays. The story of the forty-seven ronin is also famous in both bunraku and kabuki.

Bunraku is an author's theater. Prior to the performance, the chanter holds up the text and bows before it, promising to follow it faithfully. Kabuki, however, is a performer's theater. Players insert puns on actors' names, ad-libs, references to contemporary happenings and other changes from the script.

The most famous bunraku playwright was Chikamatsu Monzaemon. With more than one hundred plays to his credit, he is sometimes called the Shakespeare of Japan.

Bunraku performers, and makers of the puppets, might become "living national treasures" under Japan's program for preserving its culture.

Osaka is the home of the government-supported troupe at National Bunraku Theater. The Troupe offers five or more shows every year, each running for two to three weeks in Osaka before moving to Tokyo for a run at the National Theater. The National Bunraku Theater Troupe also tours within Japan and occasionally abroad.

Until the late 1800s there were also hundreds of other professional, semi-professional, and amateur troupes across Japan that performed traditional puppet drama. Since the end of World War II, the number has dropped to fewer than 30, most of which perform only once or twice a year, often in conjuction with local festivals. A few regional troupes, however, continue to perform actively. The Awaji Puppet Troupe, located on Awaji Island southwest of Kobe, offers short daily performances and more extensive shows at their own theater and has toured the United States, Russia, and elsewhere abroad. The Tonda Traditional Bunraku Puppet Troupe of Shiga Prefecture, founded in the 1830s, has toured United States and Australia on five occasions and has been active in hosting academic programs in Japan for American university students who wish to train in traditional Japanese puppetry. The Imada Puppet Theater, which has toured both France and Taiwan, and the Kuroda Puppet Theater are located in the city of Iida in Nagano Prefecture. Both troupes, which boast histories of more than 300 years, perform frequently and are active in training a new generation of traditional puppeteers.


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