For many foreigners who live in Tokyo—whether you have been here for many years or just a short amount of time—exploring Japanese culture can be a never-ending experience, full of new discoveries. One art form that offers viewers a glimpse into the country’s aesthetic sense is bunraku. This form of traditional Japanese puppet theater, also known as ningyō jōruri, began in Osaka during the Edo period.
With a history that goes back more than 300 years, bunraku’s atmospheric and hypnotic performances usually depict tragic love stories, heroic legends and historic stories based on true events. The traditional performing art was designated as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2003.
It takes three kinds of performers to put on a bunraku performance: the puppeteers, the narrator (tayu) and shamisen musicians.
The narrator tells the story by describing the scene, and reciting each character’s lines in time with music played by the shamisen (a three-stringed traditional Japanese instrument) player. The narrator skillfully changes the tone and style of their voice to accompany the musical talents of the shamisen player. This type of musical performing art is called jōruri, which was also invented in Osaka during the Edo period. There are three different styles of narration: kotoba, which is reciting the lines of the characters; jiai, which is the depiction of the scene; and fushi, which is when the narrator seemingly sings along with the shamisen.
The puppeteers are the third intrinsic part of a bunraku performance. Traditionally, it takes three puppeteers to control one puppet: a principal operator and two assistants. They are in charge of making the puppets perform, with movements that bring to life the personalities of the puppets to enhance the storytelling. The puppeteers are always visible to the audience, but are generally dressed in black to symbolize their intended “invisibility.”
See for Yourself
If you’re looking to learn more about this traditional art, Discover Bunraku is the perfect introduction. The two-part event is hosted by the National Theatre – Tokyo and is held in a shorter format than the traditional three- to four-hour performances.
The first part of the event consists of a commentary about the art of bunraku, so even if you’re not familiar with the details or history of the art form, you’ll learn plenty! And don’t worry, the guidance will be in English—a perfect way to find out more bunraku facts.
In the second part of the event, the cast will perform a scene from the play Shinpan Uta Zaimon. The scene is titled “Nozakimura” and is set in Nozakimura, a village near Osaka. The scene focuses on love, betrayal and separation. To learn more about the fates of the characters, we recommend you watch the show and enjoy the drama for yourself.
The event takes place on December 14 and starts at 6pm. Tickets go on sale online and through telephone reservation from 10am on November 14. Box office sales start from November 15. Tickets cost ¥4,500.