Japanese Bunraku, the holy of holies

Today I tackle the holy of holies, Bunraku, that unique form of puppetry that only the Japanese would create and lovingly foster in the state-run National Bunraku Theatre of Osaka.

I could do a whole essay on this fascinating art form, which is also a cultural phenomenon: writing about the thirty year apprenticeship of a head puppeteer; on the similar life-long training of every practitioner of all the related arts—the chanter, who’s in his fifties when he begins to find his voice; the samisden player; the wig maker; the couturiers who make and maintain the lavish costumes; the sculptors and painters who create the heads and the builders who make the intricate mechanisms that move the dolls with such startling precision. The repertoire is almost wholly classical, consisting of familiar plays first written in the eighteenth century, and performed as they have been performed from the beginning: no innovations here.

I can’t imagine an art more alien to North America’s fast-food, quick-hit culture: but Bunraku has been hugely influential here over the past thirty years, particularly in the ease with which we have adopted the practice of two or three visible puppeteers animating a single doll.

In Bunraku, each puppet has three black-clad puppeteers. Only the face of the head puppeteer is unveiled, and he wears platform shoes that, despite their cumbersome appearance, in no way obstruct the dance-like speed and flow of his movements. The three breathe in harmony and move as one, with the grace and apparent ease of life-long dancers. Each gesture that the puppet makes is precise, deft, graceful—all those things, but more, because each has symbolic meaning. A puppeteer apprentices as a teenager, learning to animate males or females (that’s it for life: they don’t cross over): after ten years, he (they’re always male) is allowed to manage the feet, after another ten years, the left arm, and after thirty years, as head puppeteer, he takes the head and the other arm.

Here’s an eight minute link to a European tour by the Sugimoto Bunraku that offers a taste of the emotional power, the rich costumes and the expressive movement of Bunraku performance:

For a conventionally middle-class but nonetheless informative ten minute interview with a master puppeteer, try this:

And here’s an hour-long, full-fledged behind-the-scene introduction to the masters:

A Printer's Son