Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Scene from bunraku ‘The Love Suicide at Sonezaki'. Each puppet is operated by three puppeteers. ©Agency for Cultural Affairs in Japan

Ningyo Johruri Bunraku Puppet Theatre

Ningyo johruri bunraku is a puppet theatre composed of three elements: the chanter, the shamisen player, and three puppeteers. Bunraku originated at the end of the sixteenth century and was first performed outside or inside makeshift theaters, but in the mid-seventeenth century, it began being performed in more prominent theaters in cities such as Osaka, Kyoto, and Edo (now known as Tokyo).

At the end of the seventeenth century, a chanter named Gidayu Takemoto began chanting plays by writer Monzaemon Chikamatsu. These focused more on chanting with very little singing and soon became known as gidayu-bushi.

Until that time, one puppeteer manipulated one puppet, but in the mid-18th century this increased to three. The puppets are about 120 to 150 centimeters long, with one puppeteer controlling the head, right arm, and hand, with the second puppeteer manipulating the left arm and hand, and the third operating the legs. The puppeteer manipulating the head, controls the puppet’s overall movement. Through this, the puppet’s expressions become delicate and realistic, suitable for the contents of gidayu-bushi.

Out of 700 plays, roughly 170 are being transmitted. Some of them reference historical events, whereas others illustrate the life of local people. At the peak of its popularity many people studied gidayu-bushi and chanted them for their own amusement. They then began to understand bunraku, and became fierce critics of it, resulting in the refinement of bunraku based on the audience’s comments and critiques.

Chanters and shamisen players require more than ten years’ training to master basic performance techniques. The puppeteers first learn to operate a puppet’s legs and left hand; to become the main puppeteer also takes nearly ten years.

Since the nineteenth century, as plays and other entertainment were introduced to Japan from abroad, bunraku became less popular. By the start of the twentieth century, the number of theaters had decreased to one, and one performance group remained. The group then split and reunited later to continue performing in Osaka and Tokyo.

To transmit bunraku to the next generation, the government began offering support toward successor training programs and public performances, based on the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, which was introduced in 1950. In 1955, this support was further increased as bunraku was designated an Important Intangible Cultural Property. In 1966, the National Theatre was built in Tokyo, and in 1984, the National Bunraku Theatre was built in Osaka.

Those wishing to become bunraku performers trained as apprentices of master performers, but their numbers declined significantly as bunraku became less popular. Institutional training for transmitters began in 1972 at Tokyo’s National Theatre and moved to Osaka’s National Bunraku Theatre in 1984. Although only two or three people graduate from this training center each year, half of today’s professional bunraku performers are among those who completed it.

In 2003, bunraku was proclaimed a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO and incorporated onto the Representative List in 2008. Through this inscription, it is hoped that there will be more interest in bunraku from a larger more widespread audience and that more people will become great performers and successfully transmit this performing art.