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A Brief Introduction to the History of Bunraku

by Matthew Johnson

Bunraku is the name commonly used for ningyo-joruri, literally puppets and storytelling. This simple name not only describes a puppet performance, but also alludes to its predecessors. There was a long tradition of travelling storytellers who used biwa as their accompaniment. There were also travelling puppeteers. When these two art forms were joined is not exactly clear, but the beginning of what is now called Bunraku was 1684, when Takemoto Gidayu set up his own theater in Osaka.

Takemoto Gidayu began his career as a narrator under some of the most acclaimed masters of the period in Kyoto. He soon became famous in his own right, and was known for intimite story telling that spoke the hearts of the characters. In 1684 he decided to branch out and form his own theater, and was helped in his effort by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, the greatest playwright in Japanese history, and Takeda Izumo, a famous theater owner and manager.

Until this time, Chikamatu Monzaemon's work had mostly been in the Kabuki theater, working with Sakata Tojuro, the actor who created the wagoto, or soft style for which Kansai Kabuki became known. Drawn to Bunraku by Gidayu, Chikamatsu worked as a bridge between old-style joruri and Bunraku. While often keeping much of the fantasy of older tales, Chikamatsu's works are distinct for adding human elements. His drama's usually revolved around the confucian concepts of the importance of loyalty (to one's feudal lord, family, etc.) over personal feelings and the tragedy that arises when one blindly follows the precepts.

Chikamatsu's other great accomplishment was the creation of sewamono , or plays about the merchant class. Greatly received in Osaka, a commercial town, a majority of these sewamono were about shinju, or love suicides. By trying the revolutionary idea of taking a recent event, that of the death of a courtesan and her lover, and dramatizing it into the play Sonezaki Shinju, Chikamatsu captured the imagination of the city. The play spawned not only copies, but influenced others to actually commit double suicide in the hope that their love would live on forever. In contrast to the historical plays mentioned above, here the conflict arose from the characters choosing personal feelings over loyalty.

If Gidayu and Chikamatsu provided the art for Bunraku, Takeda Izumo provided the money to start and technical knowhow. Takeda already ran widely popular karakuri puppet theaters and was a powerful political figure among the merchant class. Even when plays made money, proper management was necessary to keep the theater financially stable, and the Takeda family had made its fortune as producers. Takeda's other contributions to Bunraku are the effects to make the puppets more life like and to add spectacle to the theater. Both of these came from his experience in the Karakuri puppet theater. Those effects that worked in the karakuri theater he quickly introduced to Bunraku, including technical developments for the puppets, which are discussed below, and spectacular sets.

In 1703, Wakatayu left the Takemoto-za and began the Toyotake-za with the lead playwright Ki no Kaion. It was the competition between these two theaters that led to the high level of art achieved in Bunraku. Though the narrators of the Toyotake-za created their own style, romantic and feminine compared to the masculine power that was prominent at the Takemoto-za, their narration is still considered to be in the Gidayu style.

The death of Chikamatsu and Ki brought the end of an era, but was also the beginning of the golden age of Bunraku. The situation was such that it led one writer to comment that it was like there was no Kabuki. Though this observation must be taken with a grain of salt (Osaka at the time had three thriving Kabuki theaters but only two Bunraku theaters), it shows that the publics interest was captured more by Bunraku, thus indicating that it was the puppet theater in which the bulk of creativity and freshness was concentrated.

While the competition between the two theaters helped produce this state, the interplay between Bunraku and Kabuki cannot be ignored. Inspired by the success in Bunraku, Kabuki increasingly adapted plays written for the puppets. Along with the plays, the acting styles used in these plays mimicked the movements of the puppets, adding to the already stylized reparatory. Bunraku also looked to Kabuki for innovation. While new plays were mostly adaptations of earlier Chikamatsu and Ki works, the influence of Kabuki in the scale of the plays is clear. And while Kabuki actors mimicked the movements of puppets, puppeteers strived for realism. This led to a number of innovations, including moving eyes, eyebrows, etc, but the biggest step in this direction was the use of three puppeteers to control one puppet: one for the head and right arm (hand), one for the left arm and one for the feet. The first time this method was used was in the play Kuzu no ha, first performed in 1734.

This golden period reached its height in the 1740's. There had been a trend since the death of Chikamatsu and Ki no Kaion to have plays written by a group of playwrights. At the beginning of this period, the 1730's, these groups were led by Namiki Sosuke at the Toyotake-za and Bun Kodo at the Takemoto-za. In 1745, though, Namiki Sosuke moved to the Takemoto-za and along with Takeda Izumo and Miyoshi Shoroku, they produced what are considered to be the three greatest classics in both Bunraku and Kabuki: Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami, Yoshitsune Sembonzakura and Kanadehon Chushingura, along with a number of plays still performed regularly today.

In the mid 18th century, Bunraku began to thrive in Edo. Though there had been theaters before, these mostly showed plays that had been written in Osaka. The emergence of playwrights Hiraga Gennai, a sort of Edo period renaissance man, and Yo Yodai, a former doctor in the shogun's court, led to a period from which a number of classics was born. Unfortunately, the period was short as the playwrights lost interest and moved on to other hobbies.

Bunraku began a decline from the 1750's due to the death of Namiki, Takeda and popular narrators. Its last gap of glory came in the 1770's with the emergence of the playwright Chikamatsu Hanji. Working on the bulk of works that came before him, Hanji wrote plays with extremely complicated interpersonal relationships and had a flair for out-of-the-blue endings. Still, the quality and strength of his work is evident in the fact that a majority of the plays are still performed today.

After Hanji's death, Bunraku fell into an irrecoverable decline. Though there were hit plays, they were few and far between. In fact, Ehon Taikoki, which premiered in 1799, is often called "the last Bunraku classic." Despite a number of star puppeteers and narrators, the lack of a skilled playwright could not be overcome, and by the early 19th century, the theater had already turned exclusively to plays of the past.

Bunraku today is enjoying a mild revival. In 1966 it gained what it did not have in almost 150 years when the opening of the National Theater in Tokyo gave it a permanent home. In 1985 this home moved to its origin, Osaka, with the opening of the National Bunraku Theater. Currently there are four performances each a year in Tokyo and Osaka plus a yearly travelling show. The popularity of puppeteers Yoshida Tamao, Yoshida Minosuke and Yoshida Bunjaku helps fill the theaters and the number of younger patrons has begun to rise in recent years. Still, though audiences are important, the aging of the all- important backstage workers - head carvers, costume makers, etc. - and the lack of people to take their place poses an increasing problem for the future of this 300 year old art form.


All text copyright Matthew Johnson

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Last updated 14 August 1995