The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Latest trends in Kabuki, Noh/Kyogen and Bunraku   Kazumi Narabe (Journalist)
Latest trends in Kabuki, Noh/Kyogen and Bunraku   Kazumi Narabe (Journalist)
Bunraku is a form of puppet theater that arose in Osaka during the Edo Period. The puppets are manipulated to the recitation of joruri (the narrative) by reciters known as gidayu and the accompaniment of the low-pitched futozao shamisen. At first each puppet was manipulated by a single puppeteer, but the practice of sannin-zukai, in which a single puppet body is manipulated by three puppeteers, emerged during the 1700s. The omo-zukai (head puppeteer), who manipulates the head and right hand, is the leader, while the hidari-zukai (left puppeteer) manipulates the left hand and the ashi-zukai (foot puppeteer) manipulates the feet. Working in perfect unison, the three puppeteers were able to give the puppet a greater delicacy and richness of expression. One of the attractions of bunraku is that it is a human drama unfolded through the harmoniously combined efforts of these puppeteers, the shamisen-kata (shamisen player), and the tayu narrator, who recites the parts of distinct multiple characters.

Although bunraku had been very popular, the performances began to go continuously into the red from around 1955. In 1963, therefore, the national government, Osaka Prefecture, and NHK provided assistance and the Bunraku Association was established. Performers became craft artists affiliated with the Bunraku Association, and they hold performances at the Small Theatre of the National Theatre of Japan in Tokyo and at the National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka.
A television documentary on two living national treasures, the puppeteer YOSHIDA Tamao and the reciter TAKEMOTO Sumitayu, was broadcasted in 2001. This program, which showed the artists engaged in continuing study and training, brought about a sudden revival of bunraku popularity, and tickets to Tokyo performances have been impossible to obtain in the two years since. The heart of this popularity is the perfected performance art presented by the five living national treasures and other artists of bunraku.

Bunraku does not have the same ie (family) system of kabuki to pass the art on from generation to generation, so any man with the necessary ability can find a future in bunraku. In fact, 44% of the 88 reciter, shamisen player, and puppeteer craft artists are people who have gone through the traditional performing artist training program started at the National Theatre in 1972 to foster successors in bunraku art. Many of these people came to the program without any previous background in bunraku. Trainees receive two years of basic education, after which they take part in stage performances under a master's instruction. It is a serious course of training, which is said to finally produce top-level results for foot puppeteers after ten years and left hand puppeteers after twenty years, while reciters are not said to attain that level until they are in their fifties. This training program has been fostering successors in the art, and one of its graduates, NOZAWA Kinya (a shamisen player), succeeded to the name of NOZAWA Kinshi V at the age of 41 in 1998.

There are promising signs for the next generation. The puppeteer YOSHIDA Minotaro succeeded to the name of KIRITAKE Kanjuro, for example, and a group of middle-level and younger performers staged a joint event at the National Theatre that also included gospel singing and other such performances in between the bunraku. There have also been su-joruri (stand-alone joruri) performances of the narration and shamisen accompaniment without puppets. In November 2003 bunraku was also designated a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" by UNESCO. Still, the loss of three reciters in their fifties over the past several years has left a gap, and the living national treasures who are working to uphold the popularity of bunraku have grown old, YOSHIDA Tamao being 84 and TAKEMOTO Sumitayu 79. Therefore the change to the next generation remains an issue.
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