Friday, July 4, 2008

The invisible men of Bunraku.


Bunraku (文楽?), also known as Ningyō jōruri (人形浄瑠璃), is a form of traditional Japanese puppet theater, founded in Osaka in 1684.

Three kinds of performers take part in a bunraku performance:
  • Ningyōtsukai or Ningyōzukai - Puppeteers
  • Tayū - the chanters
  • Shamisen players
Occasionally other instruments such as taiko drums will be used.
The most accurate term for the traditional puppet theater in Japan is ningyō jōruri. The combination of chanting and shamisen playing is called jōruri and the Japanese word for puppet is ningyō.

Originally, the term "Bunraku" referred only to the particular theater established in 1872 in Osaka, which was named the Bunrakuza after the puppeteering ensemble of Uemura Bunrakken, an early 19th century puppeteer on Awaji, whose efforts revived the flagging fortunes of the traditional puppet theater in the 19th century.

The later prominence of the National Bunraku Theater of Japan, which is a descendant of the theater founded by Bunrakken, has popularized the name "Bunraku" in the twentieth century to the point that many Japanese use the term to refer generically to any traditional puppet theater in Japan.

However, almost all of the traditional puppet troupes currently in existence outside Osaka were founded and named long before the appearance of Uemura Bunrakukken and his theater, so they generally do not use the word to describe themselves. The exception is the few troupes that were organized by puppeteers from the Bunraku-za or its successors who left Osaka to found theaters in the provinces.

Bunraku puppets range in size from two-and-a-half to four feet tall or more, depending on the age and gender of the character and the conventions of the specific puppet troupe. Of the many theaters across Japan, the puppets of the Osaka tradition tend to be somewhat smaller overall, while the puppets in the Awaji tradition, where most performances were originally held in large spaces outdoors, are some of the largest.

The heads and hands of traditional puppets are carved by specialists, while the bodies and costumes are often constructed by puppeteers. The heads can be quite sophisticated mechanically. In plays with supernatural themes, a puppet may be constructed so that its face can quickly transform into that of a demon. Less complex heads may have eyes that move upside down side to left side and close, and noses, mouths, and eyebrows that move.
Controls for all movements of parts of the head are located on a handle that extends down from the neck of the puppet and are reached by the main puppeteer inserting his left hand into the chest of the puppet through a hole in the back of the torso.

The main puppeteer, the omozukai, uses his right hand to control the right hand of the puppet. The left puppeteer, known as the hidarizukai or sashizukai, depending of the tradition of the troupe, manipulates the left hand of the puppet with his own right hand by means of a control rod that extends back from the elbow of the puppet. A third puppeteer, the ashizukai, operates the feet and legs.

All but the most minor characters require three puppeteers, who perform in full view of the audience, generally wearing black robes. In some traditions, all puppeteers also wear blacks hoods over their heads, while others, including the National Bunraku Theater, leave the main puppeteer unhooded, a style of performance known as dezukai.

Usually a single chanter recites all the characters' parts, altering their pitch in order to switch between various characters. However, sometimes multiple chanters are used. The chanters sit next to the shamisen player on a revolving platform, and from time to time, the platform turns, bringing replacement musicians for the next scene.

The shamisen used in bunraku has a sound which is different from other shamisen. It is lower in pitch, and has a fuller tone.

Bunraku shares many themes with kabuki. In fact, many plays were adapted for performance both by actors in kabuki and by puppet troupes in bunraku. Bunraku is particularly noted for lovers' suicide plays. The story of the forty-seven ronin is also famous in both bunraku and kabuki.

The character Osono, from the play Hade Sugata Onna Maiginu, in a performance by the Tonda Traditional Puppet Troupe of Nagahama, Shiga Prefecture.

Bunraku is an author's theater, as opposed to kabuki, which is a performer's theater. In bunraku, prior to the performance, the chanter holds up the text and bows before it, promising to follow it faithfully. In kabuki, actors insert puns on their names, ad-libs, references to contemporary happenings and other things which deviate from the script.

The most famous bunraku playwright was Chikamatsu Monzaemon. With more than one hundred plays to his credit, he is sometimes called the Shakespeare of Japan.
Bunraku companies, performers, and puppet makers have been designated "Living National Treasures" under Japan's program for preserving its culture.

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