Bunraku (Japanese puppet theater) (文楽)

"Bunraku" originally referred to playhouses especially for performing ningyo joruri (traditional Japanese puppet theater). At present, however, it is synonymous with ningyo joruri, one of Japan's traditional performing arts. It is said that Bunraku-za Theater started when Bunrakuken UEMURA of Awajikariya set up a hut called 'Seats in Kozujinchi, Nishinohama' at Minamizume, Kozu-bashi Bridge, Osaka and gave a performance there. It is designated as Important Intangible Cultural Property. It also is listed in 'Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity' based on Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and it is practically certain to be registered as an intangible cultural asset at the first registration scheduled for September, 2009. For ningyo-joruri before establishment of bunraku, see joruri.

Sangyo (three professions: tayu, shamisen player, and puppeteers)

Bunraku is performed by men. It is entertainment played by a trinity, which consists of 'sangyo'; tayu (narrator or chanter), shamisen player, and puppeteers. The place for performance which is thrown out toward the right side of the audience is called 'yuka' (musicians' stage), where the tayu and shamisen player perform joruri after appearing on the rotating tray. Puppets are called 'Tesuri,' named after the boards which conceal the puppeteers below their waists.


It means Joruri-Katari (chanters of Joruri). Basically one tayu chants the whole story, describing scenery and performing many characters, but in a long story he may be replaced by another tayu in the midst of the performance. At the time of alternate performance, several tayus form a row. There are many genres of joruri, but Gidayu-bushi (one genre of Joruri created by Gidayu TAKEMOTO) is used for bunraku.

In tayu-mei (stage name), tayu was represented with kanji (Chinese characters) meaning a 'stout man' before 1953, but since then it has been represented with kanji meaning a 'big man.'
Furthermore, dayu is pronounced as 'tayu' when two beats exist before it (for example, 'Wakatayu'), and pronounced as 'dayu' in other cases (such as 'Gidayu' or 'Koshiji Dayu').

(Note: Apart from bunraku, in the case of so-called Dayu of Takemoto [name of gidayu] who chants Gidayu-bushi on the stage of kabuki, his stage name is still represented with kanji meaning a 'stout man,' not a 'big man.')


Futozao (broad-neck) shamisen is used. The player sits straight, but has his buttocks completely rested on the floor with his knees wide apart. Futozao shamisen is also called "futo" because it sounds heavy (In contrast, hosozao [thinnest type of shamisen] is called "hoso").


In ancient times one puppet was manipulated by one puppeteer, but the way to manipulate a puppet with three people was invented at "Ashiyadoman Ouchikagami" in 1734, and now one puppet is usually manipulated by three puppeteers. The neck and right hand of a puppet are manipulated by the omozukai (main operator), the left hand by the hidarizukai (second operator) and the legs by the ashizukai (third operator). The three puppeteers keep time with cues from the omozukai, who is also called 'kashira' (head). Though dressed in black, the omozukai sometimes exposes his face at important scenes, so he is also called 'dezukai' (operator who shows himself). The hidarizukai and ashizukai conceal their faces.

Bunraku puppet

Bunraku puppets have different 'kashira' according to their age, status and personality as well as their gender, as follows:

Male heads

Kenbishi for tachiyaku (a leading male-role actor) who has masculinity and melancholic strength

Darasuke for a small enemy role with a sarcastic and slavish expression

Yokanpei for an actor who plays comic enemy roles

Matahei for an honest head of townspeople

Kiichi for an old samurai with a benevolent heart

Genda for a handsome man aged around twenty years

Wakaotoko for a partner in his teens in love stories

Komei for busho (Japanese military commander) aged forty or fifty years with an intelligent and delicate expression

Kintoki for a largehearted busho in jidaimono (historical plays).


Female heads

Musume with a naive expression, used as a single woman aged about fourteen or fifteen years

Fuke-oyama used as a woman with a wide range of age from her twenties to forties

Keisei, the most splendid female head with elegance and sexual charm of a highest-rank yujo (prostitute) as well as with an inner fortitude

Ofuku for an actress who plays comic roles


Heads are made of Kiso hinoki cypress, and in order to show expressive facial signals, gimmicks are built into moving parts such as eyebrows (Aochi) and eyes (Hikime and Yorime), and unazuki-ito (string for nodding) is attached to the inside of heads. Running rigging lines for manipulating heads are made of baleen.

Costumes of the puppets are pulled off after every performance and stored apart from heads. Thus puppeteers need to put costume on a puppet which they are going to manipulate. This is called "Ningyo koshirae" (making the doll).

About ningyo joruri

It is said to be generated as a result of linkage of puppet plays with Shamisen music and joruri in the early Edo period. It flourished with great talents such as Gidayu TAKEMOTO, who opened the Takemoto-za Theater in Osaka, and authors Monzaemon CHIKAMATSU and KI no Kaion. It was more popular than kabuki for a while, having various impacts on kabuki. Even today yagurashita (the lowest-rank tayu) is considered to have a higher status in accomplishments than Danjuro ICHIKAWA. It is also called "maruhon-mono" because many works of kabuki are an adaptation of ningyo joruri and books containing full-length works of joruri are called "maruhon"(complete set of books).

After that, Edo joruri was created by Fukuuchi Kigai (Gennai HIRAGA). During the Kansei era, between the end of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century, Bunrakuken UEMURA I created a za (theater) at Kozu-bashi Bridge (Chuo Ward, Osaka City), inheriting the tradition of ningyo joruri, which was about to go out of fashion with the popularity of kabuki. This theater was moved to Matsushima (Nishi Ward, Osaka City) in times of Bunrakuken UEMURA (Bunrakuo) in 1872 and changed its name into "Bunraku-za Theater." As Bunraku-za became the only theater specialized in ningyo joruri at the end of the Meiji period, it represented ningyo joruri.

Bunraku-za was brought under the control of Shochiku in 1909, and Shochiku started to give performances of bunraku. Later Bunraku-za was moved to the precincts of Goryo-jinja Shrine (Chuo Ward, Osaka City). After being burned down in 1929, it was relocated and built anew in Yotsubashi (Nishi Ward, Osaka City) but was burned down again at the time of Osaka Air Raid in 1945. It was restored in 1946, but in 1956 it was relocated and built anew on the remains of Benten-za Theater, Dotonbori (Chuo Ward, Osaka City). In connection with the restoration, Ikutaro HOSOI traveled all over Shikoku, which had escaped war damage, in order to collect puppets and was granted Ojuhosho (Medal with a Yellow Ribbon for industriousness) by the Emperor Showa for his great contribution. In addition, Ikutaro HOSOI supported Bunraku-za for a long time as a person in charge of matters related to backstage.

Due to conflict with Shochiku over better treatment, the Bunraku world was divided into 'Bunraku Chinami kai' on the side of the company and 'Bunraku Mitsuwa kai' on the side of the union in 1948. Partly because of such conflict, bunraku did not do well at the box office after the war. In 1963 Shochiku withdrew from bunraku and Bunraku-za changed its name into Asahi-za. Bunraku Kyokai was newly established, mainly operated by Osaka Prefecture and Osaka City and sponsored by the Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture (currently Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) and Japan Broadcasting Corporation, so the bunraku world was reintegrated and set to restart.

Though the bunraku world suffered a talent shortage for a while, young people have begun to approach the bunraku world to become a disciple since the trainee system was launched in 1973. The National Bunraku Theatre was completed in 1984, and then Asahi-za (former Bunraku-za), having given performances from time to time after withdrawal of Shochiku, was closed down.

Ningyo joruri, Bunraku' was registered as an intangible cultural asset in 2003.

Major works

They are divided into two categories according to the viewpoint of the Edo period: works featuring the past events called 'jidaimono' and those featuring contemporary matters called 'sewamono' (domestic plays).


Ashiyadoman Ouchikagami (Kuzunoha [birth of ABE no Seimei, Master of Yin yang])

Igagoe Dochu Sugoroku (Igagoe)

Ichinotani Futaba Gunki (Ichinotani)

Imoseyama Onna Teikin (Imoseyama)

Ehon Taikoki (Taikoki)

Oshu Adachigahara (Adachigahara)

Omigenji Senjin Yakata (Omigenji)

Kagamiyama Kokyo no Nishikie (Kagamiyama) (old brocade pictures of Mt. Kagami)

Kanadehon Chushingura (Chushingura) (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers)

Kamakura Sandaiki (Kamasan) (Three Generations of the Kamakura Shogunate)

Kiichihogen Sanryaku no Maki (Kiichihogen)

Gion Sairei Shinkoki (Gion Honoring Story, Golden Pavilion) (Shinkoki, Kinkaku-ji Temple)

Keisei Hangonko (Domomata)

Genpei Nunobiki no Taki (Nunobiki, Nunobiki no Taki)

Koinyobo Somewake Tazuna (Shigenoi Kowakare, Koinyobo)

Kokusenya Kassen (Kokusenya) (The Battles of Coxinga)

Goshozakura Horikawa Youchi (Goshozakura, Benkei Joshi)

Sho Utsushi Asagao Banashi (Asagao Nikki) (Morning Glory Diary)

Shin Usuyuki Monogatari (Shin Usuyuki) (The Tale of Usuyuki)

Sugawara Denjyu Tenarai Kagami (Sugawara) (Sugawara's secrets of calligraphy)

Sesshu Gappogatsuji (Gappo)

Dannoura Kabutogunki (Akoyakotozeme) (The War Chronicles at Dannoura)

Hananoueno Homareno Ishibumi (Shido-ji Temple)

Hirakana Seisuiki (Seisuiki, 逆櫨, Genta Kando) (The Rise and Decline of the Hirakana letters)

Heike Nyogo no Shima (Shunkan) (The Heike and the Island of Women)

Honcho Nijyushiko (Nijyushiko) (24 Paragons of Filial Piety of our Country)

Musume Kagekiyo Yashima Nikki (Musume Kagekiyo) (Musume Kagekiyo's Diary)

Meiboku Sendaihagi (Sendaihagi) (The Disputed Succession of the Date Family)

Yoshitsune Senbonzakura (Senbonzakura) (Yoshitsune and One Thousand Cherry Trees)

Robensugi no Yurai (The Story of Priest Roben)


Katsuragawa Renri no Shigarami (Katsuragawa)

Gotaiheiki Shiraishi Banashi (Shiraishi Banashi, Gotaiheiki)

Shinju Ten no Amishima (Ten no Amishima) (The Love Suicide at Amijima)

Shinju Yoigoshin (Ochiyo Hanbe)

Shinpan Utazaimon (Osome Hisamatsu) (The Love of Osome and Hisamatsu)

Sonezaki Shinju (Ohatsu Tokube) (Love suicides at Sonezaki)

Chikagoro Kawarano Tatehiki (Oshun Denbe, Horikawa)

Natsumatsuri Naniwakagami (Natsumatsuri) (summer festival Naniwakagami)

Hadesugata Onnamaiginu (Sakaya)

Futatsuchocho Kuruwa Nikki (Futatsuchocho) (Diary of two butterflies in the pleasure quarters)

Horikawa Nami no Tsudumi (Nami no Tsudumi)

Meido no Hikyaku (Umekawa Chube) (The Courier for Hades)

Tsubosaka Kannon Reigenki (Tsubosaka)


It was exposed that Tokutayu TOYOTAKE, a former head director of the welfare group of bunraku performers "Mutsumi kai," unduly withdrew 50 million yen of the group's fund from the bank account. Because of this, the group held an extraordinary general meeting on November 24, 2007 and resolved to charge Tokutayu for, and to denounce him as being guilty for, professional embezzlement. Furthermore Bunraku Kyokai terminated its contract with Tokutaro as of November 25 that year.

Sagami ningyo shibai (Sagami puppet play)

Atsugi City and Odawara City, Kanagawa Prefecture
Name of the conservation group: Sagami Ningyo Shibai Rengokai (Hayashi-za [Atsugi], Hase-za [Atsugi] and Shimonaka-za [Odawara])
In addition to the three groups mentioned above, Sakitori-za (Hiratsuka City) and Ashigara-za (Minamiashigara City), which were restored after the war, are also members of Rengokai.

Puppet plays in Sado (Bunya doll, Sekkyo doll and Noroma doll)

Sado City, Niigata Prefecture
Name of the conservation group: Sado Ningyo Shibai Hozonkai (Sado Bunya doll Promotion Association and Nibo-mura doll Preservation Society).
Its program includes 'Genji Eboshi Ori.'
Bunya-bushi is one of the old joruri works.

Makuwa ningyo joruri

Motosu City, Gifu Prefecture. Its performance is dedicated to Mononobe-jinja Shrine.
Name of the conservation group: Makuwa Bunraku Preservation Society
Its program includes 'Rennyo Shonin Ichidaiki.'
The performance site 'Makuwa puppet theater' is a significant tangible folk cultural asset.

Anori puppet play

Shima City, Mie Prefecture.
Name of the conservation group: Anori puppet play Preservation Society
It is also known as Anori Bunraku. Its performance is dedicated to Anori-jinja Shrine. Its program includes 'Date Musume Koi No Higanoko' (The Greengrocer's Daughter).

Awaji ningyo joruri

Minamiawaji City, Hyogo Prefecture. Name of the conservation group: Awaji puppet theater company (the chairperson is the mayor of Minamiawaji City).
It has a permanent museum called 'Awaji ningyo joruri museum.'
It is also flourished as club activities of schools on Awaji-shima Island. Its program includes 'Keisei Awa no Naruto' (The Courtesan of Naruto in Awa Province).

Awa ningyo joruri

Tokushima Prefecture.
Name of the conservation group: Awa ningyo joruri Promotion Association
As of September 2004, 14 groups of Ningyo-za, 6 tayu stables and 6 groups of masters of shamisen belong to the Promotion Association, and Awa Jurobe-za gives regular performances at Awa Jurobe Yashiki. It is also flourished as club activities of schools in Tokushima Prefecture.
Its program includes 'Keisei Awa no Naruto.'
Tools and products of Tenguhisa, a puppeteer, are designated as a significant tangible folk cultural asset.

Bunya doll in Yamanokuchi

Miyakonojo City, Miyazaki Prefecture.
Name of the conservation group: Yamanokuchi Bunya-bushi ningyo joruri Preservation Society
Bunya-bushi is one of the old joruri works.

Hanbara ningyo joruri

Mizunami City, Gifu Prefecture. Intangible cultural properties designated by Prefecture.

Otome Bunraku (women's bunraku)

It is performed by female puppeteers. Today one puppet is manipulated by one puppeteer, but shortly after its initiation (in the early Showa period), a puppet was sometimes manipulated by three puppeteers. Performers such as Mitsuka YOSHIDA and Masaya KIRITAKE are doing well.

[Original Japanese]