a guide to puppetry 4: bunraku

The Bunraku puppet theatre of Japan represents the most refined and expressive of the puppet arts. There is quite simply nothing to equal it. Steeped in ancient craft traditions of puppet-making honed to a sheen, Bunraku demands the most rigorous training of its puppeteers, who work in teams of three per puppet. The main puppeteer, the omozukai, operates the head and right hand, the second puppeteer, the hidarizukai or sashizukai, operates the left hand, and the third, the ashizukai, the legs. (Or in the case of female characters, who have no legs, the kimono.)

The puppeteers remain in full view of the audience, though only the omozukai may work without a mask. Trainees begin with mastering the legs before graduating to the the left hand, and then to the head and right hand, an evolution that can take thirty years.

The government-supported National Bunraku Theatre is based in Osaka. The company offers five or more shows every year, each playing for two to three weeks in Osaka before transferring for a run at the National Theatre in Tokyo. It tours within Japan and occasionally abroad.

The musicians and the tayu, or chanter (see image below), perform to one side of the puppet stage. The function of the tayu is to give voice to each of the puppet characters and to be the narrator.


The tayu demonstrates the facial expressions of the characters while performing their respective voices. When there are multiple puppets on stage together, the tayu distinguishes between them by exaggerating each character’s expressions and voice, a technique that maximises the emotional impact of the performance for the audience.

Watch THIS FILM for a ten-minute masterclass in Bunraku puppeteering.

Click for my ‘guide to’ posts on Glove-Puppets, Shadow-Puppets, and Parts One and Two on Marionettes.

11 thoughts on “a guide to puppetry 4: bunraku

  1. Pingback: Puppet Catch-up: Clive’s Posts | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

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  3. Wow! that was incredible Clive. These are totally new to me and i must watch more of these in action. The skills involved are amazing and then the puppets themselves are…. perfection! (He got that right)

    Hmm, not sure a glove puppet is going to do it for me now!… well, i’m just going to have to make a brilliant glove puppet… and then move on. Just need to find some time. Now, where did i leave it? 🙂

    • Don’t dismiss the humble glove-puppet. Look again at Paul Klee and appreciate the spirit he brought to his puppets. You need different approaches for different aspirations. Bunraku is wonderful, but it’s not the only way.

  4. Wow, this is all slightly mind blowing! a 30 year apprenticeship?! astounding!
    The images are all wonderful – figures in trees are a recurring motif in my work so naturally the last image is my favourite!

        • All those masters of Bunraku are ‘mature’. It’s rather a relief to know somewhere in the world there’s the acknowledgement that age and experience are the qualities it takes to support an art-form as densely layered as Bunraku. I fear that in the west we think only the young produce anything worth looking at in the arts. But then in the west there’s also the attitude that puppets are for kids. Hey ho. Tell that to a Bunraku master!

          • I fear you are right Clive!
            Its a joy to be able to follow an artists development across the different periods of their (hopefully very long) life and to see the exploration of their themes and ideas deepening and widening as they accumulate life experiences.

            There is too much emphasis in favour of youth oriented and flash in the pan fad ‘styles’ of art in the west.

            It feels like ‘value’ and ‘worth’ get confused too often in my view.

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