Bunraku (文楽), also known as ningyō jōruri (人形浄瑠璃, lit. “doll recitals”) or ayatsuri jōruri shibai (操り浄瑠璃芝居 “puppet drama plays”) is traditional Japanese puppetry, derived from ayatsurishibai (操り芝居), a puppet theatre developed in Kyōto and Ōsaka in the early seventeenth century, which is based on the ancient art of puppeteers (傀儡 kairai or kugutsu). Ayatsurishibai performances were accompanied by the recital of dramas (浄瑠璃 jōruri) and by shamisen music. In 2003, “Ningyo Johruri Bunraku Puppet Theatre” was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.


In the late sixteenth century, ningyō (人形, dolls) were for the first time used in combination with jōruri. Jōruri were dramatic plots based on both fact and fiction, usually narrated by itinerant blind men accompanied by rhythms played on a biwa (琵琶, Japanese lute). The ayatsurishibai originated probably in Kyōto and spread to Ōsaka and Edo when travelling troupes performed the adventures of a legendary hero called Kimpira (金平) and his acolytes. Takemoto Gidayū (竹本義太夫, 1651-1724), a renowned jōruri chanter from Kyōto, opened a theatre, the Takemoto-za (竹本座), in 1684 in the Dotombori district of Ōsaka, and together with Chikamatsu Monzaemon (近松門左衛門, real name Sugimori Nobumori 杉森信盛, 1653-1725), created what – since the Meiji Era – has been known as Bunraku.

Gidayū has since become the term for all jōruri chanters. Gidayū’s most famous play is Sonezaki Shinju (曽根崎心中, “The Love-Suicide at Sonezaki”). In 1703, a former apprentice of Gidayū, by the name of Toyotake Wakadayu (豊竹若大夫) opened his theatre, the Toyotake-za (豊竹座). The rivalry between the two theatres resulted in an astounding development of new techniques in puppetry. The mid-eighteenth century saw the cultural apex of bunraku; sadly, its popularity declined shortly afterwards: the Toyotake-za had to close in 1765, the Takemoto-za followed in 1767. At the end of the eighteenth century, many of the best narrators, playwrights and puppeteers had passed away, and ayatsurishibai suffered in competition with the kabuki. Many of the successful plays written for the puppets were adapted for kabuki.

In the early nineteenth century, a jōruri singer called Uemura Bunrakuken (植村文楽軒) from Awaji Island (淡路島 Awaji-shima) settled in Ōsaka with his puppeteering ensemble and established a theatre that would be later be known as Bunrakuza (文楽座). The building was damaged by fire a couple of times and was last reconstructed in 1956. Currently, it is the only theatre exclusively reserved for this type of performance, drawing most of its plays from the repertoire of Chikamatsu Monzaemon. The troupe of the National Bunraku Theater is supported by the Japanese government and performs in addition to regular shows in Ōsaka and Tōkyō throughout Japan. Other troupes include the Awaji Puppet Troupe (淡路人形浄瑠璃), located on Awaji, the Imada Puppet Troupe (今田人形座 Imada Ningyōza) and the Kuroda Puppet Troupe (黒田人形座), both based in Iida, Nagano Prefecture, as well as the Tonda Traditional Japanese Bunraku Puppet Troupe (冨田人形共遊団 Tonda ningyō kyōyūdan) from Nagahama in Shiga Prefecture.


  • Tayu (太夫 chanter): recites character dialogues, explains the historical background behind events taking place on stage and performs all the roles in the story, ranging from young women to old man, each by himself.
  • Shamisen players: shamisen (三味線, lit. “three strings”) musicians play the entire music score from memory. Futozao (太ざお “thick-necked”), the largest shamisen instrument, is used in bunraku to produce flawless, evocative sounds to arouse audience emotions and add a powerful aura to the stage, while other shamisen types include the nakazao (中ざお, “medium-necked”), and hosozao (細ざお, “thin-necked”).
  • Puppeteers (人形遣い ningyōtsukai): it takes three operators to manipulate each doll. The head puppeteer (面遣い omotsukai) operates the doll’s head and face by holding a stick with levers in his left hand, and also the doll’s right hand with his own right hand; the hidaritsukai (左遣い, “left-hand puppeteer”), who uses his right hand to operate the doll’s left hand; and the ashitsukai (足遣い, “foot puppeteer”), who uses both hands to suggest the movements of the doll’s legs and feet. Skilful manipulators can even have the puppets handle and manipulate small objects, or even tear up a letter. In the case of a doll operated by three puppeteers, the puppet appears on the stage with all three operators in plain view of the audience, which is why they wear kurogo (黒巾, “black robes”). All puppeteers also wear black hoods over their heads, while the National Bunraku Theater leaves the principal puppeteer unhooded.
The three puppeteers must all become one with the doll to manipulate it, and they must also become one with, and work together with, the chanter and the shamisen player. It is this striking co-ordination that renders bunraku so outstanding, as the magnificent puppets seem to move about humanly and look like they were alive.

Bunraku puppets

The puppets are approximately one-half or two-thirds life-size. The heads (頭, kashira) of some puppets have movable eyelids and jaws. The main puppet characters were musume (娘, young woman), fukeoyama (老女形, married woman), bunshishi (文七, warrior), ōdanshichi (大団七, braggart), but their heads could be used for some roles. There is also some special wigs, usually made of human hair. The tokoyama (床山, “wig master”), is responsible for sewing, maintaining and creating an appropriate hairstyle (結髪 keppatsu) for each role.

Bunraku heads:


Bunraku puppet heads (courtesy of the Japan Arts Council)


Bunraku videos:

Other References:

  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric; Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005
  • Cover Image: Hiroshi Sugimoto