A general term applied to all major forms of traditional Japanese puppet theatre, and the source of many of Japan’s most famous plays and most powerful narrative music.
The term bunraku is derived from the stage name (Uemura Bunrakuken or Bunrakken ) of Masai Kahei (1737–1810), who brought a puppet tradition from Awaji Island to Osaka. In 1811 his successor, Bunrakken II, set up a theatre at the Inari shrine in Osaka; in 1872 the same company built a theatre called the Bunraku in the city’s Dōtonbori entertainment district, where there had been other puppet theatres since 1684. In the 20th century bunraku became the general term for such theatres. Under other names, puppetry in Japan can be traced back to the 12th century, its earliest forms possibly reflecting Asian continental influences and shamanism as well as indigenous religious functions. The major musical genre relating to bunraku is jōruri, which originated in the narration of the 15th-century Jōruri jūnidan sōshi (‘Tale of Princess Jōoruri in 12 episodes’). As this story and other musical narrations developed, they came to be known generically as jōruri. When such stories were accompanied, the first instrument generally used was the pear-shaped lute, biwa (see §II, 3 above). In the 16th century this instrument was replaced by the three-string plucked lute, shamisen or samisen (see §II, 6 above). In the early 17th century narrator and shamisen accompaniments were combined with puppet plays, first in Kyoto and then in Edo (now Tokyo).
After the great fire of 1657 in Edo, the tradition moved to Osaka. There the most famous musical puppet drama tradition began in 1684 at the Takemoto theatre with Yotsugi Soga (‘The Soga heir’), a historical play (jidaimono) by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653–1725) set to music by Takemoto Gidayū. A rival theatre was opened by Toyotake Wakadayū in 1703, the year in which Chikamatsu and Takemoto presented their first sewamono (‘modern’ play), Sonezaki shinjū (‘The double suicide at Sonezaki’), which dealt with a young merchant and a courtesan instead of historical or magical figures. The music of Takemoto was called gidayū-bushi to differentiate it from the many other jōruri genres (see §II, 6(ii) above).
In puppet theatres of the early Edo period (1603–1868) the musicians were placed backstage or behind a bamboo curtain forward of stage-left. The puppets were operated by one man from below. In 1705 both the operator and the musicians were brought into view of the audience, and in 1734 the three-man puppets of today were brought into use, one man handling foot movements, another the left arm and the third controlling the head and right arm. Through the use of internal strings and manipulative skills, extremely subtle dramatic actions are possible with such puppets.
Subsequent decades reflect continual innovations by puppeteers, playwrights and musicians as well as cycles of decay and restoration. Gidayū music was a popular amateur tradition outside the puppet theatre, and concerts of female performers (onna gidayū or musume gidayū) flourished from the 19th to the mid-20th centuries. It later revived as part of the post-World War II feminist movement in Japan. Since the mid-20th century bunraku has been supported primarily by government subsidy and by devotees; the National Bunraku Theatre is located in Osaka. All major texts are in print, and many amateur and professional performances can be seen. Recordings of many famous performers also exist.
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