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Bunraku Puppet Theatre

Photographer: Everett Kennedy Brown


Bunraku puppet theatre is one of Japan’s foremost stage arts, along with Kabuki and Noh. In 2008 it was listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity due to its unique blend of puppet drama, instrumental music accompaniment and song narrative. Bunraku first appeared in the early Edo period (ca. 1600) and has become a popular form of narrative drama depicting historical plays set in feudal times, and contemporary dramas that deal with conflicts between personal passions and social obligations.


On the stage, each puppet is manipulated by three puppeteers, who are visible to the audience as they stand behind a waist high screen. A narrator recounts the action from an elevated platform, and is accompanied by musicians who play three stringed lute like instruments, called a shamisen. The narrator performs both male and female roles, changing his intonation and voice to suit each role, while the puppeteers co-ordinate their movements to provide vividly realistic movements and emotions through the puppets gestures.


Though the Bunraku puppet theatre became a World Intangible Heritage in 2008 the Japanese government has done little to provide additional support for the performers, according to inside sources. This great arts tradition now faces a dwindling popularity among the Japanese populace, who are no longer accustomed to listening to the narratives presented in an antiquated language, while sitting for long hours during the performances. Furthermore, due to rigid and outdated labor laws, there is no established education system supported by the government to train young new performers. As a result, it is necessary for unprepared young performers to perform on the stage, weakening the quality of the performances, and further hampering the popularity of the puppet theatre. A growing number of professional performers are voicing deep concern about the future survival of their grand arts tradition.