The Ancient Artistry of Bunraku : A Japanese Puppet Theater Keeps a 400-Year-Old Tradition Alive

<i> Sakamoto is a Times copy editor and playwright. His play "Chikamatsu's Forest" premiered at East West Players in 1986</i>

In postwar Japan, when Emperor Hirohito was permitted to see a theater performance for the first time in his life, he picked not Kabuki, not Noh, but . . . the Bunraku Puppet Theatre of Osaka. Quite an honor for a theater where the actors are only 36 inches high.

Los Angeles will get a chance to see this cultural treasure when the Bunraku National Puppet Theatre of Japan opens a five-day run starting Wednesday at the Japan America Theatre.

Will American theatergoers, who love their musical spectacles, such as “Les Miserables,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “Starlight Express,” appreciate puppet artistry that’s nearly 400 years old?

Well, if we’re talking musicals, maybe, because Bunraku in its own enchanting way is a musical with its singing/chanting narrator accompanied by samisen, flutes and drums. But the actors are wooden puppets--unassuming, mysterious creatures who live so lifelike an existence that audiences sometimes weep as the tragic stories unfold before their eyes.

(The term Bunraku is derived from Umemura Bunrakuen, who revived the sagging fortunes of puppet theater in the early 19th Century with his own theater in Osaka.)


The 27-member troupe will be performing a 1703 puppet play, “Sonezaki Shinju (The Love Suicides at Sonezaki)” by Chikamatsu Monzaemon. This compelling love story--a favorite of Japanese audiences--is about a young shop clerk, Tokubei, and a teahouse courtesan, Ohatsu, who see committing suicide together as the only way out of their problems.

When Japanese want Westerners to know how important Chikamatsu is to them, they say he is the Shakespeare of Japan. Can you imagine Shakespeare achieving literary immortality by writing Punch and Judy shows?

Yet, that is what Chikamatsu created: puppet plays. More than 100 of them. And he wrote them for adults . Some are considered masterpieces, such as “Sonezaki Shinju.” This was in the glory days of puppet theater, which flourished and challenged Kabuki and its dynamic theatrics for the loyalties of Osaka-Kyoto-Edo (Tokyo) audiences.

Lovers’ suicide was a familiar occurrence in 18th-Century Japan. Chikamatsu was fascinated by it and so was his audience. He wrote a number of plays about lovers killing themselves because of the conflict between duty and personal desire, an age-old Japanese dilemma known as giri-ninjo. His characters were the victims of a society with rigid codes of behavior in which individuals had to bend to societal pressure or face shame and degradation.

Of Chikamatsu’s historical and domestic dramas, those that have endured are the domestic tragedies. Audiences appreciated that he made common people the heroes in his plays. And he was the first playwright to use daily happenings around him for his plots; the doomed lovers in “Sonezaki Shinju” were taken from a real event.

The masses loved those tear-jerkers in Osaka, a bustling region of hard-working merchants, artisans and laborers. Noh dramas were patronized by the nobility, but the common people sought the robust and earthy plays of Kabuki and puppet theater. Nothing really intellectual but lots of raw emotion and good storytelling. If he were writing today in America, Chikamatsu might be churning out TV movies of the week specializing in true-life dramas that make media headlines.

Los Angeles will have an opportunity to see a Chikamatsu play as he intended it to be seen: with puppets. What possessed the man to forsake Kabuki, in which he first began writing, and journey from Kyoto to Osaka in mid-career to take up with wooden dolls? For one thing, Chikamatsu was disgusted with the egotistical Kabuki actors, who would change his lines and rewrite the play according to their own desires.

His good friend Takemoto Gidayu, a legendary singer/narrator, had opened his puppet theater in 1685 and asked Chikamatsu to join him. “Let’s create our own shows with puppets,” Takemoto might have said. “Forget those vain human actors who impose their personalities on your stories. Puppets are the perfect actors.”

Add to this the recognized artistry of puppeteer Tachimatsu Hachirobei, who was already with Takemoto. That was enough for Chikamatsu, who would never write for Kabuki again. Would Neil Simon or David Mamet give it all up for puppet theater? How about Tennessee Williams? Williams’ tales have a passion and lyricism that 18th-Century Osaka audiences would have applauded.

In any case, Chikamatsu joined Takemoto and Tachimatsu, and created puppet theater that overshadowed Kabuki for about 80 years. Chikamatsu brought warmth, wit, sensitivity to his plays and puppets. He skillfully captured the spirit of the Osaka people, writing in dramatic verse, using puns for serious and humorous effect, addressing the issues of the day with heartfelt emotions.

Kabuki actors, of course, were not amused when people preferred puppets over actors. Obviously, the actors studied their competition; soon they were copying puppet movement techniques and appropriating Chikamatsu’s puppet plays for themselves. To be fair, puppet theater also borrowed Kabuki techniques to revitalize itself.

(Interestingly, when the Grand Kabuki performed at Japan America Theatre in July, it staged “A Messenger of Love in Yamato,” which is based on a Chikamatsu puppet play; it too dramatized a true story of ill-fated lovers.)

Heading this rare Bunraku tour at Japan America Theatre are two masters with years of experience and dedication to the art. The chief puppeteer will be Yoshida Minosuke III, 55, who has been in Bunraku since age 6. The stage name Yoshida goes back to the early 18th Century. It was Yoshida Bunzaburo who created the three-men puppet style in 1734. In Chikamatsu’s day it was one man to a puppet.

In bringing a Bunraku puppet to life, the chief puppeteer, in full view in his formal kimono, silently works the doll’s head and right arm. One assistant moves just the left arm, another works the legs; both are dressed in black hoods and clothing. Female puppets have no legs, so the assistant must create the illusion by working with the skirt of the kimono in movement.

The presence of the puppeteers creates two different perspectives for audiences. Some spectators will become oblivious to the puppeteers on stage and concentrate on the story; others will be distracted and see the puppeteers as powerful forces controlling the lives of the characters, phantoms dogging every move of the tragic victims.

The narrator at the side of the stage will be Toyotake Rodayu V, 46, who will recite the story and do the voices of all the characters in a tour de force performance as he expresses the puppets’ sorrow, joy, anger and tenderness. The Toyotake name also has a heritage going back to the days of Chikamatsu. Toyotake Wakadayu was a disciple of Takemoto Gidayu and split with his master to form his own successful puppet theater across the street.

When Chikamatsu and Takemoto had a hit, Toyotake would immediately stage a production on the same idea--not unlike Hollywood’s penchant for copycat movies. The Japanese theatrical lineage is long and revered and intertwined. Chikamatsu versus Kabuki; Kabuki versus puppets; Takemoto versus Toyotake. But rivalries are forgiven when time and art heal the wounds of the past.

Like Kabuki, Bunraku’s stylized theater has survived centuries of turmoil and change to achieve a high art that now appeals to an international audience. The puppets hope to conquer Los Angeles too and promise a good show--no strings attached.