Bunraku: Ningyo Joruri

To a Western audience, it is one of the enduring enigmas of classical Japanese theater: How does Bunraku evoke such intense emotions that it often brings spectators to tears? More than 400 years old, the deeply stylized tradition of stagecraft uses wooden-headed puppets whose operators are in full view of the audience.

Recently, I watched a 35mm film print of Mishima with a young audience at Camerimage in Poland. (I wrote about this experience here.) During a scene from the “Temple of the Golden Pavilion” sequence, I recalled a conversation I had with the film’s production designer, my dear friend Eiko Ishioka, regarding the traditions of classical Japanese theater honored in the film. Even as Western theater evolved from the declamations of Elizabethan and Jacobean stages to increasingly naturalistic performance modes, these Japanese traditions remained nearly frozen for centuries. 

The three great strains of Japanese theater are Kabuki, Noh and Bunraku. Kabuki, probably the tradition best known outside Japan, employs recognizable actors and elaborate costumes and make-up and embraces a combination of energetic movement and dance that is comparatively audience-friendly.

A Kabuki production
A Kabuki production

The highly formalized choreography of Noh is deeply imbued with hierarchical rituals of social fealty and duty. Noh actors wear masks that limit their field of view, and they employ deliberate movement, with the rigid, vertically oriented costumes suggesting a slow, floating walk.

A Noh production
A Noh production

But it is the puppet theater of Bunraku that is, in some way, both the most and least accessible to Western eyes and ears. Drawing on ritual elements from both Noh and Kabuki, Bunraku has a performance history nearly as ancient as that of Noh, and it shares many source dramas with Kabuki.

A Bunraku production
A Bunraku production

Many texts were written by the “Japanese Shakespeare,” Chikamatsu Monzaemon. Indicative of reverence for the sung text in Bunraku is the tayu’s presentation of the text to the audience before a performance begins.

In the winter of 1984, when I was in production on Mishima in Japan, I often attended classical-theater performances, and I was mesmerized by all three of the great Japanese traditions, each one so alien to my own experience. But it was Bunraku that most intrigued me, and that is still the case today. As a filmmaker, and especially as cinematographer, I am aware of the techniques and aesthetics of camera and lighting when I’m watching a movie. This awareness does not prevent me from enjoying the same emotional connection experienced by other viewers, but it does make the experience richer. In a similar fashion, I have always regretted that I do not have a greater grounding in music counterpoint, harmony and performance. My wife, Carol, who was a concert oboist before turning to film editing, brings a skill set to her appreciation of concert music that I can only dream of.

It is an abiding curiosity about all arts I don’t fully understand that attracts me to these most strange rituals of Japanese theater, especially Bunraku, a performance art that has no real equivalent in the West. Because I wasn’t raised in Japanese culture, perhaps this understanding will always elude me.

I found a short documentary that offers an introduction to the tradition of Bunraku and defines the role of the “yuka” musicians, who provide narrative and dialogue for the puppets. These artists are the “tayu,” or chanter, and the futo-zao shamisen player, a larger, lower-register instrument than the shamisen used in concert ensembles. You may want to start the video at 3:40, when it shows the three puppeteers, the puppet minus costume, and the enclosing parapet. This shows how the "omozukai," the main puppeteer (usually bare-headed), the “hidarizukai” and the “ashizukai” (usually hooded) articulate the head and the extremities in coordinated movement. Starting the video from the top presents a capsule history of the tradition.

In another video, excerpted from an NHK documentary on the techniques of Bunraku, master “omozukai” Kiritake Kanjuro takes us behind the stage to reveal how the “kashura” is controlled by his left hand, with five strings attached to the puppet’s features.

We see the three puppeteers working as a unit to create physical and emotional states in the single figure and, in much greater detail, the action of the arms, hands and "legs." (The female puppets actually have no legs.)

There is a sense of intimacy, even communion, in watching these puppets that is different from the way we experience human actors. Philosophers have long been fascinated by the debate between free will and determinism. Knowing that absolute control of the Bunraku puppets is rendered by three men, two of whom are usually hooded and in the shadows, evokes a specter of inevitability, even fatalism, as we participate in the drama. Moreover, it’s somewhat ironic that the “omozukai” puppeteer, with his “dezukai” neutral expression in the midst of the most intense dramatic action, seems to be more like a guide or attendant to his puppet; the figure seems to move where directed and at times to break free, followed by his attendant.

It was this idea of pre-ordained narrative and action that so engaged me when I became fascinated with classical Japanese movies. Several directors, such as Mizoguchi, Shinoda and Kobayashi (especially in their “jidaigeki” dramas of the Edo period), seemed to translate this sense of Bunraku-like stasis and fate to their actors. This connection seems to me to be no accident. You can see its traces in this trailer for Mizoguchi’s Life of Oharu, which includes a brief shot of Bunraku puppeteers:

And at the end of this trailer for Shinoda’s Double Suicide, we see hooded, Bunraku-style puppeteers: 

It is worth noting that the storyline of Double Suicide was initially performed as Bunraku drama.

This final video, taken from a 2013 European tour of Double Suicide as envisioned by the great photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, presents Bunraku as I first saw it decades ago at the Wilshire Ebell Theater in Los Angeles. The drama is performed in tight spotlights that isolate the figures, with little light spilling onto the puppeteers or the background. The final 90 seconds illustrate the frenzy of the double suicide in a bravura display of movement.

Sugimoto’s lighting creates a deeply moving and disturbing aura that lingers after the light fades. Once again, this centuries-old tradition engages an audience anew.

Sugimoto's "Double Suicide"
Sugimoto's "Double Suicide"


Wormwood: Errol Morris


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