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Bunraku and Tabletop: What’s In A Name?

Penny Francis investigates, in the first of a series of articles on history and form

Impossible for this writer to guess how a member of the National Theatre of Osaka, Japan, would react on hearing that any puppet operated by rods from the back of the figure is routinely termed ‘bunraku’ in the United States, and often in Britain. ‘The puppets were manipulated Bunraku-style’, ‘they were bunraku puppets’. The B may be capitalised or not. In Britain, we more often call the type ‘tabletop’ puppets. In both cases the figure is controlled by one, two or three visible operators, using collaborative skills to effect the puppet’s gestures and move it through the scenic space. The problem of the name applies in either case: the art of the Bunraku-za, the theatre company that is now a national treasure of Japan, is not often present in the western manifestation except in its palest form, like a tenth generation photocopy. And in fact most of this does not aspire to such heights.

It seems just as wrong to label the generic puppet operated from the rear ‘tabletop’ as ‘bunraku’. Sometimes there truly is a tabletop staging (think of The Miser by Tabola Rassa or Liebe Wetzel’s work), but – more often not – they are sometimes moved on the ground and through the space as though the feet were on the ground.

The Bunraku company’s puppets and all modern tabletop puppets (though never called that in Japan) are descendants of the figures that have been seen in temple courtyards throughout Japan since the middle ages – but which found their home on Awaji island where, though not nearly as numerous as they were, they are still loved and performed as part of the culture. If you have seen the Awaji puppets or a temple courtyard performance, you will know that the contrast with the company founded by Uemura Bunrakuken in Osaka in the early years of the 19th century is marked. The former are far less refined as to the puppets and the playing.

All the companies, including the Bunraku-za, are playing in the style that has come to be known as ningyo joruri – it’s a storytelling art which in some form or another is common to puppets the world over. In the case of the Japanese joruri, the storyteller chants the text at the right side of the stage (audience’s right), seated next to the musician who accompanies him, usually on a stringed instrument called the samisen. The emotion of the singer is highly charged, to match the emotion of the characters so exquisitely operated across the stage below. Each figure usually has three operators. All are men and it is very much a man’s domain, although I did once witness a female chanter bringing a thrilling new quality to a National Theatre performance in Tokyo.

The Bunraku-za of Japan aspires to heights of professional excellence through techniques of puppet-making and performance that take years of training. The aim is perfection, precision, aesthetic satisfaction. If excellence equals elitism, you’ll find the elite in the puppeteers chosen for the company and those members of the audience able to appreciate the delicate and complicated craftsmanship of the figures, the sumptuous costuming, the gestures and the operatically tragic destinies of the characters. They are generally victims of the strict moral codes of conduct of an aristocratic society long past. There is frequently a suicide, usually by a young woman. Double Suicide is a 1969 film (well illustrated on the web if you care to search for it) based on the 1721 play The Love Suicides at Amijima written for the puppets by one of the greatest Japanese playwrights, Chikamatsu Monzaemon. He wrote many plays for this puppet theatre, further proof of the excellence that extends to every aspect of the productions.

Why did we in the west start to use the term ‘Bunraku’ when the back-operated puppets we produce might have been designated ‘Awaji’ or ‘Joruri’? We seem to aim too high with ‘Bunraku’, and if I were an aficionado of the Japanese company I think I’d be indignant at some of the modern work calling its puppets or its shows ‘Bunraku-style’. Is it not like saying of a writer who writes in iambic pentameters, ‘he/she writes Shakespeare-style’?

That’s not to say that the mountain of back-operated puppets, now the most used of all the techniques, is generally inferior (except when it’s not well done of course). Not at all. There are countless examples of wonderfully operated and imaginatively applied rods-to-the-back puppetry. It’s not a question of wishing the technique away, that’s impossible. And no-one would advocate an endless duplication of the rigidity of the true Bunraku, just as no-one would want to reproduce Baroque Opera exactly as it was in the 18th century. It’s a question of a new name, probably a vain quest.

Occasionally the West produces a very fine and almost authentic copy of the Bunraku style: I am thinking of the boy puppet in English National Opera’s recent Madam Butterfly, meticulously operated by Blind Summit’s three blackhooded operators. There was Barry Smith’s Pierrot in Five Masks, similarly manipulated by three black-clad puppeteers who in this case were almost camouflaged by the lighting, in the ‘black theatre’ style (as opposed to the ‘black light’ theatre style that uses ultra violet lighting). The French Canadians, I am told, call these figures ‘derriere marionnettes’ or ‘marionnettes a derriere’ which you could not acceptably translate into English. ‘Behind Puppets’? I think not.

Has the tide come in too far, leaving little memory of the Bunraku’s origins in the western sands? Can we not – Canute-like – hold it back and substitute another generic name for the technique of rear-rod control? I have made the plea before, with no satisfying outcome, but it may be worth another pitch, with the new generation of practitioners.

Have you an idea? If so, please get back to us on
There may well be a prize.

Photos: Bunraku Warrior, Japan; Blind Summit in Madam Butterfly; Lady Dorothy by Seonaid Goody.

There’s another opportunity to see Blind Summit and their (possibly) bunraku-style puppets in Madam Butterfly when the production returns to the ENO in London in 2008. Dates:
31 January; 08/14/17/20/26/29 February; 05/07 March. See



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