Category Archives: Japan

Puppetry in Japan

Japan has been known for practicing one of the oldest traditions of puppetry known as bunraku.  A certified UNESCO intangible cultural heritage, bunraku was birthed in Osaka during the Edo period to serve as entertainment for commoners, and later evolved into artistic theatre in the 17th century. 

(Photo from Teatrong Mulat collection)

Bunraku Puppets

Made from Japanese cypress wood, bunraku puppets are about one half life-size manipulated by three puppeteers. Typically, the master puppeteer (omo zukai) would hold the head and right arm, while two other puppeteers would hold the left arm (hidari zukai) and the feet (ashi zukai). 

Puppeteers usually take 10 years to master one segment of the puppet starting with the feet before moving on to the left arm and then the head and right arm. Traditionally, one would need to dedicate a lifetime to master this art of puppetry. 

These puppets typically do not have strings, instead they have wooden handles for each body part. Strings are sometimes added as mechanisms for the eyebrows, eyelids, eyes and mouth, to help the puppet show more expression. There may also be some mechanism for the hands in order for the puppet to grasp an object. These additional mechanisms are added depending on the movement needed from the puppet.

When performing bunraku, the puppeteers are still seen by the audience on stage dressed in all black to symbolize their invisibility, at the same time the energy they provide to make the puppets come to life. This practice is called the transferring of souls. In addition to that, since the puppets are quite large, the puppeteer holding the head would need to wear geta or elevated slippers made of wood. It is worn to help the puppeteers in manipulating the puppet so that they would not need to slouch too much because of the higher level of the puppet. 

Bunraku now is still very much popular among locals and tourists, and the traditional form is still being practiced up until today. Throughout the years, puppet theatre groups that have modernized the traditional practice have also emerged in the country.