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December, 2003


UNESCO lauds 'Joruri bunraku' theater

PARIS (Kyodo) UNESCO on Friday recognized a traditional Japanese form of puppet theater as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
News photo
Tamao Yoshida (left) and Minosuke Yoshida operate bunraku puppets in the play "Sonezaki Shinju." (Kyodo Photo)

"Joruri bunraku" puppet theater was recognized in the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's second proclamation, along with 27 other forms of storytelling, music and performance from around the world, the organization said.

Joruri bunraku peaked in terms of artistry and skill in the 18th century. It features both serious and comical dramas and endures as a professional art form in Japan.

UNESCO released its first proclamation in 2001.

It included Noh theater and 18 other treasures with a view to raising international awareness and preservation of art forms from all areas of the world, particularly Asia and Africa.

In Joruri bunraku performances, three men operate each puppet, approximately half or two-thirds the size of a person, in intricately choreographed dances. A single chanter depicts the voice of each puppet, accompanied by three-stringed "shamisen" music.

Tamao Yoshida, designated a living national treasure for his operation of puppets, said: "I am aware of the heavy burden of maintaining the standards that merited international recognition. It has been getting hard for me recently to use heavy puppets, but I want to set a good example for young performers."

The Japan Times: Nov. 8, 2003

Hi, friends. I hope your winter is as beautiful as always.

Naruko and Tomoji Tsurusawa, Living National Treasure

This month, I would like you to see Naruko-Dayu again, whom I have introduced in one of my previous essays.

Why do I want you to see her again?
Because, as you see in the newspaper article above, Bunraku is now recognized as a "Masterpiece" of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Our Naruko-Dayu is a Gidayu artist, which means, a chanter for Bunraku.
So I congratulated her for the recognition. It is her wish that I should write something about Bunraku on my web page.
I have only little knowledge about Bunraku, so I will borrow the photos and explanations of Bunraku from the web-page of IPA. (Information-technology Promotion Agency)

Please enjoy.

From ancient times, people believed that dolls could take the place of human beings. Dolls were also considered incarnations of gods and so were a part of folk religion. Eventually, bands of performers started to travel the country, visiting shrines and temples and villages, and performed with their puppets. These performers were called kugutsu-mawashi.

Images of kugutsu-mawashi
from a collection of National Museum
of Japanese History

The Birth of Ningyo joruri
In the Edo period, puppet theater, which was all the craze throughout the country, and joruri, which provided dramatic narration with music, came together naturally. In this way, "ningyo joruri"--puppet theater with narration and music--was born. Against the backdrop of rapid urban economic development, ningyo joruri became one of the most popular forms of entertainment for the masses.

Takemoto Gidayu
At the end of the 17th century, a joruri narrator named Takemoto Gidayu appeared in Osaka and created "Gidayu bushi," a form of narration which not only brought together all the schools of joruri but also added to this a new sensibility. He then started his own theater company, Takemoto-za, in Dotonbori for performing puppet plays which became the most popular venue for entertainment in that city.

Portrait of Takemoto Gidayu
from the collection of
the Osaka City Museum

Portrait of Chikamatsu Monzaemon
from the collection of the Osaka City Museum

Chikamatsu Monzaemon
Though born of a samurai family, Chikamatsu Monzaemon discarded his birthright as a samurai and went to Kyoto to be a writer after his father became masterless. In his thirties, Chikamatsu wrote joruri plays. In his forties, he wrote Kabuki plays for the popular actor six years his senior, Tojuro Sakata.
The Collaboration between Gidayu and Chikamatsu
When Takemoto Gidayu started to collaborate with Monzaemon Chikamatsu, two years his junior, a new partnership between narrator and writer began. Chikamatsu resumed writing joruri plays which offered more freedom compared to restrictive Kabuki plays, and went on to produce many ningyo joruri scripts exclusively for the Takemoto-za.

Present-day Dotonbori. Tablet
in from of Naniwaza Theater
marking the spot where
Takemoto-za used to be

Script of Sonezaki Shinju

The Collaboration between Gidayu and Chikamatsu- "Sonezaki Shinju" ("Love Suicides at Sonezaki")
Chikamatsu Monzaemon developed a new genre of drama through his work in ningyo joruri. It was called "sewamono," and represented the lives of the city folk around him. His play "Sonezaki Shinju" ("Love Suicides at Sonezaki") which dramatizes a double suicide incident from 1703 became immensely popular.

"Sonezaki Shinju" ("Love Suicides at Sonezaki")
After his friend Kubeiji swindles money from him, Tokubei, an employee of a soy sauce store is despairing of any kind of future with his lover, the prostitute O-Hatsu. Because they can not be together in this life, this young couple put their faith in the next life and commit suicide together. This photograph is from the "Tenmanya" scene of the play where they try to affirm their decision without others noticing.

O-Hatsu doll and performers

When Chikamatsu Monzaemon and Takemoto Gidayu established the foundations of joruri, the puppets used in the plays were still each manipulated by a single puppeteer. However, soon thereafter, the form evolved to require three puppeteers per puppet who worked to find and perfect ways to make the puppets mimic human movement.

Chikamatsu Monzaemon wrote many pieces for Bunraku and Kabuki. He is often compared to William Shakespeare.

In my town Karatsu, there is a temple named Kinshoji, where Chikamatsu Monzaemon spent some years of his young studying days.

Chikamatsu's another famous "Sewamono",
"Meido no Hikyaku"

Well, there is too much to know about Bunraku. I hope this note will be of a small help for you to understand Bunraku. My friend Naruko-Dayu is going to be on a very big stage of NHK TV next month.
Please wish her good luck.

And I wish you a very happy new year!

Thank you very much for visiting this page.
I hope you will return next month.
Yours, Harumi Okochi

Proprietress of Ryokan Yoyokaku

  Mail to Harumi Okochi