The Opening Moments of a Bunraku Performance

The first sound of a Bunraku (Japanese puppet theater) performance is made by two pieces of wood clacked together: This is the signal (kōjō 口上), to both the audience and the performers, that all is ready for the start of the performance. A black-clad figure clacks the wood and shouts "tōzai tōzai" - literally, "east and west" - meaning "hear ye!" as the curtain is pulled along from right to left, revealing the setting of the scene to come.

Opening announcement (kōjō 口上) of The Love Suicides at Sonezaki (Sonezaki shinjū), in the scene "In Front of the Ikudama Shrine" ("Ikudama shazen") (GloPAD Audio Record 1006816)

 

口上
(GloPAD Image 1006531)

Once the curtain is drawn, the stage is visible, showing a scenic backdrop perhaps, or the interior of a house. The center of the stage is where the action – made up of stories of love and betrayal, loyalty and sacrifice, historical battles and contemporary scandals – takes place. But some of the performers do not appear on center stage.

kojo
(GloPAD Image 1006545)

A revolving platform turns, revealing (usually) two seated figures.

Revolving platform Revolving platform
(GloPAD Image 1006516) (GloPAD Image 1006512)

The narrator and musicians (shamisen players) appear on an auxiliary stage which extends into the hall to the audience’s right. Sometimes there is a whole line of musicians.

Narrators and musicians Bunraku stage
(GloPAD Image 1004595) (GloPAD Image 1006530)

The audience applauds while the black-hooded man who called out "tōzai tōzai" announces the play and scenes to be performed and introduces the narrator and musician by name, who both bow to the audience.

The moment of silence that follows the introduction heightens the anticipation.

When the musician begins playing the shamisen and the narrator begins his singing recitation, the puppeteers come on stage carrying puppets that are two-thirds human size.

The three puppeteers controlling a single puppet are not hidden: one puppeteer, whose expressionless face is seen right next to the puppet head in the image below, and two other black-hooded and clothed puppeteers, are also visible to the audience. At first glance, the stage looks crowded!

Puppeteers Bunraku stage
(GloPAD Image 1006522) (GloPAD Image 1006547)

Even an audience unfamiliar with the form knows something unusual is about to happen. At first, the movements of puppets seem stilted and artificial, or stylized, and the puppeteers are obtrusive and obstruct your view of the action. But soon, before you even realize it is happening, the puppets come to life. The audience starts to feel as though the puppeteers are chasing after the moving puppets, and then, as though the puppeteers as well are entranced by the living movements of the puppets they hold.

Battle of Coxinga Teachings for Women
(GloPAD Image 1006587) (GloPAD Image 1006541)

 

Links:

Bunraku: The Performers (Narrators)

Bunraku: The Performers (Musicians)

Bunraku: The Performers (Puppeteers)

Go to GloPACGo to GloPAD (database)