Bunraku: No strings attached

by Rei Sasaguchi

Bunraku is a dramatic performance staged with puppets, each of which is manipulated by a team of three men, with narration and dialogue provided by a separate singer accompanied by a shamisen.

Tokubei and Ohatsu in “Sonezki Shinju”

The principal puppeteer (omozukai) controls the right hand of the puppet with his right hand and, from under the back of the puppet’s sash, holds the short wooden stick (dogushi) supporting the puppet’s head with his left. His left arm therefore works as the spine of the puppet, and he creates expressions on the puppet’s face by manipulating the dogushi.

During a performance, the men handling the left hand and the legs of the puppet (or the lower half of the kimono, if the puppet is female) are required to stay behind the puppet and beside the omozukai. They watch the back of the puppet’s head and the omozukai’s left arm, and make their moves accordingly.

The puppet’s right hand, operated by the omozukai, and its left hand, operated by one of his two assistants, should move in perfect coordination. They manage this by concentrating on the puppet, as if breathing in unison with it.