Bunraku and related
February 20, 2003 5:31 AM   Subscribe

Bunraku is Japan's professional puppet theater. Developed primarily in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it is one of the four forms of Japanese classical theater, the others being kabuki, noh and kyogen.[more]
posted by hama7 (17 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
A Brief Introduction to Bunraku, Bunraku dolls, sample storylines and Kyogen pantomimes (sound warning)
posted by hama7 at 5:33 AM on February 20, 2003

posted by Pretty_Generic at 6:30 AM on February 20, 2003

I have a very vague memory of seeing Bunraku on TV as a child, on maybe Sesame Street or some other PBS children's program. (Or then again, maybe I don't...)

Neat links. I'd love to see a live performance or even just an exhibit of Bunraku puppets.
posted by jennyb at 6:46 AM on February 20, 2003

I once went to a takigi noh (noh by firelight) performance of a classic story. The whole thing was visually dramatic, but linguistically bewildering. The Japanese people I went with were equally unable to grasp any of the arcane poetic dialog, however. The ending was very dramatic and memorable, though, as the lead character came onstage with her own metaphorical inner demon beside her in a scary red spider mask. It was a cool, windy night, the stage lit by wrought iron baskets of blazing firewood on stands at the corners. Suddenly, in a moment of tension a big expanse of gauze came flying out the spider's hands like a web, and despite the high winds it perfectly enveloped the woman and brought down the house, er, field.

Between the acts of noh, however, the comical kyogen play was in more intelligible Japanese, and I was more successful in following along.

If you love cornball shaggy dog stories, you can become a rakugo storyteller.
posted by planetkyoto at 8:23 AM on February 20, 2003

Beautiful post. Some mpegs would have been nice, as the movements seem to be very precise and meaningful to overall context of the stories.
posted by 111 at 9:04 AM on February 20, 2003

Great post, hama7. I just managed to extricate myself from the Noh section -- I love that stuff, and it's very useful to have it all collected here.
posted by languagehat at 9:40 AM on February 20, 2003

I am teaching a course on Asian theatre right now and we just moved to the theatre of Japan. This link could not have been more timely or more useful for me or my students. Nice work, hama7.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:15 AM on February 20, 2003

Hey! As long as we're here, this is a pretty good link about early Noh.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:21 AM on February 20, 2003

Well, as long as we're discussing classical Japanese theater, let's not leave out gagaku and bugaku. This traditional music/dance performance isn't as popular as bunraku, kabuki, or noh, but it's older than any of them. Some people consider it to be the oldest continuously performed theater form in the world (though I'd argue that classical Greek drama probably better deserves that title.)
posted by mr_roboto at 11:34 AM on February 20, 2003

It could become more accessible to Westerners if they fused it with American puppetry. I'd pay to see a samurai puppet decapitate King Friday.
posted by Mayor Curley at 12:31 PM on February 20, 2003

classical Greek drama probably better deserves that title

I'm no expert in theatrical history and am willing to be corrected, but I somehow doubt there were many performances of Greek drama between the 4th century (when the Roman Empire went Christian) and the 15th (when the classics were revived). A gap of a thousand years hardly counts as "continuous."
posted by languagehat at 12:31 PM on February 20, 2003

Hey! Neat theatre history cum urban myth: Legend has it that opera was created when a bunch of Renaissance era artists attempted to recreate Greek tragedy based on what they read about it. In other words, faulty understanding of Greek tragedy led to the creation of another really cool art form. However, Greek tragedy, as it was performed in ancient Greece, cannot be recreated with 100% accuracy today. Languagehat is, therefore, correct, in my opinion.

Technically, Xiqu (traditional Chinese theatre) is the longest continually performed theatre style in world history. However, it has developed in so many varied ways that it barely resembles what it once was. Thus, we cannot perform xiqu as it was originally performed, but can see jingju (the theatre form formerly known as Beijing opera) and the other 300+ forms of regional Chinese theatre to this day.

India has a long and ancient theatre tradition as well. However, Sanskrit drama went extinct for a number of years. One can argue that Kuttiyatim or Kathakali are its descendents, but they don't seem to resemble the descriptions of Sanskrit drama that we have today.

One of the great things about Japanese theatre history is that nothing has been thrown away. Gagaku and Bugaku are performed more or less the same way they were performed when they were at their peak - and there has not been a significant amount of time when they were not performed. Ergo, they are forms of dance/theatre that have been performed continuously with the least change.

Am I really discussing this on Metafilter? This is bliss.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:41 PM on February 20, 2003

Now, didn't I read that ninja have some relationship to Bunraku puppet handlers? Checks.. Why, yes I did. But it's only a theatrical convention that starts in Kabuki, sort of like the Joan of Arc cap in 50s movies.

With all of these stories of the ninja being written, it was only a matter of time before they appeared on the Kabuki theater stage. And then, the actors had a dilemma -- how does one portray a ninja? And more importantly, what kind of costume should be used? Sometimes, they wore garb not dissimilar to any other samurai when playing a ninja on stage. But the ninjas reputation as masters of stealth and invisibility suggested a costume to the actors. Because there already were people on stage, in many performances (especially of the Bunraku or puppet theater), who were supposed to be invisible. They were the kurogo, or stage-hands. The stage-hands, to indicate to the audience that they were not meant to be seen and should be ignored, wore black from top to bottom. And here, at last, we have the famous ninja uniform -- those black pajamas that seem to provide little protection from weapons, little cover in pitch darkness, and foolishly advertise to the entire world who you are. It makes little sense for an outfit such as this to be used in the real world, but in the conventions of Kabuki theater, it was the perfect costume.

The dressing all in black and being unobtrusive as to be invisible reminds me of the Pnumekin in Jack Vance's The Pnume.

Ha, Googling bunraku and ninja led me to Innocence to Deviance: The Fetishisation of Japanese Women in Western Fiction, 1890s-1990s. Man, the hits just keep rollin' on...
posted by y2karl at 5:18 PM on February 20, 2003

Joey Michaels, i am thrilled to have been of assistance to your class, and your comments about Chinese theater are fascinating. China, and its cultural influences and appropriations by cultures nearby, (both northeast- and southeast Asian) are truly spectacular, but I'm always left with the question: How the heck did China do it?

Also, as Mr. Michaels mentioned, part of what makes Japan so unusual is the collection and preservation of snippets of Asian cultural history. You can see Korean and Chinese customs and music modified in everyday life that have disappeared on the mainland, and the peninsula. For example, in western Japan, the older-style ramen cart vendors who start work late in the afternoon and evening use an old Chinese flute war song as their trademark. It used to make my flesh crawl because it was so haunting.

The famous trademark Japanese tea ceremony was interpreted from China centuries ago, and has long since vanished in China, but lives on in regimented, stylized Japanese tradition.

And I'm glad to have heard from planetkyoto about firelight Noh, I've never seen it, and it must be stunning: a future must-see. Thanks for the information.

The sheer length of the Bunraku performances can be taxing on the attention-span, but we boring oddballs can't get enough of it.

Great links all, thanks!
posted by hama7 at 12:12 AM on February 21, 2003

Asian drama maven and Vast Right Wing Conspirator -- hama7, you rock.

Someone more knowledgeable than I am, please comment: mightn't Wayang Kulit contend for the longevity title, too? ("Puppet theater was established in the royal courts by the 1C. The first documentary evidence appears in the 11-13C." source)
posted by Hieronymous Coward at 12:52 AM on February 21, 2003

I can't answer your question, and don't know much about Indonesian puppet theater, but here are some links that might be interesting. Thanks H.C.
posted by hama7 at 2:30 AM on February 21, 2003

Wayang Kulit. Hmmm. Yes, I hadn't considered that, but the puppets haven't significantly changed in hundreds of years. I still think Bugaku has it beat in terms of longevity, though I confess I have had to go offline to Brandon's Theatre in Southeast Asia (1967, Harvard University Press) for this:

"[Wayang Kulit] Puppets developed into their present form between the thirteenth and the seventeenth centuries... movable arms were added in 1630 at the central Javanese court of Mataran." (43)

Since Bugaku rose during the reign of Prince Shotoku (573-621), it seems that this is, indeed, the longest continuously performed form of "theatre."

hama7, this whole topic has made my month. Thank you!
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:44 PM on February 21, 2003

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