+ About the Speakers


BASHÔ (1644-1694)


SAIKAKU (1642-1693)


Bunraku Puppets

Robert Oxnam :: Chikamatsu wrote his masterpieces for puppet theater, Bunraku, because he found the puppet stage particularly appealing.

Donald Keene :: The advantage of the performance of Bunraku is that the puppets, not the human beings, do exactly what the author said. They're unable to improvise or do any of the other things that, say, a Kabuki actor might do. [Kabuki is a traditional Japanese popular drama with singing and dancing in a highly stylized manner.]

Some of the masks are, not masks, the heads of the Bunraku puppets are immobile. They're simply carved and then painted in a certain expression. But this villainous man, Sadakuro, is a particularly interesting sample because although he is a villain, there's no doubt about it, he's also rather appealing. Here he is when he closes his eyes, you can see, we can have him even move his eyebrows. [Sadakuro is a character in the dramatic performance of The Tale of the 47 Ronin.]

There are three men who operate a Japanese puppet — they are about two thirds the size of a human being. One man operates the head, including the movement of the eyes or the mouth, and the body; another man operates the left hand, which is very difficult to coordinate with the right hand; and the third man operates the feet. The man who operates the head, body, and right arm has the most to do and he's often very famous. The other two men tend to be obscured, and they often are, their faces are covered with black hoods, so you can't even see them.

The use of three men to operate a puppet made it possible for the Japanese puppeteers to achieve all kinds of effects that are impossible, either with marionettes, or else with puppets that are operated by only one man. And the most extraordinary effects are sometimes possible, such as agitated breathing, and there are also effects that are impossible for human beings to do. Beautiful turns and exits are possible simply because the puppet doesn't have a spine and doesn't have to worry about breaking its spine. But, in any case, one of the glories of the Bunraku theater is certainly these wonderful carved heads that are treasured. Some of them are centuries old.

Robert Oxnam :: While the dramatist Chikamatsu elevated common people to heroes in his plays, another writer, Saikaku, was making them laugh with his cynical portrayals of merchant life.