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Hitomiza Otome Bunraku: A Century of Female Power in the World of Bunraku

Hitomiza Otome Bunraku:  A Century of Female Power in the World of Bunraku

By Aya Lu

About 320 years ago, long before the advent of towering three-dimensional signs, lines snaking outside popular eateries, clerks advertising store discounts, and the constant flow of tourists in Osaka's Dotonbori, Bunraku puppet drama was captivating the common folk. Theaters were frequented by audiences eager to experience tales drawn from historical events and local lore, presented in the form of Ningyo-Joruri, which quickly cemented itself as a beloved form of mainstream entertainment.


Ningyo-Joruri, originating as the chanted narrative art form "joruri," merged with puppetry around the year 1600, laying the foundation for what is known today as Bunraku. Recognizing its profound cultural significance, UNESCO designated Bunraku as a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" in 2003.

Otome Bunraku emerged during a time when performances by women were highly celebrated and has developed over the past century. This form diverges from the traditional Bunraku setup, which typically involves three male puppeteers collaborating to animate a single puppet. Instead, Otome Bunraku features a unique approach: a single female puppeteer skillfully controls a puppet that is almost her own height. This allows for a profound connection between the puppeteer and the puppet, as she seamlessly integrates her movements and emotions with those of the puppet, achieving a performance where the art of puppetry and emotional expression are in exquisite harmony.


In Otome Bunraku, the puppeteer must masterfully control the puppet's head, torso, hands, and feet all at once. This demands not only expertise in puppet manipulation but also a strong foundation in the physical demands of traditional Japanese dance and performance. Ninin Sanbaso, a piece from the Hitomiza Otome Bunraku repertoire, is a ceremonial dance that seeks blessings for a bountiful harvest. Originally part of Noh theater, this dance has found its way into Kabuki, Kagura, and Ningyo Joruri, adapting over time while remaining a staple in Japan's diverse folk traditions. Within Ninin Sanbaso, the performance features two puppets, their choreographed steps and gestures symbolizing the farmers' prayers for prosperity and a fruitful yield.


Bunraku uniquely combines chanted recitative, shamisen music, and puppetry, allowing puppets with static facial expressions to express profound emotions vividly. The text, encompassing everything from the introduction of the plot and the setting of scenes to the lines, is masterfully delivered by a single individual, the tayu. This demanding role requires the tayu to fluidly shift among a wide array of characters, adeptly handling the dynamic shifts in the narrative's tension and sometimes embodying over a dozen distinct personas by themselves. Utilizing voice alone, without the aid of microphones, the tayu conveys the subtle distinctions and deep emotions of each character directly to the audience. While puppeteers animate the puppets, giving them motion and essence, it is the tayu's interpretive artistry that truly breathes life into them, granting them intention and existence.


Keisei Awa no Naruto: Junreiuta no Dan, the second excerpt from Hitomiza Otome Bunraku's repertoire, premiered in 1768 and is celebrated as a poignant tragedy. It narrates the story of Jurobei, a samurai, and his wife Oyumi, who have masqueraded as robbers for many years, living a life far removed from their homeland. In a fateful encounter, Oyumi, while home alone, meets a young girl in search of her missing parents. To her astonishment, Oyumi realizes the girl is Otsuru, her own daughter. Despite their deep and immediate bond, Oyumi, worried about the consequences of their disguised lives on Otsuru's safety, is compelled to make the heartbreaking choice to send her daughter away.


Otsuru's heartfelt plea overwhelms Oyumi with sorrow. Determined yet heartbroken, Oyumi closes the door on her daughter, succumbing to her tears. As Oyumi weeps, her daughter's sorrowful melody slowly dissipates, leaving her in solitude to navigate her storm of emotions. This moving moment showcases the tayu's remarkable skill in embodying both the mother and daughter, seamlessly transitioning between their unique vocal tones and inflections. This nuanced portrayal enriches the scene, making the tayu's performance outstandingly vivid and emotionally resonant.


In Zoho Oeyama Shutendoji: Modoribashi no Dan, the third excerpt brought to us by Hitomiza Otome Bunraku, a scenario unfolds where a warrior, under the guise of night, escorts a woman only to discover her demonic essence reflected beneath a bridge. This epiphany shifts the narrative from a battle of wits to a fierce clash, as the woman reveals her true form as a daunting demon. The agility and range of the puppets' movements hint at the imminent battle, while the intensifying chants drive the narrative. The shamisen player's vigorous use of the bachi* generates a fast-paced tempo that charges the atmosphere. Serving as an individual orchestra, the shamisen envelops the emotional breadth of the story, captivating the audience and mirroring the subtexts and complex emotions of the characters.


In Otome Bunraku, the roles of the tayu, musician, and puppeteers are equally pivotal. Their combined expertise and passion converge on stage, resulting in moments of profound impact that vividly showcase their commitment to this traditional art form. Over the course of more than a century, Otome Bunraku has navigated the challenges of post-war periods to secure its place once again on the international stage of cultural and artistic preservation.

*The bachi, a gingko leaf-shaped plectrum, is used in playing the shamisen, either to strum the strings or to tap on the instrument's skin-covered body.



5/17(Fri)19:30、5/18 (Sat)14:30、5/19 (Sun)14:30 

Hitomiza Otome Bunraku


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