In Osaka, the tradition of storytelling with puppets goes back hundreds of years. Today Bunraku, Japanese puppet theater has made it on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
On our most recent trip to Osaka, we realized that we would be there during the Bunraku season. Bunraku is a big deal! It is one of the major classical arts from Japan (along with Noh, Kyogen, and Kabuki), and it was designated as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage in 2003.
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Bunraku: Osaka’s Treasure
(A How to Guide)
At its most basic level, Bunraku is Puppet Theater that is created through three elements:
The Tayu – the narrator of the story. During our viewing there were actually two in the one play. I assume it must be exhausting. They act as narrator and are also the voices of all the characters. They are supposed to give each character a unique tone. So you can imagine how difficult and strenuous a task this is.
The Shamisen – this is a three-stringed instrument. It is used to emphasize thoughts and points in harmony with the Tayu. When the Tayu and Shamisen are used together to chant a story, it is called the joruri.
And of course, the puppeteers (and their puppets) – this looks complicated! Most puppets require three puppeteers: the lead (Omozukai), which controls the head and the right arm, then one to control the two legs (Ashizukai – don’t know what zukai means, I assume puppeteer, but ashi means legs), and then the third (Hidarizukai – hidari means left) controls the left arm. Just the left arm! It is very crowded; the puppets are not very big. I did notice though, that it seemed like the female puppets did not have legs, just the males.
Ok. Now that you have the basic gist, let’s get down to it.
During the season, each day two sessions are performed. The morning and the afternoon sessions are different. So you have a choice to make:
Do you want to spend the whole day at Bunraku? This begins at 11am and would be expected to end around 8:30. It would include all of the day’s plays. OR do you want to only want a morning or afternoon session? Each session lasts about four and half hours, and includes 3-4 plays. OR do you want to only see one play? A play usually lasts 45 minutes to 120 minutes, but you cannot buy tickets in advance for this. You have to show up and see what seats they have available.
Each have their pros and cons, and I will lay them out for you. I will say that we chose to show up on the day and hope we could get seats for a single play (makumi). We got very lucky, the play was to start in about 20 minutes and it was only a 45-minute long one. (I say only, because I am truly and honestly terrified of dolls and puppets. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to handle watching them for too long. But I wanted to do Bunraku; it is such a cultural treasure for the area.)
So, if you think you are up for a full day here are the specifics:
Tickets are available for purchase about a month beforehand; you can call the ticket line and make the ticket arrangements easily. They do employ people who have pretty good English skills. Tickets are ¥12,000 for the front half of the theater and ¥4,800 for second class, these prices include two tickets – one for the morning show and one for the afternoon show. There is a half-hour break between the two sessions. During this time they sell bento box “lunches”, though I don’t know for how much. But, there are also a few convenient stores in the area and they all have lots of delicious food.
If you don’t think you are up for a full day, a half session is half the price. You can choose it you’d rather see the morning or the afternoon session. Remember, each session includes 3-4 plays, and there is a 10 minute break between each. This is nice because sometimes after sitting for two-hours, you are going to need to take a potty break! I would recommend getting up and at least walking a bit between each play.
Finally, if you don’t think you are really going to want to be there for a full session, there is the opportunity to watch a single play. A Single play, or makumi, ranges from ¥500-2000, and 30 minutes-120 minutes. The theater saves the last two rows in the back corners for makumi of each play. That’s 16 seats total for each play. If you have your heart set on a certain play, the theater opens at 10 and you can make a reservation for any of the plays that day. Otherwise you can really show up anytime, as long as you are flexible. I was only able to find a list of the plays, but not anything that gave an idea of times or prices before I got to the theater. But at the theater, they had a quick cheat sheet at the ticket office that broke it all down for me.
All of the plays are, of course performed, in Japanese, but the theater does a great job of offering the stories written in a variety of languages. And, you can rent an audio-guide in Japanese or English, for ¥700(+¥1000 deposit) for each session, or if you are only seeing one play ¥300(+¥1000 deposit). The audio guide added a little extra information to the telling of the story. My favorite random tidbit was that the reason the puppeteers wear all black is because black is the traditional color of invisibility!
Japan Bucket List item, checked! But I will say we probably won’t do it again. It was very interesting and it was neat to hear a traditional Japanese folktale, but I don’t like puppets. Also, it is very slow-paced. Out of the six people (the single play tickets do sell, I was amazed) who bought single play tickets that day, I’m pretty sure I am the only one who didn’t fall asleep during our 45 minute show. In fact, the girl sitting in front of me was a Chinese exchange student attending a university in Hokkaido, and her research was solely about bunraku…and she fell asleep. So there is that.
Are you interested in Bunraku? What else is on your Japan Bucket List?
Author Bio: Corinne Vail is a travel photographer, food lover, and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 14 years. For many years she lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands teaching the children of the US. military. She’s visited over 90 countries, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.