Japanese Master Preserves Tradition, Making Bunraku Puppets for Children

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Story and Photos by REUTERS

Stuck at home for weeks while Japan was under a state of emergency due to the coronavirus, renowned Japanese Bunraku puppet master Kanjuro Kiritake experienced deep anxiety. 

His art, a traditional, male-only Japanese puppet theater, emerged in Osaka in the late 1600s, but in 2020 felt existentially threatened, he said. All his performances were canceled for months.

“Many things crossed my mind: When would the pandemic end? When would performances resume?” Kanjuro, 67, said in his home, which has a room dedicated to puppetry. He also wondered if his
87-year-old master would ever perform again.

The solution was to spend his time at home making puppets for children. It is a rare pursuit for a Bunraku puppeteer. To him, it tied into his decades of work. The Japanese government designated him a Living National Treasure for his performances of the traditional puppet drama.

Nearly 30 sixth graders took part in recent classes, with children practicing their puppetry in a gymnasium amid scorching heat, as a T-shirt-clad Kanjuro instructed them. 

In Bunraku, each puppet is operated by three people: the head puppeteer and two others, dressed in black, their faces covered. The head puppeteer manipulates the head and right hand, while one person manipulates the left hand and another both feet. Performances are accompanied by narrators, or tayu, and traditional instruments. 

The five puppets Kanjuro made had comical faces framed by yarn hair. They also wore neon socks he purchased online. 


Following his father’s path, Kanjuro started his career as a puppeteer at 14, becoming a disciple of Minosuke Yoshida, who at age 87 is now the oldest living puppeteer. Like everyone else, Kanjuro started with the puppets’ feet, then moved on to the left hand. It can take more than 30 years until a puppeteer is allowed to manipulate the head. “It is an invisible and tough role,” he said of operating the limbs. “Audiences do not know who you are and the applause goes to the main puppeteer.” 

Understanding how to manipulate the feet is crucial; the performer doing that touches the waist of the lead puppeteer, feeling how he moves. It was a lesson Kanjuro learned from his late father, who even after illness left him thin used his whole body to animate the puppet as head puppeteer. 

“I learned from him that you would have to use your entire body — from your toes to fingertips — to make the puppet come to life,” Kanjuro recalled. “And how a small and thin puppeteer could manipulate a big puppet by doing that.” 

Kanjuro is one of Japan’s best-known Bunraku performers, but he still worries about securing young talent. 

The National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka provides a free, two-year training course from which more than half of the 83 current performers graduated. The art’s popularity was waning even before the pandemic, and only two students were in training as of September 2020.

Perhaps, Kanjuro mused, people hired to open curtains or hand out stage properties might fall in love with Bunraku and want to study it. Performances in Tokyo resumed in September. 

“Like sumo and rakugo where foreigners are active, one day we may have foreign performers,” Kanjuro said, referring to the traditional Japanese forms of wrestling and storytelling. “And it could only be a matter of time before women take part as well.” 

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