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Japanese Handicrafts – Bunraku Puppets

In my travels across Japan photographing artisans – one of my absolute favorites was the Bunraku puppet artisan Hishida-san in Osaka. I am absolutely gutted that it didn’t make the book so I’d like to introduce him here.

Bunraku is a type of theatre in Japan that uses articulated puppets in conjunction with an orchestra and chanters to tell as story. The technical prowess required from the puppeteers is daunting; three puppeteers are responsible for moving one doll; one to control the right hand and head, one to control the left hand and one to control the feet and legs. The makers of these magnificent puppets are called ningyoushi, and are declining in numbers nationwide. 

Hishida Masayuki, 58, has been making puppets for Bunraku for over forty years, in the artform’s hometown of Osaka. 

‘Bunraku was a way for people to speak out against the Shogunate without fear of persecution,’ says Hishida-san. Because puppeteers traditionally wore black outfits with black masks, the identities of the troupe were often difficult to divine and thus arrest. Bunraku’s actual origins started in Kyoto in the 1680s, when the dramatist and playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon teamed up with master chanter Takemoto Gidayu to create works for puppet troupes to perform. Gidayu opened the first major Bunraku theatre in Osaka, and soon after Monzaemon relocated there, where he penned over one hundred plays – sewamono, love stories and tragedies between ordinary people, and jidaimono, which were historical tales between heroic lords and samurai. 

Today, Osaka is the home of the National Bunraku Theatre and houses the national troupe. In centuries past however, Bunraku troupes traveled the country, bringing gossip and news of the court to far flung provinces. ‘Some troupes were even ordered to proselytize Christianity,’ says Hishida-san. ‘They were a powerful form of media back in the Edo Period.’ Regional puppet troupes still exist without the financial support of the government – of particular note is the Tonda Puppet Troupe in Shiga prefecture, which is actively inviting foreign university students to take up residence in Shiga to learn puppetry. ‘The program is already booked out for years,’ says Hishida. 

Hishida-san is a third generation puppet carver. His workshop in eastern Osaka is filled with half carved heads and arms, as well as various materials to make their various parts controllable. Japanese cypress is the main wood for the head and arms, and dried whale baleen is used as springs for the mechanisms. The puppeteers grip hemp cord to control the puppets, which are connected to silk strings that pull the various contraptions that make the eyebrows, eyelids, mouth and fingers open and close. ‘The silk string is ordered from Marusan Hashimoto – a specialist silk string factory that won’t make them anymore. I bought up enough to last several generations before they ceased production.’ In this and many other regards, Hishida-san is steadfast in maintaining the original materials and techniques established four hundred years ago. ‘The craft isn’t mine to reshape – it’s the culminated effort of countless people over generations – and I’m just borrowing it until the next generation takes over.’

In carving the head, care must be taken to imbue the face with enough expressiveness. ‘Puppet faces are a lot smaller than human faces, so when playing in a theatre, certain features need to be emphasized,’ says Hishida. For example, strong-willed characters are personalized through thick articulated eyebrows and large, glaring eyes. For female characters, an upturned angle of the mouth denotes wit, whereas a mouth hanging open signifies a woman of low intelligence. ‘A man with a penchant for the ladies,’ says Hishida-san with a smirk, ‘will often have a larger than normal set of nostrils.’ All of these considerations require decisions during carving, before hollowing out the head and attaching the mechanisms that animate the facial features. 

Nowadays in addition to constructing puppets, Hishida-san holds workshops twice a month for people interested in learning the difficult craft. He takes pains to ensure that students don’t take shortcuts, instructing them to mix their own paints out of crushed oyster shell and collagen, for example. ‘My students are from diverse backgrounds and proficiencies,’ says Hishida-san. ‘But when they all come together in one classroom, somehow we all feel the shared history that comes from doing things in the traditional way. It makes us feel Japanese. That is an important thing to protect.’