The three-stringed shamisen, as seen here being used to accompany a bunraki puppet play, has a longer and thicker neck than the instrument used for less robust styles of theater. It is plucked with a pick traditionally made from tortoise shell or ivory, but now most often of plastics or wood.
Osaka – Fact Check

When in Osaka, go to a puppet show

Photo by Ton Koene

Osaka – Fact Check When in Osaka, go to a puppet show

Osaka’s most famous form of theater is Bunraku, a puppet show where the puppeteers appear on stage, rather than behind a curtain, but dressed in black.

Kieran Meeke
Kieran Meeke Travel Writer

“It is accepted code for stagehands (kuroko), who are then also considered invisible,” says Hiromi. “That’s probably the reason ninjas are now shown wearing black in films.”

At a farming village outside the town of Nose, a two-hour drive from Osaka, I watch an after-dark performance of Ningyo Joruri, the folk art from which Bunraku evolved. It is held on the field of a school, one of many closed as Japan’s birth rate falls, and the audience is mostly middle-aged or elderly, as are those onstage and in the line of shimasen players who accompany the show. This area was once on the procession route from Kyoto to the Japan Sea but has been bypassed by modern development. However, it has a 200-year-old tradition of teaching Joruri, the art of Bunraku narration and music.

While Bunraku has developed into a sophisticated art form performed by professionals, Ningyo Joruri remains rooted in the village life. “In this village the theater was done without puppets for 200 years,” says Matsuda Masahiro, who runs a Joruri Theater. “About 20 years ago, we created puppets appropriate to the words and songs. It is a mystery why we had no puppets before that. It is my quest to find out.”

The show may be amateur but it is hard to tell from the quality of the costumes and the performances, a tribute to the support of the community and its passion for this folk art. Plays featuring puppets – each manipulated by three puppeteers – alternate with those without, the narrators throwing themselves into proclaiming and singing their lines. It looks like very hard work, as they switch voices depending on the character speaking.

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