Introduction to Bunraku: Bunraku and Barbara Curtis Adachi

Bunraku, a Japanese puppet theater, is an unusually complex dramatic form, a collaborative effort among puppeteers, narrators, and musicians. This learning module introduces in colorful detail the main components of this fascinating art form. It is based on lectures given by the late Barbara Adachi, annotated by materials from the marvelous collection of Bunraku materials from her collection, which is now housed at the C.V. Starr East Asian Library at Columbia University.

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Performance of <em>Futatsu chōchōū kuruwa nikki</em>, September 1977
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Narrator and shamisen
GloPAD Series 138


Audio recording of Hadesugata Onna Maiginu,
unknown production.
(GloPAD Audio Recording 1006818)

The Bunraku theatre first developed in the seventeenth century. Its popularity reached a peak in the eighteenth century with major Edo-period (1603-1868) playwrights writing the text, the most famous of whom was Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725). Often the plays written for kabuki were adapted by Bunraku and vice versa. The popularity of Bunraku gradually diminished by the end of 1770s with the death of some of the best narrators, playwrights and puppeteers. Although Bunraku flourished during the Meiji period (1868-1912), it experienced difficulties in the early part of the twentieth century and during the war years, and it lost public interest. However, Bunraku revived remarkably over recent decades with a growing younger audience. Bunraku is once again a popular form of entertainment in Japan and performs to sold-out crowds.

In November 2003, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) officially recognized Bunraku as a “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.” The Barbara Curtis Adachi Collection, given to Columbia’s C. V. Starr East Asian Library in 2000, is one of the most extensive collections in the world documenting this rich performance tradition. The collection represents four decades of close contact and respectful collaboration between Ms. Adachi and the Japanese National Bunraku Troupe, the leading performance group of Bunraku in the world, and documents the significant revival of Bunraku’s popularity in the second half of the twentieth century.

Barbara Curtis Adachi (1924-2004) lived most of her life in Tokyo, where she witnessed her first Bunraku performance in 1935 at the age of eleven. Her extensive involvement with the troupe began in the 1960s and continued throughout the rest of her life. She attended over four decades of Bunraku performances, conducted over one hundred interviews of Bunraku performers and behind-the-scenes craftsmen, and took thousands of photographs. Ms. Adachi lectured widely both in and out of Japan on Bunraku and wrote several books, including The Voices and Hands of Bunraku (1978) and Backstage at Bunraku (1985).

Barbara Curtis Adachi with Ōe Minosuke
Barbara Curtis Adachi with Ōe Minosuke, puppet head carver,
and Osono puppet from Hadesugata onna maiginu
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The text in the Introduction to Bunraku module was written by Amy V. Heinrich and Maiko Ota Cagno based on Barbara Curtis Adachi's "Appreciating Bunraku" and "Looking at Bunraku: A Nineties View of a Traditional Japanese Dramatic Form.”



The Art of Three

Opening Moments of Bunraku Performance


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