The Texts of Bunraku

by Michael Brownstein

When one attends a performance of Bunraku today, one is most likely to notice first the visual delights of the stage — the props, the puppeteers, and of course, the puppets. At stage left, projecting at right angles to the main stage out toward the audience, is an area called the yuka, where the chanter sits with the shamisen player to his left. The first-time viewer may not notice that just before the performance begins, the chanter holds the text of the play, called the yukahon (yuka book) up to his face and bows slightly before putting it on the kendai, a low rostrum. This small gesture of respect for the text belies its importance to the performance as a whole.

In the West we may refer to “the body of the text” or a collection of texts as “corpus,” as if the words found written or printed on the pages, were like parts of a body, but it is a body waiting to be brought to life by a reader. The chanter is one kind of reader. He brings the text alive by “performing” it, by voicing the words on the page in front of him in a dramatically effective manner, his interpretation guided by the musical notations that pepper the lines of the text. These words may be dialogue, comments on the character’s feelings or situation, or descriptions of the setting or the action. The silent puppeteers and the shamisen player are, in their own way, also readers and interpreters of the words of the text. The puppeteers must create convincing dramatic movement out of the words even when those movements are not described, while the shamisen player, we might say, punctuates or accents the words of the chanter and the movements of the puppets with a wide range of sounds, from melodic strains to harsh-sounding chords, to further define the emotional quality of every moment.

The yukahon used by the chanter measures about 10.5 inches tall by 8.25 inches wide. The words are written in large black characters in distinctive calligraphic style, five lines to a page, with the musical notations in red. In Chikamatsu’s day, Bunraku was called Jōruri, and chanters published their plays in the form of Jōruribon (Jōruri books). These measure somewhat less than the yukahon, about 9 inches tall by 6 inches wide and were printed using plates of cherry wood into which the text was carved. There were three types, which varied according to the size of the characters used to write the words. This determined the number of lines on a page, and thus the total number of pages. The first Jōruribon, dating from before the middle of the seventeenth century, are now referred to as “small-character books,” with 15 to17 lines per page. They were usually illustrated and sold as books to be read. From 1685 onward, chanters also began publishing medium-size character books, which had 10 to12 lines per page, and large-size character books, which had 7 or 8 lines per page. More importantly, the texts had musical notations next to the words, indicating how they were to be sung or chanted, in response to demands from amateur enthusiasts who wished to learn how to perform passages themselves. In addition, the same period saw chanters publishing danmonoshū, which were collections of scenes from different plays, usually lyrical or descriptive passages — the favorites of enthusiasts — rather than dialogue. An important feature of these collections was the preface, where the chanter offered his views of the art and explained the more technical aspects of chanting, including the meaning of the various musical notations. Extant copies of the various Jōruribon published during the Tokugawa era have proved invaluable to scholars in creating the modern moveable-type editions available today, which are typically accompanied by scholarly notes and commentary, and in some cases, a translation into modern Japanese.

If one compares a Bunraku text side by side with the text of an English play from the eighteenth century, George Lillo’s The London Merchant (1731) for example, there is the obvious difference between the vertical lines of the Japanese text, which are read from right to left, and the left-to-right horizontal writing of English. Another conspicuous difference is between the formats. The text of Western plays typically begins with a list of the characters (“dramatis personae”); Bunraku plays have no such list. Western plays are divided into acts and scenes, with the lines spoken by the characters set off in separate registers that identify which character is speaking. Bunraku plays are written as continuous text; though divided into acts, there is no visual distinction on the page between words of narration or description and dialogue, and rarely any indication of which character is speaking. There are, however, other textual cues in the form of musical notations, and phrases such as “he said.”

Another important difference between Bunraku texts and those of English plays is how they treat settings and stage directions. Lillo’s The London Merchant indicates only which characters are present in a scene and the location. By contrast, each act of Chikamatsu’s Bunraku plays begins with a lengthy passage describing the setting in poetic language intended in part to spotlight the chanter’s vocal skills. Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, to cite another example, contains what is perhaps the most well-known stage direction in the history of English theater: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” Had the play been performed in Chikamatsu’s day, the chanter might have declaimed it as “He exits—pursued by a bear!” Indeed, Bunraku texts often describe the very actions that audiences can see being performed, but also subtler actions or feelings that cannot be seen or even performed by a puppet. For example, we may watch a convincing performance of a woman puppet weeping, but only the words of the text or the chanter who voices them can tell us that she weeps “tears of blood” or that her tears soak her sleeves. This is not the same thing, however, as a sportscaster doing a play-by-play description of the action on the field but just the opposite: in Chikamatsu’s view, it is the words of the chanter that animate the puppets.

Michael Brownstein is Associate Professor of Japanese is the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Notre Dame. He earned his M.A. (1978) and Ph.D. (1981) degrees in Japanese from Columbia University.