The Problem of Bunraku: A practice-led investigation into contemporary uses and misuses of ningyo joruri.

Jeremy Bidgood

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Contemporary global theatre practice makes regular reference to ningyo joruri (ningyō jōruri), a traditional form of Japanese puppet theatre, in particular the now world famous Bunraku Theatre (bunraku za) in Osaka. It has become commonplace amongst practitioners and critics alike to describe certain contemporary puppet forms as 'bunraku' or 'bunraku-style' (capitalisation and italicisation vary). This begs the question, are these puppets truly descendants of and/or equivalents to the practice of the Bunraku Theatre or ningyo joruri more broadly? If not, then many practitioners and critics frequently and erroneously invoke the authority of the Osaka Bunraku Theatre for no better reason than to add an exoticised 'authenticity' to their performances and writing.

This thesis explores this problem through close analysis of historical interactions with Japan’s puppet theatres and contemporary puppet practice. It is contended that consistent misrepresentation, both circumstantial and ideological, of ningyo joruri has created a near homogenous Bunraku-centric view of Japanese puppetry in English-language literature and practice. This mythologisation and essentialisation of the Bunraku Theatre has both enabled its easy appropriation and severely disenfranchised Japan’s other, extant ningyo joruri troupes. It is argued that the labelling of contemporary puppets as ‘bunraku’ is the result of and in turn perpetuates this erroneous myth.

Implicit in this is a failure to recognise and acknowledge the multiplicity of other technologies and techniques at play in this modern ‘bunraku’. Through examination of contemporary puppet practice this thesis identifies and explores the 'atoms' from which these puppets and their performance are built. Understanding and identifying these 'atoms' enables us to see the true extent to which the technologies and techniques of ningyo joruri are used outside Japan. It is argued that these modern ‘bunraku’ puppets are, in fact, wildly heterogeneous: showing a wide range of ideas and influences that extend well beyond the confines of the Bunraku Theatre in Osaka.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Cohen, Matthew, Supervisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 May 2015
Publication statusUnpublished - 2015


  • Bunraku
  • Ningyo Joruri
  • Japanese puppetry
  • Theatre
  • Handspring Puppet Company
  • Blind Summit Theatre
  • Interculturalism
  • British Theatre
  • Awaji
  • Osaka
  • Japanese History
  • Japanese Theatre
  • Puppetry
  • Interweaving

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