The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)





Kabuki and Bunraku


c.1603 Kabuki drama – an unruly theatrical form that blends song, dance, action, and mime – originates with a female dancer called Okuni, an attendant at the Shinto shrine of Izumo.

c.1680 Bunraku develops as a form of musical puppet theatre in which half-lifesize puppets act out a chanted romantic narrative called jōruri.


1748 Chūshingura, or The Tale of the 47 Ronin, by Takedo Imuzo, Namiki Sosuke, and Miyoshi Shoraku, is performed. Composed as Bunraku and adapted into a Kabuki, it is the nearest rival to Chikamatsu’s work for popularity.

1963 Osaka’s Bunraku Association rescues the jōruri theatrical form from decline.

Kabuki and Bunraku are both forms of traditional Japanese theatre that originated in the 17th century. Kabuki dealt with ribald material and was performed by wandering troupes of women who were often available as prostitutes. Bunraku is a form of puppet theatre, in which each puppet has a lead puppeteer who moves the right hand, another the left, and a third the legs and feet. The three men remain in full view of the audience, although they are often dressed in black. There is usually a single chanter, who portrays different characters by changing his pitch.

Japan’s national bard

The greatest dramatist in either of these forms remains Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653–1725). He was born into the samurai class but chose instead to write drama, and in time became Japan’s most famous playwright. His work often features individuals caught in a conflict between ethical and personal demands.

Produced as Bunraku and adapted for Kabuki, Chikamatsu’s play The Love Suicides at Sonezaki is his masterpiece; it was written within two weeks of the real event it was based on – that of a young couple who took their lives in a forest.

In his play, Chikamatsu created two characters who, like William Shakespeare’s star-crossed couple Romeo and Juliet, have become synonymous with the theme of ill-fated lovers. Tokubei is a young man whose family has received a dowry, but he refuses to marry the chosen bride because he loves Ohatsu, a prostitute. A rival for her favours threatens to frame him as a thief. Unable to do his duty to his family, Tokubei can neither redeem his honour, nor have a future with Ohatsu, and so the two decide to make a death pact. The play and similar ones provoked a spate of copycat lovers’ suicides, leading to a ban on the genre for a period after 1723. However, the play’s language is considered to be some of the most beautiful in Japanese literature.

See also: First Folio • The Well Cradle • The Temple of the Golden Pavilion