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Seiwa Bunraku ( 清和文楽 ) in Yamato Town, the only Bunraku theater in Kyushu

Yamato Town ( 山都町 ) is often describe as “Kyushu no Heso ( 九州のへそ )” which means a bellybutton of Kyushu. It is located in the center of Kyushu island. The northern part of Yamato Town accounts for a huge amount of the southern rim of Aso caldera. Southern part of Yamato Town touches Kyushu mountains.

Because of the highland climate, there are many organic farmers and they are proud of the biggest number of organic farmers in Japan. They have welcomed new farmers from all around the country. I am a big fan of Yamato Town. Every time I visit there, I always discover something beautiful and interesting. 

Soyokyo Gorge ( 蘇陽峡 ) in early October

Today, I am going to introduce you Seiwa Bunraku ( 清和文楽 ). Bunraku is also known as Ningyo Joruri ( 人形浄瑠璃, Japanese puppet drama ). Seiwa Bunraku is the only Bunraku theater in Kyushu and we are very lucky to be able to visit them easily. Let’s see the world of traditional performing arts and how it has been developed there.

Ticket office at Seiwa Bunraku

Seiwa Bunraku ( 清和文楽 ) in Yamato Town

What is Bunraku ( 文楽 ) and Ningyo Joruri ( 人形浄瑠璃 )?

First of all, what is Bunraku and Ningyo Joruri? I guess not many Japanese can answer this question.

Ningyo Joruri is one of the Japanese traditional performing arts. Comparing to Kabuki and Noh, unfortunately it is not well-known. I will tell you about the history of Ningyo Joruri and Bunraku later but Bunraku originated from one of the theaters of Ningyo Joruri in Osaka in the past.  In modern days, Ningyo Joruri and Bunraku are considered be the same.

Bunraku consists of three parts, which are Tayu ( 太夫, storyteller ), Shamisen ( 三味線, Shamisen player ) and Ningyo-tsukai ( 人形遣い, puppeteer ). When you think about a puppet play, you may think it as an entertainment for children but Bunraku is aimed at adult audiences.

History of Bunraku

Let’s see the history of Bunraku at first.

Japan originally had one kind of performance which people told story with a rhythm. It was called Katari-mono ( 語り物 ). In the 13th century, Tale of Heike ( a collection of war tales, 平家物語 ) was accomplished. At that time, performers started to play Biwa ( 琵琶, Japanese pipa ) and tell stories from Tale of Heike simultaneously. After a while, one play called “ Joruri Hime Monogatari ( story of Princess Joruri, 浄瑠璃姫物語 )”  became popular. Because of its great popularity, storytelling with Biwa performance was started to be called as “ Joruri ( 浄瑠璃 )” which came from the title. In the 16th century, a stringed instrument was brought from Okinawa ( 沖縄 ). People improved it and completed Shamisen ( Japanese guitar with three strings, 三味線 ). Since then, Shamisen has been used in Joruri play.

Biwa-houshi who is a monk storytelling and playing Biwa.
Source : 東京国立博物館

Puppet shows had been already performed by traveling troupes. Gradually, their performance met Joruri and started to be called Ningyo Joruri ( 人形 ( ningyo) means puppets in Japanese ). Ningyo Joruri had become popular in Osaka and been brought to Edo ( Tokyo ). At that time, many different schools of Ningyo Joruri appeared.

In Osaka, there was a very talented and popular storyteller whose name was Gidayu Takemoto ( 竹本義太夫 ). He had a rich and wide range of voice. Takemoto used to belong to a theater but decided to leave it and set out on a journey for having more experiences in performance. After the journey, he opened  Takemoto-za Theater ( 竹本座 ) in 1684 in Dotombori Osaka ( 大阪道頓堀 ). He challenged new things and brought a breath of fresh air to Ningyo Joruri. Since then, speaking of NIngyo Joruri, people thought of Gidayu-bushi ( 義太夫節, a performing style by Gidayu Takemoto ). Also, storytellers in Ningyo Joruri are started to be called as Tayu ( 太夫 ) which came from his name. 

Gidayu Takemoto ( 竹本義太夫 )
Source : 文化デジタルライブラリー

Monzaemon Chikamatsu ( 近松門左衛門 ) wrote the first play performed at Takemoto-za Theater. He had a unique background. Originally, Chikamatsu was a samurai but he entered the world of performing arts and revealed his talent. After the great success of his first work, he had continued to write Ningyo Joruri. It is said that Chikamatsu had produced over 100 Ningyo Joruri in his lifetime. Previously, most themes of Ningyo Joruri were historical events and most characters were nobles and samurai who were in high social states. These types of Joruri is called “Jidai-mono (時代物)”. Jidai means era or period but in this case, jidai means something very old. Chikamatsu created a new type of plays which he used merchants as main characters and brought up events happened somewhere close to audiences so that common people feel more familiar to his plays. Chikamatsu illustrated humanity, romance, struggles in everyday life. Those types of new plays are called “Sewa-mono (世話物)”. 

Monzaemon Chikamatsu ( 近松門左衛門 )
Source : Wikipedia

People got very excited about his plays and were sometimes too affected by them. There was a play “ Sonezaki Shinju ( 曽根崎心中 ) ” which was based on a real incident which was about a couple who committed Shinju ( 心中, lovers’ suicide ). It occurred just one month before the premier. Sonezaki Shinju touched audiences’ heart. Because it was very real, people were too affected by it and there was an increasing number of lovers’ suicide. As a result, the central government had to forbid theaters to play Joruri which had the scene of Shinju.

A scene from “ Sonezaki Shinju ( 曽根崎心中 ) ”
Source : 文楽への誘い

There was a talented and popular storyteller in Takemoto theater. His name was  Wakatayu Toyotake ( 豊竹若太夫 ) and he was a pupil of Takemoto. He left Takemono-za Theater and established his own theater called “ Toyotake-za Theater ( 豊竹座 )” in 1703 near Takemoto-za Theater. Toyotake headhunted some good puppeteers and recruited talented writers. He showed his talent in business. Toyotake-za grew dramatically and both Takemoto-za and Toyotake-za had competed. The world of Ningyo Joruri revitalized and it was the golden age of it.

The theater on your right is Takemono-za and the left side is Toyotake-za.
Source : 文化デジタルライブラリー

At this zenith of Ningyo Joruri, we can see the great change in puppets. Previously one puppeteer used to move one puppet but at this point they started to use three puppeteers for one puppet so that they could express more delicate moves and feelings of characters. The size of the puppets got bigger, and so puppeteer could operate puppets like real human.

One puppet and three puppeteer
Source : 文楽協会

In the 18th century, the popularity of Ningyo Joruri started to decline. On the other hand, ordinary people started to enjoy playing puppets as a hobby. Bunrakuken Uemura ( 植村文楽軒 ) opened a school in Osaka for learning how to play Ningyo Joruri. It attracted people’s interests and became popular. Later Uemura organized a troupe and gave a performance. They got popularity and named their troupe as “ Bunraku-za Theater ( 文楽座 )”. Since then, Ningyo Joruri has been synonymous with Bunraku.

Ordinary people who are practicing Bunraku as a hobby.
『職人尽絵詞』第1軸 浄瑠璃を楽しむ人々
Source : 文楽協会

During the World WarⅡ, theaters were closed but could reopen one year after the war ended. In 1955, Bunraku was registered as Important Intangible Cultural Asset in Japan. Since then, Bunraku Organization was established. In 1966, National Theater of Japan was built in Tokyo and in 1984, National Bunraku Theater was established in Osaka. Bunraku has been inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO. 

National Theater of Japan ( 国立劇場 )
Source : nippon.com

Three roles of Bunraku

As explained, Bunraku consists of three parts, which are Tayu ( 太夫, storyteller ), Shamisen ( 三味線, Shamisen player ) and Ningyo-tsukai ( 人形遣い, puppeteer ). Let’s see one by one.

Tayu ( 太夫 ) Storyteller

Tayu ( 太夫 ) is a storyteller. They move story by changing their voice while the sound of Shamisen reverberates next to them. There is no microphone in front of Tayu. They have to keep narrating stories sometimes for over 90 minutes. To make their voice spread to every part of the theater, there are many things they improved.

On the left side is Tayu and the right side is Shamisen player.
Source : 文楽協会

When you see a Tayu and a Shamisen player, you may feel that Tayu is a little bigger. This is because Tayu sit on a low chair. It is called Shiri-hiki ( 尻引 ). Tayu sit on this small wooden chair tucking their toes so that they can tighten their muscles and make a big rich voice.  

There are other hidden devices for Tayu to perform at most. For example, Tayu wear a belt called Hara-obi ( 腹帯 ) under their kimono. By doing this, they can tighten their muscles and produce loud voice. Also, Tayu put on Otoshi ( おとし ) in a pocket of their kimono around their abdomen. Otoshi is a wrapped azuki beans or sands and it works as a weight. Tayu keep narrating all the time so the more a story goes, the more they get tired. When they get tired, they get out of their breath and cannot project rich voice. By having Otoshi around their abdomen, if they can breathe properly, their abdomen touch Otoshi. In this way, Tayu can check if they can breathe enough.

Ken-dai ( 見台 ) and Yuka-hon ( 床本 )

You can see a small desk in front of Tayu. This desk is called Ken-dai ( 見台 ) and the book is Yuka-hon ( 床本 ) which is a libretto. Some Tayu use Yuka-hon which were passed down to them from their masters. 

Check out the video below and you can see how Tayu prepare for their performance.

Shamisen Player ( 三味線弾き ) Guide

Shamisen players play Shamisen as if they lead Tayu. Shamisen players illustrate character’s feelings and they can change the way to play Shamisen depending on the characters.

Tsuruzawa Kanji (鶴澤寛治 ) who was designated as Living Natural Treasure (人間国宝) for Shamisen Player in Bunraku.
Source : 朝日新聞デジタル

Tayu used Shiri-hiki, a small wooden chair, but Shamisen players sit on their heels. They place their hips in their legs to stabilize the center of gravity.

Shamisen is classified into three categories according to the thickness of the neck. There are Hoso-zao ( 細棹, slender neck ), Chu-zao ( 中棹, middle-thick neck ) and Futo-zao ( 太棹, thick neck ). In Bunraku, they use Futo-zao because it echoes the most.

At Seiwa Bunraku Theater, you can see Shamisen and other goods used in Bunraku.

In the video below, you can watch how Shamisen players play the instrument differently depending on characters and how they assemble and dismantle Shamisen.

Ningyo-tsukai ( 人形使い ) Puppeteer 

When you see Bunraku, you will be fascinated how puppets are moving like real human.

Three puppeteers play one doll. Omo-dukai ( 主遣い ) operates puppet’s head and right hand. Hidari-dukai ( 左遣い ) manipulates left hand and Ashi-dukai ( 足遣い ) does foot.

Structure of a puppet. Puppeteers put a head onto it. You may be surprised that there is no body but only limbs.

Usually, when they enter the world of Bunraku, they start as Ashi-dukai and experience years for doing it. Then, they are allowed to move on to Hidari-dukai and finally Omo-dukai. It takes decades to become Omodukai. 

Seiwa Bunraku ( 清和文楽 )

History of Seiwa Bunraku

We have seen history of Bunraku so now let’s move on to Seiwa Bunraku.  How did people in Yamato Town start to play Bunraku in the middle of the deep mountains?

In the mid-19th century, one Bunraku troupe from Awaji island ( 淡路島, in Hyogo Prefecture ) once visited Yamato Town, which was previously called Seiwa. Local farmers, who were big fans of Bunraku, asked the members to sell a puppet to them. The locals also requested them to teach how to use the puppet. Since then, Bunraku has been developed by local farmers and they named their group as “ Seiwa Bunraku ( 清和文楽 ) “.

Bunraku has several styles depending on where it was developed. Seiwa Bunraku belongs to Awaji group. This group had traveled the provinces like farm villages and temporary theaters. It was so dark to play in those circumstances that they used to light the stage with candles and bonfire. Puppeteers made expansive gestures for audiences to see them well.

Played by Seiwa Bunraku
Source : ウォーカープラス

How Bunraku has been preserved in Yamato Town?

According to the explanation in Seiwa Bunraku Museum, there are several reasons why Bunraku has been passed on and preserved in Yamato Town.

① People played Bunraku at festivals in spring and autumn. In spring, farmers plant rice and in autumn they harvest them. People have festivals to wish for bountiful harvest and show appreciation to god. These festivals have been held annually so people often had opportunities to play Bunraku.

② Most members of Seiwa Bunraku are farmers or have another jobs. If they work only for Bunraku and the popularity of it declined, this culture could disappear. Because members had another jobs, Bunraku could survive in Yamato Town.

③ There were not many entertainments in Seiwa back then. So naturally, most locals spent time for practicing Bunraku.

④ When people had money to spare, they collected some from one by one and bought old puppets from other troupes. That is why Seiwa Bunraku has a good collection of puppets still now.

⑤ In Seiwa Village, they have had strong custom to pass on traditions and cultures from parents to children comparing to other villages.

I heard that in the late 19th century, Seiwa Bunraku was once on the brink of extinction but with those reasons mentioned above, Seiwa Bunraku has been preserved and passed on to the next generations until now. 

New Challenge for Seiwa Bunraku

Under the situation of COVID-19, like other theaters around the world, Seiwa Bunraku had been forced to close the theater and faced the difficult time. Even in this tough time, members of Seiwa Bunraku had kept posting through SNS. Seiwa Bunraku has their YouTube channel and they uploaded some explainer videos of Bunraku, such as about Tayu and Shamisen. Once they posted a photo of Snow Woman disguised as Amabie and it went viral. Seiwa Bunraku has thier original play called Yuki-onna ( 雪女, Snow Woman ) written by Lafcadio Hearn, who is famous for his work “ KWAIDAN ( 怪談 ) ”. They decorated the head of snow woman with a beak and ears to look like Amabie. 

Snow woman disguised as Amabie
Source : Facebook ( @seiwabunraku )

You may have heard of Amabie. She is a Japanese folk monster which is believed to live in the ocean in Kumamoto. It is said that when plague spread in the past, Amabie told locals to draw her figure on a piece of paper and show it to others so that the epidemic would be ended soon. After this corona pandemic, some people started to draw Amabie and posted on SNS. It became a trend all over Japan.

Amabie in an old document
Source : Wikipedia

The photo became an opportunity to create a new play which was the first time in the last 15 years for Seiwa Bunraku. This new original play is called “ Higo Amabie Koiutaibun ( 肥後アマビエ恋歌異聞 ) ”.  It is a creation which is about Amabie and her impossible love with young samurai.

Higo Amabie Koiutaibun ( 肥後アマビエ恋歌異聞 )
Source : 熊本日日新聞

The producer is Kumamoto Prefectural Theater and the costumes are made by students from a fashion school in Kumamoto. Because of this difficult time, Seiwa Bunraku could create a play which gathered talents in Kumamoto.

Most members of Seiwa Bunraku are farmers or have another jobs so they open only Sundays. Unfortunately, the new play was available for a limited time, which was until this August. Still, Seiwa Bunraku offers different plays every month so I hope you will visit them and enjoy some of their works.

Poster of Higo Amabie Koiutaibun ( 肥後アマビエ恋歌異聞 )

Seiwa Bunraku Museum

A ticket includes both a play and fee for Bunraku Museum which stands next to the theater. After watching Ningyo Joruri, visit the museum and enjoy the world of Bunraku more.

There is no English explanation but there are many old puppets, kimono, tools for plays. This is a small museum but there are so many things to see and learn. 

The process of making Kashira ( 頭, head ) from a piece of wood. Kashira is hollow inside and there are some hidden tricks to change character’s facial expression.

As explained, depending on a play they can choose Kashira and attach one to a body.

Old Yuka-hon ( libretto )
I can see the right one is over 160 years old.

The explanation says that during the WWⅡ, Japanese Government censored traditional performing arts and after the war GHQ did, too. The documents on the left side are certificate from them.

What attracts you most must be this lovely lady. When you stand in front of it…

She transforms into a demon!!

One of the works of Kumamoto Artpolis ( くまもとアートポリス ) 

When you visit Seiwa Bunraku, you will soon notice these beautiful architectures. The buildings in Seiwa Bunraku are one of the works of Kumamoto Artpolis, which is a project by Kumamoto Prefecture aiming at passing on good architectures to the next generations. It started in 1988.

From the left, you can see buildings for a stage, an auditorium and a museum.

There are three buildings in Seiwa Bunraku, which are a stage, an auditorium and a museum. They were built in 1992 using construction methods from Japanese traditional architecture.

When you look up in the auditorium and museum, you will see the beautiful sealing.


Ceiling at auditorium

Bunraku Museum

Ceiling at the museum

Michi no Eki Seiwa Bunraku mura ( 道の駅清和文楽邑 ) 

After enjoying Bunraku and the museum, this is time to buy souvenirs.

There is Michi no Eki ( roadside station ) next to the theater where you can get fresh vegetables and local speciality. There is also a restaurant inside so it is nice to have lunch before watching Bunraku.

What else can we visit near Seiwa Bunraku?

Tsujunkyo Bridge ( 通潤橋 )

Tsujunkyo bridge is the symbol of Yamato town and the way it discharges water from the top is dynamic. People think that it is a performance but it is not. The purpose is to wash away the waste in the stone tubes but because of the powerful shooting, it has become the symbol of Yamato town.

After the 2016 earthquakes, they stopped discharging water because of the damages of stone tubes ( the amazing thing is that Tsujunkyo bridge itself was not damaged at all. ). This year, Yamato Town has announced that they will restart discharging water. Duration of discharging water is almost 15 minutes and they have it once or twice a day. 

Here is the 2021 calendar for discharging water at Tsujunkyo bridge.

I wrote about Tsujunkyo and other stone bridges and the story of stonemasons in Kumamoto. I hope you will enjoy the story and visit some of them.

Gorogataki Waterfall ( 五老ヶ滝 )

Gorogataki waterfall stands close to Tsujunkyo bridge. In Edo period, Narishige Hosokawa ( 細川斉茲 ), who was the eighth lord of Hosokawa family, visited Yamato Town for shooting and dropped by at the waterfall. He was impressed by it and ordered an exclusive painter of the family, Yoshikatsu Yano ( 矢野良勝 ) to sketch the waterfall. Hosokawa was overwhelmed by his work and asked Yano to find other scenic spots in Kumamoto and sketch them. Yano and other painters edited all the drawings and completed “ 領内名勝図巻 ( hand scroll of scenic beauties in Kumamoto )”.

At Gorogataki waterfall, there are plenty of welded tuff from the eruption of Mt. Aso. Welded tuff is strong but easy to process. You can see the welded tuff from the suspended bridge near the waterfall.

Ayu-no-se Ohashi Bridge ( 鮎の瀬大橋 )

Ayu-no-se Ohashi Bridge ( 鮎の瀬大橋 ) is also one of the projects of Kumamoto Artpolis. If you find this bridge without knowing anything about it, you may get surprised at first to see a large modern architecture suddenly appears in front of you. But soon, you will see it harmonized which both nature and the bridge create. Yamato Town is famous for stone bridges like Tsujunkyo bridge. Ayu-no-se Ohashi Bridge is a new legacy presenting Yamato Town.

Otsukurimono ( 大造り物 )

When you walk around the central Yamato Town, you will often come across Otsukurimono ( 大造り物, festival floats ) which are made of organic materials. 

Yamato Town has Hassaku Festival ( 八朔祭 ) every September. This festival has over 260 years of history. The origin of the festival was that  merchants thanked farmers for their hard work and treated and entertained them.  

There are several local groups to make Otsukurimono and there is a competition at the end of the festival. The interesting thing is that each group keeps a secret what object they will make until the day of the festival. I heard that it takes about 2 months to make one Otsukurimono so it must be so hard to cover the workplace completely and finish the work. 

Unfortunately, they are not going to have Hassaku Festival this year because of corona which is two years in a row. Still, we can see their 2019’s works around central Yamato Town.

There is a brochure of Hassaku Festival at Yamato Bunka no Mori ( やまと文化の森 ) which is located in the central Yamato Town. This brochure has a map where we can see those Otsukurimono. Park your car at the community center and visit some of them on foot. When you see them closely, you will see how elaborate and dynamic they are.

Visit Seiwa Bunraku!

I have a friend in Yamato Town who actually has been a puppeteer for the new Amabie play. She told me that there is a curriculum to learn Bunraku at elementary schools in Yamato Town. Some of the members in Seiwa Bunraku have practiced Tayu, Shamisen, Ningyo-tsukai from their childhood. The main Tayu is in his forty and there is another Tayu who is in his twenty. The main Shamisen player is in thirty and she can do Tayu, too. I thought Seiwa Bunraku has a bringht future.

Speaking of traditional performing arts, we think them as something too formal or too special but they have lived with us for centuries changing little by little with the times. I hope this article will be someone’s opportunity to go and watch one of Bunraku plays which will be a great support for them.

Map and Links

Official Website of Seiwa Bunraku ( 清和文楽 )

Official YouTube Channel of Seiwa Bunraku


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