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Bunraku puppetryBookmark

Learning area: The Arts
Year level: Year 3, Year 4
Country: Japan

In this learning sequence, students will learn about the traditions and cultural history of Japanese Bunraku puppetry, create a puppet and practise movements to use in a performance.

Key inquiry questions

  • What is Bunraku puppetry?
  • How do you make a Bunraku puppet and which characters are the best to tell the traditional stories of Bunraku?
  • What dramatic elements make a Bunraku puppet performance most successful?

The female Banraku puppet looks up at the male Banraku puppetMale and female Bunraku puppets

Related resources

Activity 1: The history of Bunraku puppetry

In this activity, students will:

  • learn about Japanese Bunraku puppetry, which involves life-size puppets controlled by three puppeteers
  • draw a puppet, practise movements and play a sculpture game.

Key inquiry question: What is Bunraku puppetry?

About puppetry and Japan

  1. Ask your students the following questions:
    • Who has seen a puppet show?
    • What was it like?
    • What puppets were involved?
    • Where did you see it?
    • What story was performed?
    • What is the biggest puppet you have seen?
    • How did it move?
    • What role did it play?
    • What do you know about Japan?

About Bunraku

  1. Explain that the class will be looking at a traditional form of Japanese puppetry called Bunraku.
  2. Show them the slideshow and video on the UNESCO website,‪ Ningyo Johruri Bunraku Puppet Theatre.
  3. Ask your students to comment on anything they found interesting or puzzling and how the performances compared to puppet plays they have seen in Australia.
  4. Read through the notes on traditional Bunraku puppetry and ask the class to respond to the following questions:
    • Why do you think the artists use puppets to tell a story?
    • What other art forms are involved?
    • How do you think the puppets are operated?
  5. Ask your students to break into pairs and write five questions about the Bunraku puppets. For example, a question could be: how does the head move?
  6. Look at ‬An introduction to Bunraku with the class to find answers to these questions.

Learning about Bunraku puppet theatre

  1. View the video Japan's puppet theatre: Bunraku in 1957, showing a traditional performance.

  2. Ask your students to form groups of three and select three movements that they have identified from the puppets' performance.
  3. Each group creates a flat paper puppet by drawing around the silhouette of a student and cutting the shape into the puppet parts.
  4. The group then performs the movements they observed in the performances.
  5. You will need to remind the group that each member of the group should take on the specific role of one of the three Bunraku puppeteers.
  6. Students are encouraged to recreate the movement and feeling of the style they saw in the video.
  7. Their puppets should reflect the characteristics of one of the stock Bunraku puppets, for example, the old man, the young girl and the mother.
  8. Students can include the details of the wigs, the costumes, the postures and the facial expressions.
  9. After all groups have performed their movements, ask them to write on their blog or in their electronic journal words that capture the movements. They could, for example, describe whether the movements were big or slow.
  10. Watch the video of a 1957 performance of Japan's Bunraku puppet theatre. The video shows a rare performance by the old masters of the old Bunraku puppet theatre on the Isle of Awaji followed by a performance in the Bunraku-za of Osaka.

Sculpture game

  1. Ask your students to pair up to play the sculpture game.
  2. One student is A the sculptor and the other B the clay
  3. A gently shapes B into the character they have been sketching.
  4. Then B has a turn and shapes A into the character they sketched.
  5. Once completed ask the class the following questions:
    • How realistic were the sculptures?
    • Could the audience easily see who the character was?
    • Were the facial expressions and gestures stylised and bigger than normal?

Activity 2: Making a Bunraku puppet

In this activity, students will:

  • work as co-artists to plan and produce a small Bunraku-style puppet festival
  • in groups of eight, make two puppets per group
  • improvise a simple five-minute performance.

Key inquiry question: How do you make a Bunraku puppet and which characters are the best to tell the traditional stories of Bunraku?

Design and create a Bunraku play

  1. Explain that the class is going to form groups of eight to plan and produce a small Bunraku puppet festival of five-minute performances using two puppets. From the notes, point out key features of the puppets.
  2. Watch the video, Japanese Bunraku puppets, that describes the puppets and how they are made.

  3. Ask the class to form groups of eight students. Each student is given a part:
    • narrator or chanter, tayu
    • the three puppeteers, omo-zukaihidari-zukai and ashi-zukai, for each puppet
    • the shamisen player.
  4. Explain that each group is to devise a story for a five-minute puppet performance.
  5. Discuss how they could conduct the festival, decide on a name, and choose a theme, for example, stories of hope, friendship and journeys. Each group's story for the puppets will relate to the selected theme.
  6. Explain that each group will design and make two puppets. They will develop a dialogue between the two puppets to tell a simple story or scene that explores the chosen theme.
  7. Students are to consider what music or sounds will accompany the performance and how these will enhance the emotion of the story. Explain that they will have to notate the sounds along with the speaking parts of the characters and the narrator.
  8. Each group is given materials that could be used to make the puppets. These could include:
    • plastic bottles with handles, corrugated pieces of cardboard or boxes for the body
    • dowel rods, poles, cane or a selection of cardboard tubes to make the legs and arms
    • papier mâché over a bottle for the face and head, and wigs for the hair
    • rubber gloves or cardboard which could be attached to the poles with elastic or string to create hands
    • glue, rulers, craft knife and scissors.
  9. Each group should construct a costume for their characters.
  10. Explain to the groups that they will make the puppets by doing the following:
    • Place the head on a piece of dowel and insert it in a box or milk carton.
    • Use the string to make joints to hold the tubes together for arms and legs and to join the limbs to the torso.
    • Cut out cardboard to make hands and feet and attach them to the legs and arms with glue.
    • Add rods to the feet and arms to make them move.
  11. Show the ‬Bunraku: The Art of Three diagram of a traditional theatre or stage set for Bunraku from the Japanese Performing Arts Resource Center website.
  12. On large pieces of butcher's paper outline a sketch of a typical Bunraku stage design and work with the students in your class to create a simple stage design that captures the mood and style of Bunraku.
  13. Explain that once each group has completed their puppets and play they are to rehearse their puppet performance, making sure that each member is responsible for either the movement of the puppets, the narration or the music.
  14. Remind students that the music can be a series of sounds produced with found objects, voice, or a recording of an actual piece of Bunraku music. Emphasise that it is important that the groups respect the traditions of the drama form.

Activity 3: Bringing the Bunraku puppet to life

In this activity, students will:

  • perform a short Bunraku puppet show as part of a class festival developed on a selected theme
  • perform their show for an audience
  • film their performance for their blogs.

Key inquiry question: What dramatic elements make a Bunraku puppet performance most successful?

Perform a Bunraku puppet show

  1. Use the notes about how to perform with Bunraku puppets to go over the elements of a Bunraku performance with your students. You may wish to show them a couple of the performances again.
  2. Once the puppets have been created ask the groups to play with their puppets to gain ideas about how to operate them effectively to create walks, make different gestures, exchange objects, and express sorrow, happiness and anger.
  3. Ask students to explore the basics of puppet manipulation:
    • Focus: not stargazing gives the puppet head a clear focus and intention
    • Breaking down the movements: pay attention to each movement of the head, body, feet and hands
    • Balance: the puppet can realistically sit, stand and walk
    • Keeping the puppet on the ground: avoid the puppet sweeping the floor and floating
    • Letting the puppet be earthed: it should have weight.
  4. Suggest that they explore some simple improvisations as a group and as partners. For example, arriving at a party, having a fight with a friend, making up after a fight, giving a gift, saying farewell.
  5. Remind students that each group should present their movements and expressions to the class and observe which movements work best. They should also reflect on how the operation of the puppets can be improved.
  6. Once they have notated the types of sounds needed to accompany the story they should practise some of the improvisations with music and by adding sound effects. While doing this they should reflect on what effect this will have on the performance.
  7. Students need to locate and include props and background scenery that supports the stage diagram developed in Activity 2.
  8. Once each group has had enough time to rehearse their puppet performance, conduct the festival, making sure each story has a logical sequence with the next.
  9. Suggest to the group that they may wish to invite a small audience to the festival.
  10. Ask students to design and print a program to give to their audience.
  11. Conduct the festival, making sure it is filmed.
  12. Upload the film to a classroom blog.


Image: Bunraku by Mot the barber ‬‬ (CC BY 2.0)

Activity 4: Reflection

In this activity, students use their individual blogs or electronic journals to evaluate the success of their festival and their group's performance and what they have learnt about Japanese Bunraku puppetry.

  1. As a summing-up activity, students could evaluate how successfully their group adapted the elements of Bunraku puppetry into their performance using the following questions:
    • Did the puppets work as well as they could have during the performance?
    • Did the puppets help to tell the story?
    • What could they have done to improve the performance?
    • What can puppets do that a real actor can't?
    • What parts of the Bunraku puppetry style did they use?
    • How did the music and the costumes work?
  2. Complete the activity by asking the groups to upload their filmed performance to ‪ ‬Glogster with their script.
  3. Ask students to add comments about what they liked in each of the performances.
  4. Ask them to consider what they learned about Bunraku puppetry and have them add information about what they used to develop their performance.

In this learning sequence, students will gain an insight into the traditions of Bunraku puppetry and the performance techniques used to perform this ancient style of drama. Students will design and make puppets for a performance in the classroom and collaborate to plan a festival of puppets.

This Drama and Visual Arts learning sequence incorporates knowledge, understanding and skills that are integrated within the activities. Students will explore this classical and enduring art and performance form that theatre makers still look to for inspiration and guidance. After investigating the history, key features, techniques and methods of manipulating puppets, students will make their own puppets and engage in rehearsals and improvisations to gain skill in performing. They will question why artists still work in this ancient theatre art form.

Activity 1: The history of Bunraku puppetry

Start this activity by finding out what students know about puppets in Australia and other countries. Then introduce Japanese Bunraku puppetry by showing a video. Ask the students what they observe about how the puppeteers manipulate the puppets and whether this affects their enjoyment of and engagement with the performance. Students will then have the opportunity to get involved in making puppets and playing a game.

Activity 2: Making a Bunraku puppet

Prepare students with information about the making of traditional puppets and the skills needed to make the puppets. Then introduce the students to the materials they will use to create their puppet and devise a plan for their performance. In groups, they make two life-size puppets and improvise a simple five-minute performance. 

Activity 3: Bringing the Bunraku puppet to life

Students should choose a theme for a puppet theatre festival and construct the characters as puppets to perform a simple scene. In practical workshops students can improvise, play and create small scenes for sharing with the class.

In a clear space groups of students will practise, play and improvise with their puppet. Each group will work with another group to play and improvise with the two puppets they have created. The basics of puppet manipulation will be explained. Their task is to create a small scene that explores the festival framework. They can add music or sound effects and a narrator/chanter as in traditional Bunraku.

Activity 4: Reflection

Provide students with the opportunity to reflect on what they have learned about Bunraku puppetry and their art-making and performances.

Useful websites

The background notes and activities provided in this module have been sourced and adapted from the following websites:

  • Ningyo Johruri Bunraku puppet theatre – a UNESCO website with a history of Bunraku puppetry including a slideshow and video
  • Bunraku: The Art of Three  – a Japanese Performing Arts Resource Center website with a description of the interconnection between the three key elements of the puppets, the text and the music, including detailed information and images of each element
  • An introduction to Bunraku – comprehensive and easily accessible information about all aspects of Bunraku puppetry from the National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka
  • ‬Dead Puppet Society – an Australian theatre company, Dead Puppet Society that specialises in the creation of life-size puppets and gives contemporary examples of the inclusion of Bunraku puppet features in their performances
  • ‬Japan's puppet theatre Bunraku in 1957 – a YouTube video of a rare performance by the old masters of Bunraku puppet theatre on Awaji Island
  • ‬How to Make Bunraku Puppet Controller – a website with a series of videos about making Bunraku puppets
  • Glogster – an education platform for teachers and students to express their knowledge and skills through creation of GLOGS, including online multimedia posters with text, photos, videos, graphics, sounds, drawings and data attachments

It is recommended that teachers preview websites to ensure they are suitable for their students prior to use in class. Content accessed via these links is not owned or controlled by the Asia Education Foundation and is subject to the terms of use of the associated website.

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