Viewing Bunraku through the Lens of Anime

I would like to briefly address the question of whether or not bunraku (traditional Japanese puppet theater) can be considered a predecessor of anime. There are multiple points on which this comparison can be made, including the use of constructed beings to represent humans, the use of type characters, plots which are enjoyed for their familiarity as much as their originality, exaggerated movements and expressions understood as signifiers of emotions by the audience, the tradition of adaptation from other sources, and so on. Many of these trends are not true of just anime and bunraku, but rather apply to a number of different forms both of traditional Japanese performance and modern entertainment. That being said, there are a number of points that I find to be of particular interest when viewing bunraku and its stories from a modern vantage point (as we inevitably must).

First is the act of using constructed non-human actors to act out humans. Despite the initial disadvantages we are initially struck with as viewers attempting to relate to the wooden dolls of bunraku, puppets (like cartoons) provide both a safe distance from which we can view the events unfolding, as well as a blank slate onto which we can more easily paint ourselves and vicariously enjoy the action of the story. Inasmuch as the puppets are not humans, they cannot be specific humans, and their faces, standardized by character type, allow us as the viewer to imagine the characters as ourselves, a friend, an enemy, or perhaps to leave them as simply a fantastic other. More so, the puppets can constantly shift between these positions. The moment they are portrayed by human actors, the characters lose a great degree of this fluidity and become a person. In Tokugawa Japan and among those who watch anime, there is often a great deal of desire for the possibility of living out experiences which are barred to us. Be that passionately giving our lives for love and leaving behind our worldly ties as in Amijima, or following our one true love across years upon years of disappointment and frustration only to finally be together as in countless shojo anime.

The space between the puppet/cartoon and the viewer is bridged in large part by certain actions the the audience learns to interpret. These actions more than make up for the lack of detail in facial emotions by allowing the puppets/cartoons to easily portray even emotions which do not normally register clearly in faces. While appearing completely unnatural to an unaccustomed audience, an experienced audience ceases to see the motions and symbols as such, and rather directly registers them as the character’s emotions. Certainly, kabuki and bunraku borrowed from one another in these emotive actions, but I would argue that such unnatural actions seem more at home with unnatural actors and pull the viewer in. In contrast, with kabuki’s live actors it seems that it would be difficult to see the actors as being realistic when they used such ridiculous motions. In short, the exaggerated is at home in the unreal, where it only serves to make the real seem unreal.

While I was only able to touch on a couple of points, I think that by studying the medium of bunraku, and particularly by comparing it with the modern medium of anime, we are able to understand to a greater extent how these fantastic and predictable plays that now seems so abstract could have obtained a greater popularity than kabuki when depicting not simply the fantastic, but the very real and very relevant.

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