Many explorations into the realm of theater arts have produced various discoveries, which have helped theater devotees make connections never seen before between theater traditions not only from different parts of the world, but with different means of origin. Any such exploration is vital to theatrical research and practice as it not only adds value to theatrical study, but it also may provide an opportunity for two or more theatrical traditions to blend into one exhibition of carefully investigated research.

              The following research presentation examines two very different and diverse theatrical practices: Bunraku Theater, from seventeenth century Japan, and Kathakali Dance-Drama, from seventeenth century southern India. In this examination of Bunraku and Kathakali theatrical traditions, this research paper is an exploration of the cultural evolution of each tradition and a reflection on the development of additional performer roles and the element of movement in both of these practices.

              Bunraku Theater is a traditional form of Puppet Theater that originated in Japan. Initially, ‘Bunraku’ was the name of the theater where ningyo-joruri (puppets and storytelling) was performed in. Gradually, this name evolved and became to be the name associated with the art of ningyo-joruri itself. (“What is Bunraku??) Today, ‘Bunraku’ is the official name of Puppet Theater in Japan. Textual styles in Bunraku involve a high degree of drama, whereas most puppet-oriented theatrical traditions simply rely on simple myths and legends as a foundation for their texts. Most puppet-based theater practices around the world also usually hide the puppeteers involved in the drama. In Bunraku, however, the puppeteers are shown to the audience along with the puppets. (“What is Bunraku??)

              Kathakali is one of the oldest theatrical traditions India, originating in the southern state of Kerela. In Malayalam, the name ‘Kathakali’ directly translates into ‘story-play’. This tradition is primarily a dance-oriented tradition with textual styles involving themes based on mythological texts from Hinduism such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata. (Rajan) Most dance-based theater practices rely only on the dance movements to convey various messages. Kathakali, however, heavily relies on a highly detailed make-up and costume classification, which portrays the characteristics of the characters. (Rajan)

              The astonishing circumstance is that both of these traditions have no evidence of contact amongst themselves. However, as absurd as the relationship may be, a sense of the practices of naturalist Charles Darwin echo when discussing this situation. One might argue that at some point, both these traditions might have a common root that dates back thousands of years. Maybe, in the process of developing these traditions, there was a connection somewhere that inspired both these traditions. Then again, while searching for a historical link, the true essence of the links between Bunraku and Kathakali must not be lost. An examination, nevertheless, of their respective cultural evolution, seems necessary.

Cultural Evolution:

              Bunraku Theater evolved from two different groups. There was a tradition of travelling storytellers and a tradition of travelling puppeteers in seventeenth century Japan. These two groups came into contact with each other and decided to combine the arts of puppetry and storytelling. This tradition was brought into professional performance when Takemoto Gidayu, considered as the father of Bunraku, established a theater in Osaka. Gidayu began his career in Kyoto as a narrator. He was known for his storytelling abilities. In 1684, he decided to form his own variation of theater with the combination of puppetry and storytelling. With the help of Chikamatsu Monzaemon, regarded as one of the greatest playwrights in Japanese history, and Takeda Izumo, a theater owner and manager, Gidayu was able to establish his theater in Osaka. The plays of this revolutionary style of theater known as joruri were categorized into two divisions: jidai-mono (historical) and sewa-mono (domestic) plays. Historical plays were focused on the lifestyle and stories involving the noble and military social classes, while domestic plays were concerned with the lives of the common town residents. Upon the division of joruri around 1703 into Takemoto-za, led by Gidayu, and Toyotake-za, led by an apprentice of Gidayu who left the Osaka Theater, the fight for the best theater of joruri produced some quality work. This period of Bunraku history was later referred to as the Golden Age. Plays from this time period are still the most often performed plays today. However, after a prosporous early eighteenth century, the late eighteenth century brought a period of literary drought as joruri declined in popularity. The only existence of Puppet Theater after that was that in shrines and temples. Amidst this phase, a small theater was opened in Osaka near the Inari Shrine in 1811 by Uemura Bunrakuken. In 1872, it was relocated to Matsushima and officially titled Bunraku-za. Soon after in 1884, a new rival to Bunraku-za arose by the name of Hikiroku-za. Similar to the previous golden age, this rivalry produced some fine work and Bunraku was at a point of revival. The rivalry lasted six years as Hikoroku-za closed down in 1893. Bunraku-za was the only remaining representative of Puppet Theater. Soon, the art of Puppet Theater became known as Bunraku instead of just the theater. After World War II, one of the first rebuilt theaters was the Yotsubashi Bunraku-za because the government wished to preserve this famous art form out of Osaka. In 1966, in Tokyo, the first National Theater was built. This theater targeted a younger audience to keep the tradition alive. Today, as a result of the investment, the theater is part of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. (paragraph of references)

              Meanwhile, in southern India, Kathalkali had a different direction from which it evolved. The art of Kathakali originated from a political rivalry between two chieftains: the Raja (King) of Kottarakkara and the Zamorin of Calicut. The Raja of Kottarakkara requested the presence of a dance-drama troupe known as Krishnanaattam from the Zamorin of Calicut to perform at a social gathering. Krishnanaattam was a dance-drama based on the life of Lord Krishna, a Hindu mythological god. The Zamorin considered this proposition and due to political tension between the two, he refused to send the troupe blaming it on the fact that the Raja of Kottarakkara would not appreciate the art form. In rebellion, the Raja of Kottarakkara created an equivalent form of dance-drama called Raamanaattam, based on the life of Lord Rama, another Hindu mythological god. Raamanaattam was created in Malayalam, the traditional language of the state of Kerela. By the end of the seventeenth century, the polished version of Raamanaattam was known as Kathakali. Kathakali was performed in Hindu temples as its stories had much to do with religious texts. The art of Kathakali was a mixture of several art forms of Kerela: Nritta, Nrittya, Natya, Kalaripayattu, Theyyam, and Koodiyattam. Nritta, Nrittya, and Natya are names for various dance types directly translating into ‘pure dance’, ‘suggestive dance with the aid of postures and gestures’, and ‘drama’. Kalaripayattu is the martial art of Kerela. This art is evident in the movement of Kathakali through the way performers are trained until absolute endurance is achieved. Theyyam is a ritualistic dance form. The heavy use of make-up and headdresses in Kathakali is derived from Theyyam. Lastly, Koodiyattam is a Sanskrit-based theater performed in the temples of Kerela. This theater, dating back to 200 BC, contains the stage action that has been inherited by Kathakali. Along with the make-up from Theyyam, stiff and powerful movements from Kaliripayattu, this stage action completes the art of Kathakali today. (paragraph of references)

              Noticing the many differences in the way that these traditions came about, they have plenty of similarities that could be used as critical researched connections. Both theatrical practices have different roots of evolution. Bunraku Theater evolved as a result of the desire to capitalize on a newly discovered means of theater involving puppets and storytelling. Kathakali dance-drama evolved as a result of political feuds between rival kingdoms, and how one dominant form of dance-drama evolved through the centuries to represent its modern representation. The fact that both practices come from different narratives in their backgrounds challenges the implausible theory that any contact was possible between the two cultures. Regardless of historical contact, Bunraku and Kathakali seem to display great similarities in three areas: additional performer roles, make-up, and movement.

Additional Performer Roles:

Instantly, one notices that there are some introductory connections linking Bunraku and Kathakali evolution. Both traditions evolved in the 17th century. Both traditions are different from conventional traditions in their respected forms. However, lack of communication in the seventeenth century limited ways in which one practice could become aware of the other. There are also other detailed aspects that link the fundamentals of each theatrical practice.

              The first connection between Bunraku and Kathakali is the development of additional performer roles. There are two additional roles apart from the puppeteers in Bunraku. One of them is the role of the chanter and the other is that of the shamisen player. The chanter is known as the tayu. His role is described as bringing wooden dolls to life. Through the expressions made by the chanter, the dolls are able to communicate with each other filled with the same expression as any western theatrical actor. Apart from reciting the dialogue, the chanter also informs the audience on the background involved with the scene being presented. Only one chanter is needed to perform all the roles. Thus, the chanter needs to have a versatile voice. Over-exaggeration is essential to portray a character’s personality and their emotions. The crowd is able to distinguish between characters through the exaggerated voices made by the chanter. The chanter is accompanied by the shamisen player, who plays the musical supplement to. Out of the three types of shamisens, the one played in Bunraku is the type with the longest neck to emit the deepest and most low-pitched sound. This also requires the chanter to sing from the lower abdomen. Similar to the role of the chanter, the shamisen player must also attempt to add his full heart into the music to make the musical addition as real and cultural as possible. (paragraph of references)

              Kathakali performances contain more additional performers than Bunraku. However, their roles are similar to those of Bunraku. There is a music accompaniment to the performance. The musicians are referred to as the orchestra. The orchestra composes of three drums and a set of cymbals. Usually, one performer plays each instrument, but there are performances where more than one are seen playing the same instrument. The three drums are the chenda, maddalam, and edakka.  The chenda is loud and powerful and is used for scenes with building suspense. The maddalam is used for softer sounds pertaining to female characters. The edakka is also used for its soft, musical addition to the overall spirit. Along with the drums, the cymbals aid the drums to help the dancer keep in beat with the music. The orchestra is used throughout the performance because without the beats of the drums, the performers are clueless as to their movements. The dance dances according to the rhythm of the drums. There is a vocal aspect to Kathakali as well. This aspect is used to narrate the story because the performers do not speak in the performance. The dialogue is spoken in either Malayalam or Sanskrit and is said whenever narration is required. In parts where dance builds the suspense, the drums take control and the chanter(s) does(do) not speak. (paragraph of references)

              In Bunraku and Kathakali, the roles of additional performers are similar. The chanters are responsible for reciting the story and speaking any dialogue needed to be spoken. The instrument players are required to maintain the tone of the performance. The institutional soul of the performance in both cases is created by the music, which has to be followed by other elements. The remarkable similarities presented by this straightforward addition of music is one of many upon which basic structure of performance are developed. 


The second correlation between Bunraku and Kathakali is the heavy use of make-up to describe the characteristics of the various characters. In Bunraku, various puppet heads indicate various personalities of the characters.Different types of heads with fixed make-up are used. Each puppet head is meant for a different role. There are twelve types of male puppet heads, six types of female puppet heads, and there are also specially made heads used for special roles. The male heads are Bunshichi, Kenbishi, Komei, Odanshichi, Genda, Waka otoko, Oniwaka, Matahei, Darasuke, Yokanbei, Oshuto, and Kiichi. Bunshichi is a head used for tragic heroes. The heroism can be seen through the masculine face with thick eyebrows. However, the facial expression shows concealed worry or sorrow, which leads to the conclusion that this hero is tragic and has suffered for a long time. Kenbishi is a head used for characters playing supporting roles in a performance. This head’s facial expression indicates strong willpower, which is indicated by the single-lined painting of the mouth. Komei is a head used for middle-aged characters. This head is intended to be thoughtful, portrayed by its polished facade. Odanshichi is a head used for warriors. These warriors are brave and courageous, which can be seen through the bold facial expression and the heavy lines with which the head is painted. Genda and Waka otoko are heads used for teens and men in their twenties. Their elegance is shown through their handsome faces. Oniwaka is a head used for teen males as well. However, the red color of the face portrays that these characters are wild and stubborn as opposed to handsome and elegant. Matahei is a head used to portray honest men living simple lives, which is seen through the simplicity of their face. Darasuke is a head that represents the enemy. The facial expression of this character displays opposing views and a sense of unease. These characters are supposed to be disliked by the audience. Yokanbei is a head used for enemies as well. However, the pink face and the long moustache are traits of humor. Therefore, these characters are humorous villains, who aren’t supposed to be completely disliked by the audience. Oshuto and Kiichi heads are both used for the roles of aged men. Oshuto is typically used to portray an aged warrior. Although the wrinkles on the face represent age, the fearless expression displays the characteristics of a retired warrior. Kiichi is a head also used for an aged warrior. However, the facial expression of wisdom represents an important figure. (paragraph of references)

found on Japan Arts Council web site

              The six female heads are Musume, Fuke-oyama, Baba, Keisei, Baku-ya, and O-Fuku. Musume is the most beautiful and appealing female head for a common woman in Bunraku. It is used for roles for young women from fifteen years of age and onwards. It can also be used for young wives. Fuke-oyama is a head dedicated to young-middle aged women, aged twenty to forty. These heads are also very beautiful, but the different hairstyle portrays a greater degree of maturity. Baba is a head which is divided into two different-looking heads. One is used for historical plays and the other is used for domestic plays. The historical head is used for significant older roles in historical plays. The hair of this head is very smooth compared to rough hair in the domestic version, which is used mainly for old townswomen. Keisei is considered to be the most elegant head in its appealing facial features and elaborate hair style. It is used for courtesan women in the high social classes. Baku-ya is the head used for evil roles such as that of an old hag. The wrinkles, rough hair, and facial expression depict wickedness. Lastly, O-Fuku is a plump version of Musume. This head is used for the roles of servants. (paragraph of references)

found on Japan Arts Council web site

              With such details in terms of make-up of the puppets, a conclusion could be formulated that Bunraku heavily relies of make-up as an element of performance. The various make-up patterns expressed in the form of a range of heads lead to the build-up of the personalities of various characters on stage.

              These typical heads resembling various characters can also be found in the make-up of Kathakali. In Kathakali, the traits of the character depend on the color scheme of the make-up. There are five different styles of make-up in Kathakali: Minukku,Paccha, Katti, Taadi, and Kari. Minukku is the make-up used for characters designated in the upper class of society. Through the polished make-up scheme, a sense of glorified piety is shown in a disciple character. When used with women roles, delicate touches of Minukku are provided. Paccha is a style of make-up used to illustrate mythological heroes, Gods, and other characters with much importance. The character’s valor and ethical distinction are portrayed by the purity of the green color used in this make-up. Katti, a make-up more complex than Paccha, is used for antagonistic roles which are opposite the heroes of the play. The resemblance of the make-up to sharply bent daggers portrays the characteristics of evil ambition and arrogance. Taadi is a make-up structure of a beard which is divided into three parts: Veluppu taadi, Chuvanna taadi, and Karuppu taadi. Veluppu taadi is a beard used for warrior roles. This beard brings a sense of realism to these mythological fighters. Chuvanna taadi is a beard used to add dreadfulness to characters. Used mainly for evil characters, this make-up can also be used for adding evilness to lesser malevolent characters. Burning red eyes and thick black lips are used to help portray this image. Karuppu taadi is the last type of taadi make-up. This beard is black and is used for thieves and robbers. The last type of make-up in Kathakali is Kari. This make-up is also used for evil characters. The black face represents the presence of blackness inside the character. (paragraph of references)

found on the Cochin Cultural Centre web site

              Make-up in Bunraku is centered on the presentation of the different heads. In Kathakali, the way different make-up styles are combined defines characters. In both traditions, the purpose is similar: to reveal the characteristics and assign various stock roles to various styles of presentation. Instantly, a relation between the two traditions is established. Of course, there are differences in the details of each element. Nonetheless, in the two performance aspects investigated, the intentions in Bunraku and Kathakali are fundamentally alike. The significance of these relations is further elaborated when the third one is made, which is based on movement.


              Movement is the last element in Bunraku and Kathakali in discussion. Since none of the performers speak, movement is the medium through which they communicate the chanter’s message to the audience. The movement is the key aspect to the conveyance of the theme of the performance. In Bunraku, the puppeteers maneuver the puppet according to the chanter in order to keep up with the tempo of the performance. (“The Puppets?) In Kathakali, the movement is the prime source of communication to the audience through very intricate facial expressions and complicated hand movements.

              In Bunraku, the movements of the puppets are maneuvered by three puppeteers: the omo-zukai, hidari-zukai, and ashi-zukai. The omo-zukai is the head puppeteer. He controls the puppet’s head and right hand. The head is controlled by a stick wired with levers to control various facial parts such as the eyes, eyebrows, and mouth. The omo-zukai holds this lever with his left hand and operates the puppet’s right hand with his right hand. The hidari-zukai is the puppeteer that controls the puppet’s left hand. He does so with his right hand. Most hand gestures made by puppets are performed by the left hand because its movement is specifically exercised by the hidari-zukai. Lastly, the least experienced puppeteer out of the three is usually the ashi-zukai, who controls both feet of the puppeteer with both his hands. These three puppeteers train for years to acquire a state of harmony in their movements. If the movements are not presented with a state of synchronization, the puppeteers fail to bring the puppet to life because the movements seem abnormal to the audience. The biggest challenge presented to puppeteers is the elemental requirement to empathize with the puppet. For example, at a particular point in a play, if the puppet is sad, the puppeteer must develop a state of sadness in order to perfect the movement assigned to him. If all three puppeteers empathize this way, harmony in movement is reached and the puppet is brought to life. (paragraph of references)

              Kathakali also incorporates a large degree of movement in its performances. Most of the performance is based on the movement of the character. The element of movement is so extensive that an entire language has been developed using the hands of the performer. This ‘language’ is based upon mudras. There are twenty-four basic mudras, or ‘letters’ that can be combined to form words and phrases. Along with mudras, there are nine basic facial expressions known as the nava rassas. These facial expressions depict the mood of the character. They represent a stylized form of everyday expressions. The movements conducted by the feet follow the beat of the orchestra. They help in the addition of technique to the rest of the movements. When combined, the make-up represents the personality of a character, the facial expressions represent the mood, and the dialogue is spoken through the mudras. All aspects of a character are covered through the make-up and movement, representing a very stylized way of conducting a dance-drama. (paragraph of references)

              In both theatrical traditions, the movement is essential in bringing the production to life. In the case of Bunraku, this is done is by creating the perception of bringing the puppets to life. In Kathakali, this is done through a language based heavily on movement. The movement controls the dialogue in both cases. Thus, both traditions have a very similar use of movement.


              Bunraku Puppet Theater is a tradition that began as a combination of two traditions: storytelling and puppetry. Early Bunraku saw the rise of the Osaka Theater, founded by Takemoto Gidayu. After some highs and lows, Bunraku is still a popular form of theater in Japan. In another part of the world, Kathakali originated from a political brawl where the Raja of Kottarakkara created a dance-drama called Raamanaattam. This form of dance-drama, with some perfection, became modern-day Kathakali. There are many similarities, however, despite the differences in the cultural evolution of these traditions. One tradition evolved in the coastal region of modern-day Japan while the other evolved on the region surrounded by the southern tip of India. Regardless, both of these traditions rely on facial features to describe the characters involved in the drama. In Bunraku, it is the different painted heads. In Kathakali, it is the stylistic make-up. Also, both Bunraku and Kathakali contain specific additional performers. The stunning fact is that in both styles, the additional performers have similar duties. There is a recite/chanter and there is musical accompaniment. Lastly, the movement element in Bunraku and Kathakali is heavily relied upon to create harmony in Bunraku and convey messages in Kathakali. All these similarities are fascinating considering the differences amongst these two traditions. One must ponder how these similarities came into existence. Was it mere coincidence? Could Darwin’s theory of evolution be implied here? These similarities could pave the way for further investigation into these two traditions and maybe, the world would be able to see a Bunraku play performed the Kathakali way or a Hindu text performed with Bunraku puppets. This research can lead to a whole new dimension of theatrical study.


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Photograph Bibliography

Heads for Female Roles. Photograph. Japan Arts Council. An Introduction to the World of Bunraku. Japan Arts Council. Web. 17 Jan. 2010. <>.

Heads for Male Roles. Photograph. Japan Arts Council. An Introduction to the World of Bunraku. Japan Arts Council. Web. 17 Jan. 2010. <>.

Various Colourful Costumes & Makeup in Kathakali. Photograph. Cochin Cultural Centre, Kochi. Cochin Cultural Centre. Cochin Cultural Centre. Web. 17 Jan. 2010. <>.