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Bunraku and Bunraku-inspired Puppet Display at Detroit Institute of Arts mixes - Japanese Tradition with 21st-Century Creativity

Monday, February 17, 2014

Contact: Pamela Marcil 313-833-7899

(Detroit)—Two bunraku [boon-RAH-koo] puppets from the Detroit Institute of Arts’ (DIA) acclaimed Paul McPharlin Puppetry Collection, along with two contemporary bunraku-inspired puppets created for stage productions, will be on display from March 15 to August 17. The exhibition is free with museum admission, and free for residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

Bunraku is the traditional puppet theater of Japan that began in the late 17th century during the military and political reign of the samurai. The puppetry was popular with the commoners, who enjoyed its themes of tragic love stories, heroic legends and historical events.

Bunraku puppets are about one-half life size and each is operated by three performers, using no strings or rods. The puppeteers coordinate movements of the limbs, eyelids, eyeballs, eyebrows and mouths, producing life-like movements and dramatic expressions. The puppeteers are in full view of the audience, dressed in all black, to suggest they are invisible. A narrator reads all the parts accompanied by a musician on a stringed instrument called a samisen.

This style of puppetry has often been adapted for contemporary experimental theater because of the possibility of mixing puppets with live actors on the same stage. Artists/puppeteers Tom Lee, Eric Novak and Matt Acheson have lent two examples of bunraku-inspired puppets used in recent productions in the U.S. and abroad.

On May 10 at 2 p.m. Lee, whose work has been seen in War Horse at Lincoln Center and Madame Butterfly at the Metropolitian Opera in New York, will give a presentation about the history of Japanese puppetry styles, his current work and the synthesis of Japanese puppetry traditions with western performance. 

DIA Puppets on Display
Samurai, Unknown Artist, early 1900s 
This fierce-looking samurai is dressed in shades of shimmering gold and carries a sword—the samurai’s weapon of choice. The puppet features an intricate mechanism that allows the puppeteer to arch the eyebrows for dramatic effect during stories about Japan’s legendary warriors.  

Noblewoman, Unknown Artist, early 1900s
The tiny mouth and high eyebrows of this puppet represent characteristics of womanly beauty in Japan at the time the puppet was made. Like many Bunraku puppets, the head can be separated from the body. This allows for costume changes, and for the head to be used for different plays and roles. Noblewoman’s head often would have played the roles of high-born maidens, who find themselves in tragic relationships.

Contemporary Bunraku-Inspired Puppets
Cathead, Eric Novak, 2004

Cathead was created for The Adventures of Charcoal Boy, a performance that combined puppets, video projections and music by a live indie-rock band. Like the bunraku puppet it is based on, CatHead requires three puppeteers to bring him to life. However, unlike traditional bunraku theater where a narrator voices all the parts, the band’s lead singer voiced Cathead’s lines.

Captain Paterkov, Tom Lee, Matt Acheson, 2009
Captain Paterkov was created for an experimental workshop and performed for an audience that included other artists. Puppet makers Tom Lee and Matt Acheson were interested in exploring how their new creation operated and the effect it created. Though inspired by bunraku puppets, Lee and Acheson designed their puppet using found objects and abandoned toys to illustrate a mood of memory and loss. 

Those interested in learning more about samurai and their artistic pursuits can visit the DIA’s large-scale exhibition Samurai: Beyond the Sword, which opens March 9. The exhibition explores artworks that project the image of the samurai not only as fierce warriors but also as patrons of the arts. This is a ticketed exhibition. Visit for more information. 

Hours and Admission
Museum hours are 9 a.m.–4 p.m. Tuesdays–Thursdays, 9 a.m.–10 p.m. Fridays, and 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. General admission (excludes ticketed exhibitions) is free for Wayne, Oakland and Macomb county residents and DIA members. For all others, $8 for adults, $6 for seniors ages 62+, $4 for ages 6–17. For membership information, call 313-833-7971.


The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), one of the premier art museums in the United States, is home to more than 60,000 works that comprise a multicultural survey of human creativity from ancient times through the 21st century. From the first Van Gogh painting to enter a U.S. museum (Self-Portrait, 1887), to Diego Rivera's world-renowned Detroit Industry murals (1932–33), the DIA’s collection is known for its quality, range, and depth. The DIA’s mission is to create opportunities for all visitors to find personal meaning in art.

Programs are made possible with support from residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.