I was recently exploring the depiction of Bunraku puppet plays in Ukiyo-e and began to notice a decided lack of material that explicitly showed puppets. Some pieces were readily available, like those depicted by Utamaro, but beyond that it became quite challenging to find actual puppets being displayed in print.
When I started to dig more into the subject matter behind the actual Bunraku plays, however, it became quite apparent that I was approaching the subject entirely wrong: The characters and “actors” from Bunraku plays were being depicted as actual people, not as puppets.
For a single point of further exploration I chose a single Bunraku play: The Love-Inspired Murder (Koimusume mukashi hachijō).
A love story, this particular play features two characters very heavily: Okoma and Saizaburô (thus most of the prints that relate to this play typically feature these two). The play itself first came out in 1775 and is almost immediately depicted in print by Katsukawa Shunshô.
Eventually though the story ends up being featured very heavily in the prints of Utamaro during the 1790s and early 1800s.
And even erotically:
I found it very interesting to note just how differently the story of the play could be presented when divorced from the means through which it was originally told. As always, expertly presented by Utamaro.