A twang from a shamisen lute, two beats of a taiko drum, and suddenly our attention is undivided. A swift drawing back of the long, navy curtain that shrouds the twelve-meter stage inside the iconic puppet theatre of Awaji Ningyoza, and we are already putty in the hands of the master puppeteers. Pupils like pendulums we scan the set before us, left to right, for the first sign of movement from the wings.
Stage left. All eyes fixate on the majestic red puppet emerging from behind the drapes –Ebisu, god of the ocean. One foot in front of the other, each of his movements coincides with a drum beat, yet the puppet’s motions are fluid and eerily humanlike.
We are spellbound, gazing at the at-least-four-foot doll manoeuvring its way to center stage. Well, not its own way – it takes me a good 30 seconds to register the three black-hooded figures giving life to this delicate, handmade, wooden creature.
This is the most fascinating point of difference between puppetry in the rest of the world and traditional Japanese puppetry like Awaji’s ningyo joruri (puppetry and chanting), which is similar to the well-recognized bunraku style – the traditional Japanese puppet theater. In most of the world’s theaters, puppeteers go to great lengths to hide their puppet manipulations from the audience, but in ningyo joruri, the manipulators appear openly, in full view of the spectators. Is it distracting? Not at all. In fact, the human movement behind the puppets seems to offer them an even more profound human quality, surreal as it may be.
“The most difficult thing is expressing a character’s mind and heart when you’re feeling differently,” chuckles puppeteer Shinkuro Yoshida. “For instance, when you are laughing about something but the character is meant to be crying.”
Yoshida’s craft really does take immense concentration, as we learned in a mini workshop during intermission. Each doll requires the coordination of three puppeteers to bring it to life; a legs specialist, a left-hand specialist, and a head and right-hand specialist. Feet training goes for seven years, we are told, followed by another seven on the left hand, and once you graduate to operating the head and right hand, you are a puppet master.
“But practice is not the end, and neither is performance,” insists Tomosho Takemoto, another of Awaji Ningyoza’s puppet masters. “You can never fully master ningyo joruri. No matter how good you are, there is always something you can learn, something else you can improve about your technique.”
This wisdom entered my mind once more at the point in the story when Ebisu started to appear as though he’d drunk a little too much sake. In this tale, Ebisu, now widely accepted as the deity of prosperity in business, comes to visit Awaji’s puppet theatre. The village headman (another smaller, more modest-looking puppet) offers him sacred rice wine. After a few shots, he starts to dance, and in a slightly drunkenly manner responds to people’s wishes by bringing them good luck.
The chanter, on this day a young woman, kneeling next to the musician to the side of the stage, voices all of his drunkenly wisdom in slow, slurred, and jolly tones from a book of perfectly-scripted Kanji characters.
Observing a drunk person can be quite entertaining, but not nearly as funny, I discovered, as watching a drunk puppet hiccup his way through a sentence, at the same time as stumbling over his ‘two left feet.’ How long had they been working on the ‘drunk puppet’ techniques, I wondered.
Luckily, Awaji ningyo joruri is integrated into the school curriculum on Awaji island, and students – some potential future puppet masters – can begin learning the craft from a very young age. The 500-year tradition is being handed down through the island’s generations to ensure the curtains are never closed on this exquisite cultural art.
Address：1528-1 Fukurakou, Minami-Awaji-shi, Hyogo
Awaji Ningyoza is located in the Fukura harbor area.
Access: Express bus from JR Sannomiya Station to Fukura (90 minutes)
Show times 10am, 11am, 1pm, 2pm, 3pm
Show duration: Around 45 minutes
Museum Open: 9am–5pm
Holidays：Wednesdays, year-end period (Dec 17–31)
Words by Celia Polkinghorne
Photos by Jason Haidar
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