From the early 17th to mid-20th century, there existed numerous puppet troupes in Awaji Island. Some were big and others small. They performed not only inside the island but travelled around larger areas of Japan to show their elaborate puppetry. The present-day Awaji Puppet Theatre Company performs having inherited all the properties of the Yoshida Denjirô-za, one of the biggest troupes in Awaji.
Yoshida Denjirô-za was listed in a 1741 document as one of the 38 troupes of Awaji. Based off historical documents which confirm its history, we understand that the troupe owned a performance license and travelled all throughout Japan. Other big troupes, Uemura Gennojô-za, Nakamura Kyûdayû-za, and Ichimura Rokunojô-za, also gave tour performances around Japan in the same way. Yoshida Denjirô-za recruited several members from another troupe, Kobayashi Rokudayû-za, during 1890s and 1910s and made a junior group. The senior and junior groups gave performances separately.
The troupes visited Tokushima, Sanuki (in Kagawa), Iyo (in Ehime), Kii (in Wakayama), Harima (in Hyogo), and coastal areas around the Sea of Japan as well as local villages inside Awaji. Among them, they seem to have established a strong connection with the Iyo region, as the troupe possessed a variety of masks of gods and animals created by a well-known mask maker of the region, Menmitsu Yoshimitsu.
Yoshida Denjirô-za excelled at performances of the piece Honchô nijushikô (Our Country’s Twenty four Paragons of Filial Piety). When they performed this piece in front of the feudal lord of Matsuyama, a daughter of the lord gave the troupe a gorgeous kimono cloth and colorful fusuma (a stage setting) with embroidered chrysanthemum patterns. This property is said to surpass any of the other troupes. The troupe made several donations to famous shrines Konpira-jinja and Sanjô Hachiman in Kagawa prefecture. In February 1916, the troupe was invited to the opening event of Uchiko-za Theatre in Ehime prefecture. They performed Imoseyama onna teikin (Proper Upbringing of a Young Lady at Mount Imose) for eleven days under a contract of 320 yen (roughly 200,000 yen in today’s market) for the performance fee.
In the 1930s, the troupe was so popular that famous figures such as writer Hayashi Fumiko (1903-1951) and actor Hanayagi Shôtarô (1894-1965) paid visits to the theater. However, the financial condition of the troupe gradually deteriorated, and it ceased activity at the end of World War II. The owner quit puppetry and opened an antique shop. After the war in 1957, the owner had been listed to become the promoter for a project to erect a monument designating the origin of the ningyô jôruri puppetry tradition in Awaji. However, as he did not have an appropriate successor, he instead donated all the properties, including historical documents, to the Association of Awaji ningyô jôruri. Thus, the Awaji Puppet Theatre Company was established and has taken over the tradition of Yoshida Denjirô-za.
Awaji puppet plays were once very popular in the Edo period (1603-1868). It was sponsored by the feudal lord of Tokushima as well as local influential people and was enjoyed in various areas inside and outside Awaji. However, after the Meiji Restoration (1868), it gradually lost the interest of the people because of the emergence of new forms of entertainment. It also failed to capture the interest of young successors in the profession due to how demanding training is. After World War II, the Awaji puppet play tradition was in danger of vanishing. In this crisis, a new puppetry troupe, the Awaji Puppet Theatre Company, was established in 1964 with the support of the local people who well understood the value of this unique tradition and wished to keep it.
The troupe’s activity is highly regarded not only in Japan but also in many foreign countries. It has been invited to perform in 20 countries and areas in USA, Russia, Europe, Asia, and Oceania. The troupe has also conducted educational programs in local children’s associations, elementary schools, junior and senior high schools, and young people’s associations in order to foster successors to the tradition.
In the past, Awaji puppeteers travelled all over Japan and performed in temporary theatres in outdoor fields called nogake. After the Awaji Puppet Theatre Company was established, it initially gave performances at a public hall in the Ichi district, believed to be the birthplace of Awaji puppetry. In 1968, the troupe’s base was moved to the Fukura area, which is a port town and welcomes many tourists with various ocean activities. In 1985, it moved into a new complex facility built on a hill, Onaruto-kyo Memorial Hall. Finally, the current theatre, especially designed for puppetry, was completed in Fukura in 2012. And now, the audience can enjoy various human dramas, embodied by puppets, human narrative, and shamisen music every day.
Supported by the people’s effort to protect local tradition, the Awaji puppet play tradition has survived a number of crises and hardships. The members of the Awaji Puppet Theatre Company diligently devote themselves to everyday training in order to pass down this art to the next generation with pride and hope.
It takes long time to master this art. For example, in order to achieve effortless mastery, seven years are required for manipulating the feet of a puppet, seven more years for the left hand, and a lifelong period for the head and the right hand. The members engage in this tradition, understanding both the difficulty and the joy of the art form. In this current society where mass consumption prevails, many traditional arts have been forgotten, but we eagerly try to absorb and embody the essence of this wonderful traditional art and wish to hand it down to the next generation.