Bunraku is one of my favorite puppet theaters. I had always wanted to see Japanese traditional puppet shows like Bunraku in person, but gotten no opportunity. I eventually had my first experience to see it in the lovely and calm town, Fukura. Moreover, thankfully, the shows of Awaji Puppet Theater were beautiful and enjoyable.
I saw the two different shows: Ebisu-mai, Datemusume koi no higanoko hinomiyagura no dan. The shows were both wonderful. The show, Ebisu-mai, was humorous and pleasant. A taiko drum was used instead of a shamisen in Ebisu-mai, which made the tone of the show powerful. And, I would have to say that I witnessed a kind of illusion in Datemusume koi no higanoko hinomiyagura no dan. The movements of the female puppet were so charming. Especially, I did feel in awe of the scene of the female puppet’s climbing up the ladder. Although I didn’t understand Japanese, I was sufficiently able to enjoy the beauty and the amusement of the shows.
To be exact, Awaji Puppet shows are called ‘Ningyo Joruri’, no ‘Bunraku’. Bunraku has its root in this Ningyo Joruri, I learned. Personally, I was honored to see the shows in Awaji Puppet Theater which has a long and precious history of Japanese traditional puppet arts.
“Set against beautiful Fukura Bay, Awaji Ningyoza offers a magical entrance into the captivating tradition of Japanese puppetry. The beautiful one-of-a-kind theater offers daily performances with skillfully manipulated puppets, stunning sets, and a mesmerizing fusuma karakuri show. This was the highlight for my trip, with large hand painted sets that move in and out to create stunning pictorial vignettes. There’s nothing like it. If you have the opportunity to go, don’t miss diving into this special home for Japanese puppetry and Awaji’s rich performance history.”
By virtue of the art form, it can be hard to make out what the characters are saying—even if you’ve studied Japanese for as long as I have. Nevertheless, the effort put forth by the Awaji Puppet Theatre Company is not lost on their audience; the mix of visuals, music, and brilliant puppetry translates to a charming display.
When I visited the Awaji Puppet Theatre Company, I had watched them perform Datemusume Koi no Higanoko: Hinomiyagura no dan and Ebisu-mai. Hinomiyagura is a scene in the middle of Datemusume, which made it a little difficult to follow, but the overall mood was undisturbed and made for a nice spectacle. Ebisu-mai is very simple, and its creative use of daiko drum for sound effects made it a very enjoyable skit. Neither skit is very long, which is a plus if you’re worried about sitting for too long a time. Between the skits, there was an opportunity to talk with the actors and even work with the puppets—which are a lot more complicated than they make them look!
Apart from the theater, Awaji Island offers various shops and restaurants nearby the theater, and the soft aroma of the ocean floats throughout the island. If you’re a fan of seafood, have no doubts about the quality you’ll be getting if you stop by for a bite to eat.
The Awaji Ningyō-Jōruri, a more-than-500-year-old form of traditional puppet theater designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Japan, is something you can’t miss if you are interested in getting to know the traditional performing arts of Japan in a rather alternative location, away from hectic/extreme touristic spots.
Awaji Ningyō-Jōruri, the predecessor of Bunraku, is a folk performing art from the island of Awaji that has been handed-down throughout the generations for over 500 years.
The differences between Awaji Ningyō-Jōruri and Bunraku go beyond the story line, the size of the puppet or the folkloristic aspect. In this traditional Japanese practice there is an aspect, which is very interesting and almost unique: There are women involved, female samisen players and puppeteers, in clear contrast to many other traditional performing arts.
They are a self-supporting group and keep this tradition alive without- or very few subsidies, so most of their income comes from ticket sales, merchandising and festivals they take part in.
Company manager Bando Chiaki and all the members we have met have been very resourceful in supporting us with our research project, they where open for an interview and we had time behind the scenes. The entire troupe was supportive and interested and very collaborative.
They are very happy about receiving tourists and researchers because they love so much what they do that they want to spread the word, since they believe this is the only way to keep this tradition alive.
If you are a tourist, they understand and speak English well, but if you are planning a research with complex questions and deep in the field talk, try to organize a translator by yourself.
The Awaji Ningyō-Jōruri Hall is located in Minamiawaji, Hyōgo, where they perform several times a day. In case you are coming from Naruto, be sure to check the bus schedule before organizing the trip, if you come from Kobe it is easier, because there is a direct bus with a higher frequency.
Paula Rosolen & Juan Morales
While working as an artist in Europe for the past 25 years, I have been able couple to get a grip on the source of my artistic motivation only recently. During my visit to the Awaji puppet theater ‘Awaji Ningyo-za’ with Japanese dancer Ema Yuasa, I have had the great opportunity to learn about the origins of Japanese puppet theatre. The Awaji Ningyo-za has given me a strong understanding of the origin of Japanese performance art and its relationship to life.
My career started as a classical pianist, but for the past decade I have been creating installations and performance art. Due to my experience in Europe and by background from Japan, my work is a reflection on the combination of Western and Japanese history, theory and practice. During my visit at Awaji Ningyo-za I was able to observe the particular approach of the actors to their profession: I was extremely touched by the way the Kuroko (=actors) take care of their puppets by repairing them and by the way they maintained their theatre. It became clear to me how there was no division between the life of the actors on-stage and back-stage. This inclusive and comprehensive approach made it more than clear to me what performance art meant to these people.
I found some old photos from the sixties hanging on the walls of Awaji Ningyo-za. These pictures showed a number of actors who were performing a puppet play in front of empty pond, praying to the gods for rain to come. The praising of the gods and of nature is a ritual that we have forgotten and is not put in practice anymore: performance art as we know it has lost its touch with otherworldliness. But isn’t it true that the act of creating a bridge between humans and gods is what performance art used to be?
A good catch of fish, a rich harvest, and even a successful business are what people thought of as important. It was performance in the form of rituals which connected these wishes to the daily life of people.
Today, performance art often seeks to anguish the disconnection between the audience and the work: art receives a higher intellectual recognition when it abstractly reflects upon our everyday life. However, the way the Awaji puppet theater contributes to the everyday life of the inhabitants of the island made me reflect the perception of contemporary performance art and its reflection upon reality.
Tomoko Mukaiyama (pianist/artist)