Miguel Romero
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   Bunraku
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   Two Puppet Collections
   Awaji
   Hitomi-za
   Kuruma Ningyo

 


Awaji

Awaji samurai After a brief stop-over in Kyoto to experience treasures of Japanese culture other than puppetry, I continued on to the island of Awaji, the birthplace of traditional Japanese puppetry commonly known as Bunraku. Takeda was very instrumental in facilitating this visit and providing me with introductions to the puppet company.

During the heyday of Japanese puppetry in the 17th and 18th centuries, Awaji was synonymous with puppetry. At this time, there were over 44 fully active puppet theatres based on Awaji, performing there and all over Japan on elaborate but temporary stages constructed on farmland during the "off" seasons. The Awaji puppet tradition is rooted in religion, originally performed to honor the gods and ensure a safe and profitable harvest and to protect homes and farmland.

Like mainstream Bunraku, Awaji puppets consist of a detachable head, a body, and a costume. The head, or kashira, is a work of art in its own right. Some have moveable eyes, mouths, and eyebrows and are capable of detailed expression of emotion. The average puppet weighs about 22 pounds, and it requires both strength and subtlety to move these heavy puppets through the range of delicate emotions expressed in these plays. Three puppeteers manipulate each puppet, while all the dialogue and plot explanations are provided by a single, separate narrator, who does not change his or her voice dramatically to distinguish the characters (there may be as many as 15 characters, male and female, of all ages in a single play.

However, the narrator or joruri does use a subtle command of pitch and tone to distinguish the various roles. The chanter breathes from deep in the solar plexus, separating each breath equally between nose and mouth to produce a rich, sonorous quality. The musician, or shamisen hiki, works in unison with the chanter.

Today, Awaji is an agricultural island connected to the main island of Honshu by a causeway. Tourists flock there to see spectacularly beautiful whirlpools from the vantage point of a cliff overlooking the sea. This influx of tourists has provided the local company with an audience that has helped perpetuate their unique style, and they wisely built their theatre adjacent to the cliff.

awaji gidayu

At the theatre, there are half hour performances seven times a day. The company has earned its prestige from national and international touring, and this home theatre enables the company to maintain a base. Practically all its members, whose average age is early 30s, are actually from Awaji. This, as well as the fact that women and men both perform Awaji style, differentiates it from other classic performing arts in Japan, which are performed mostly by older men.

Over the three days I spent on Awaji, I received a crash course in 20-minute versions of some of the great Japanese puppet plays. I observed training sessions for both puppet manipulators and musicians, and I was permitted to watch performances from backstage, which let me see the manipulations up close.

I often saw the same roles played by different puppeteers, so I could see both the stars and other performers with different levels of skill. This was a very educational experience that added a lot to my understanding of the art.

M.R. with puppetThe company was most open-hearted and enthusiastic, and they were willing to share their skill and technique, allowing me to manipulate puppets backstage (thought not the precious ones!).

 

 

 

 

 

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