Journey Through Japanese Literature
Tales Told in Puppet Theater
Alongside noh and kabuki, ningyo joruri puppet narratives are one of the three major traditional Japanese performing arts. Dating back to the Edo period (1603–1868), the art of using puppets in storytelling has been passed down to present day Japan.
In this type of puppet theater, a performer called the tayu narrates the story, while the shamisen three-stringed lute paints the scene in sound and the puppets vividly move in time. Ningyo joruri is a uniquely Japanese collaborative performing art in which three performers work in perfect unison to tell the story.
The origins of these puppet narratives lie with katarimono, a style of storytelling in which verses are set to music. Initially accompanied by the biwa (plucked lute) and the clapping of fans, this art form shifted to joruri narratives sung to music in the 16th century when the shamisen (three-stringed fretless lute) was introduced. Ningyo joruri then came into being in the 17th century in Osaka when joruri blended with the puppet theater. Though the idea of the puppet show may bring to mind children’s stories, ningyo joruri has always been entertainment for adults. Many of the stories are based on historical tales and incidents, or the love between parent and child, or affection between man and woman, as in the masterpiece Sonezaki Shinju (“The Love Suicides at Sonezaki;” written by Chikamatsu Monzaemon; first performed in 1703), which is still popular today.
Ningyo joruri eventually spread from its birthplace in Osaka to rural towns across Japan. These performances were a particular hit in Tokushima Prefecture in the Shikoku region of Japan, where scores of theater troupes were formed in the Edo period and outdoor theaters for public performances were built on shrine grounds. More than 20 puppet theaters are still in existence today, with almost daily performances still held today at the Awa Jurobei Yashiki Theater in Tokushima City.
The story most often performed at this theater is based on a local family feud, and poignantly depicts the love between parent and child. In one scene, as mother and child are reunited, the puppet’s shoulders tremble slightly and she gently lifts her hand to her face in a gesture so realistic that the puppet appears to be shedding actual tears. What makes this realistic depiction possible is a unique method, unmatched anywhere else in the world, in which three different people manipulate a single puppet. Each puppeteer operates a different part of the puppet—the head and right hand, the left hand, or the legs—to achieve smooth, human-like movements with richly detailed gestures and emotions. The intonation of the narration by the tayu and the lingering notes of the shamisen add even more nuance. The voices, sounds, and movements of the puppets come together to create an exquisite world of puppetry.
You can find ningyo joruri performances not only in Tokushima Prefecture, but all over Japan. The puppet theater spins nuanced tales of the rich inner lives of the people, making for an unparalleled experience.