NIPPONIA No.22 September 15, 2002
Japan Travelogue


An Island in the Sea of Japan
Where Traditional Theater Lives On

Written by Sakagami Kyoko
Photos by Kato Yoshiaki

Jagged rocks jut out of the water in Senkaku Bay.
A number of movies and TV shows have been filmed here.

Sado is Japan's 8th largest island. It lies in the Sea of Japan, and a hydrofoil can get you there in about one hour from Niigata Port on Honshu. The port of Ryotsu is the gateway to the island, and its ferry terminal is generally busy. There you'll see tourists with camping equipment on their backs or fishing gear in their hands. Others come to get a feel for Sado's history.
The island offers a lot for nature lovers and history buffs. Years ago, Sado was a place of exile. In the medieval period, aristocrats and samurai who lost their struggle for power were banished from the capital, Kyoto, and sent here. This was a plus for Sado, because they brought an appreciation of culture with them. A number of ancient performing arts can still be seen here, and they influence life on the island even today.
Noh theater is the most active of these performing arts. Noh is a form of dance-drama accompanied by drums, flutes and a chorus (see this page). The father of Noh, Zeami, was exiled to Sado in the first half of the 15th century, and he almost certainly brought Noh here.
Noh developed in Sado at the beginning of the 17th century. This was after Okubo Nagayasu, who was originally a Noh actor, became the Shogunate's first commissioner to Sado. He showed great skill in developing the island's mines and managing its finances, and strongly promoted Noh throughout Sado, encouraging the performance of plays at shrines. The plays were offerings to the gods, but before long they were also entertaining the common people, who went for the fun of it—just as we go to movies or musicals today.
There are Noh stages at 34 places on the island. In the city of Ryotsu, plays are performed on the Noh stage at Suwa-jinja Shrine (on the first Saturday of May, June, July, September and October). Performances are regularly scheduled on other stages as well. You have more opportunities to see Noh plays here than anywhere else in Japan, indicating the depth of classical theater's roots on Sado.
The island is known for another form of traditional entertainment, bunya ningyo puppet shows. These began here about 300 years ago. Each puppet needs only one operator, whereas a bunraku puppet (see this page) needs three. The island has 10 groups offering bunya ningyo shows, and seasonal performances are given daily at the Koei-za Theater in Sawata-machi.
I spoke with Kato Ruriko, an expert puppeteer with 20 years of experience. "The eyes and mouths of bunya ningyo puppets don't move, so we have to try extra hard to make them look alive. The stories deal with emotions, and this is a crowd pleaser."


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