So I went to a puppet show.
It wasn’t your ordinary sock puppet shenanigans or those singing marionettes from The Sound of Music, but Japanese puppet theater–particularly a show put on by the Hachioki Kuruma Ningyo Puppet Theater troop. The auditorium was predictably packed; when I went to get tickets two weeks ago, most of the seats were sold out. Luckily, I got a seat just three rows away from the stage.
Hachioki Kuruma Ningyo is mostly a family affair. The art of puppeteering is passed down from father to son. Outsiders taking up the trade is an extremely rare occurrence. The master puppeteer, Nishikawa Koryu, is the fifth in his line. The master shinnai musician who does the voice-overs, Tsuruga Wakasanojo, is the eleventh in his line. There are several types of puppetry in Japan; this type is the kuruma which is much less known and less well-funded (thus access only to smaller venues) because the Japanese government doesn’t consider it a “high-brow” cultural achievement.
Kuruma was developed four hundred years ago by the first Nishikawa Koryu. The technique was heavily borrowed from bunraku puppetry which requires three people to operate one puppet, but in kuruma, only one person is required. The innovation was the rokuro-kuruma, a small seat with roller wheels that the puppeteer sits on. This allowed a lot more accessibility for the performer as well as the audience. The puppeteer also dresses entirely in black, including his head. This convention of black equaling invisibility (so that the puppet is the main attraction) dates back to the 1600s of the Edo Period when the art form was created.
I wasn’t surprised that many of the adults with children escaped from the theater after the intermission. Kuruma puppetry is not children’s fare. The puppets themselves are stately creations–perfectly proportioned and garnished with magnificent kimonos–nothing like the grotesquely shaped western puppets that we’re used to. The stories are also more serious, contemplative, sometimes sad. The voice-overlays are traditional Japanese singing accompanied by traditional instruments. Wailing and sorrowful (but beautiful) tunes that may be alien to ears too accustomed to overprocessed bubble-gum pop. Sometimes the stories are also burlesque and violent–puppets hitting each other with sticks and attacking genitals for revenge.
But despite the sometimes adult and bawdy nature of the plays, kuruma is looking for new blood to infuse its art. Training takes a long time. Would-be puppeteers would have to start when they are just children, ten or so. Perhaps that is why few people have heard of kuruma–it takes intense dedication to perfect yet is still regarded as low-brow by its own culture.