Custom and art collide in Awaji puppetry

Monday night, students and community members alike filled the Center Stage auditorium at the ’62 Center to see the Awaji Puppet Theatre perform. The Company, founded in 1964, was recently named an “Intangible Cultural Folk Asset” by the Japanese government. Sponsored by the Japan Society of New York, this tour marks the Company’s first return to the United States in 10 years.

The tradition of Awaji Puppet Theatre dates back more than 500 years, when, according to one story, a priest who made his living as a puppeteer began using puppets as a part of his services. The custom of using puppets in ritual, even in private household shrines, remained popular through the early 20th century.

Awaji Puppet technique uses three men, cloaked to hide their faces, to operate each puppet. The puppets are large and use the entire stage and backdrop as their setting. While some performers control the puppets on stage, a chanter and musicians kneel to the side, narrating and setting the mood for the story being performed.

While it was clear to the attentive observer that the manipulation of the puppets took immaculate coordination, the practiced technique culminated in a simple, smooth performance. As with other Japanese art forms, there was an elegance in the puppetry, even in the humorous acts. Black cloaked figures move discreetly behind colorful characters while musicians stoically accompany each act. Shamisen, or drums, set the mood and tone of the piece, while one chanter served as narrator and voice to all the puppet characters.

The show opened with the classic story of Ebisu, god of abundance and wealth, who one day drinks to peace, good luck and prosperity and celebrates with a dance to give the townspeople good fortune. The tone of the piece is lighthearted and humorous, and the performers added to the traditional piece by making their protagonist toast to “beating Amherst,” which drew laughs and cheers from the crowd.
“The Ferry Crossing Scene,” an excerpt from the five-act play Hidakagawa Iriai Zakura, had a more serious theme but retained some of the lighthearted spirit of the first act. It portrayed the character Kiyohime, who goes mad with jealousy of the lover of the prince with whom she has fallen in love. The scene focused on the banter between the woman frantically chasing her lost love and the boatman who refuses, at Anchin’s request, to take her. Takemoto Tomosho, the chanter for the first half of the show, delightfully and skillfully switched voices to depict Kiyohime and Anchin in turn. It was his expressive dialogue, along with the animated movements of the characters, that made the puppets come alive.

Following a brief intermission, the troupe presented a more emotional, dramatic story. “The Mountain Scene” from The Miracle of Tsubosaka Temple opened with a faithful wife leading her blind husband to pray at the temple at the top of the mountain for the return of his vision. The story at first seemed to take the form of a tragedy: the husband kills himself because he feels regret for doubting his wife’s intentions when she left to pray for him, and she in turn commits suicide to follow his spirit. However, the Kannon Goddess sees the wife’s loyalty and brings the couple back to life, forgiving them the sins of their past lifetimes.
A new chanter, Takemoto Tomowaka, narrated this story, expressively fluctuating her voice to intone not only the male and female voices, but also the emotion in their decisions. The most impressive act for its scope and feeling, this second half of the show offered a glimpse into the spiritual ties of the Awaji Puppet tradition, referencing both the belief in past lives and the importance of deities such as the Kannon Goddess.

The performance as a whole incorporated the talents and efforts of musicians playing the traditional shamisen, dramatic narratives by the chanters and of course the cloaked puppeteers manipulating the vibrant characters on the stage. A unique and enjoyable show, the Awaji Puppet Theater was a true cultural experience on campus. It offered an entertaining performance that allowed the audience to encounter a folk art form we are reminded must be preserved.