Ningyō jōyruri is a form of puppetry that stretches back over 400 years and is unique to Japan. In Japanese, ningyō means doll or puppet and jōyruri is the name of a kind of dramatic narrative chanting with accompanying shamisen instrumentals. Ningyō jōyruri ranks among Japan’s foremost stage arts. The heyday of its popularity was during the Edo Period (1603-1867), but even today the stories and motifs expressed in these shows remain popular.
In ningyō jōyruri puppeteers operate as teams of three in full view of the audience, a system that is found nowhere else. The puppeteers dress in black in order to not distract from the intricate motions of their puppets; however, a particularly skilled leader puppeteer may have their face uncovered. The puppets these teams manipulate are made using four primary sections: the head, hands, torso, and legs. The arms and legs are attached to the torso with rope, and the head is attached to a wooden control that supports it over the rest of the body. There are many kinds of heads and each has its own control mechanisms that move the eyes, eyebrows, mouth, and other special features, allowing the operator to express the puppet’s personality and emotions.
The clothing that is placed over this framework is what gives the puppets their humanlike appearance. The cloth is made with the same materials and designs real actors would use but scaled down and padded with a thin layer of cotton. Strategically placed layers and folds are used to give puppets the illusion of volume and help he puppets appear more lifelike; however, no matter how well the puppets are designed, the three puppeteers must manipulate their puppet in perfect unison for the suspension of disbelief to be complete.
The lead puppeteer operates the head and left arm, the second puppeteer manipulates the right arm, and the third handles the legs. In the case of female puppets, which do not have legs due to their clothing, the third puppeteer uses their arms and hands to provide the illusion of legs. The other actors in ningyō jōyruri are the narrator (tayu) and the shamisen player. These performers are located on a small stage to the right of the main stage. The narrator voices all the characters in the play, and the puppeteers are careful to keep their actions in sync with the telling of the play.
If you would like to see what ningyō jōyruri looks like, please watch this video.
Free presentations by Awaji Ningyo Joruri will be given on Thursday, December 1st at Villanova University between 4:00 and 5:15 pm, and on Friday, December 2nd at Hunter College between 2:10 and 3:25 pm. Please RSVP at firstname.lastname@example.org to attend the presentation at Hunter College.