Puppetry generally brings to mind children playing with felt finger-puppets whilst putting on performances for each other, and not a critically-acclaimed, historically and culturally significant art form, at least in the mind of a North American. However, in the Japanese cultural tradition, the manipulation of puppets is executed with ritualistic expertise and often included in religious rites (Walter). There are many forms of Japanese puppetry, including Bunya Ningyo, which in 1977 was recognized as a National Intangible Cultural Asset (Wales).
Sado is an island located in the Japan Sea with an interesting history and has been described as representing a microcosm of Japan (Sado Tourism). Historically, many well-known people accused of political or ideological crimes were exiled to Sado and more recently Sado has been the birthplace of many intellectuals and artists, including puppeteers (Sado Tourism). Sado puppetry is divided into three categories: Sekkyo puppets (preachers of morality), Noroma puppets (simpletons) and Bunya puppets (storytellers). Gorozaemon Suda of the Niibo district brought a group of dolls from Kyoto 250 years ago and founded a theatre on Sado (Sado Tourism). Sado prides itself on its Sekkyo and Bunya stanzas that remain closer in form to the stories of the founders of the genre as well as the recent movement to ensure conservation of this prized cultural asset (Sado Tourism). Bunya puppetry, along with other traditional folk performances, is a significant and essential part of the annual calendar of festivals and events (Sado Tourism).
The Bunya (storyteller) puppets are carved out of wood and clothed with fabric. The puppets are nearly life-size, and though their wooden faces hold the same painted expression, the puppeteer, dressed in black to remain invisible to the audience, gracefully guides the body, head, and limbs creating precise, life-like movements across the stage, as musical accompaniment expresses the changes of feelings and emotions of the mute puppets (Wales). The puppeteers use one hand to control the stick attached to the puppet’s head while the other hand is tucked inside the puppet’s clothing so the performer can maneuver the body (Wales). Bunya Puppet Drama is not your average puppet show - the themes can include sex, violence, alcohol consumption, and other commentaries and reflections on Japanese society (Walter).
Whether on or off the stage, the puppets’ pale faces and blank expression can be quite unsettling, There is power in the simplicity of their facial features as well as their movements, and after a while you are convinced you have their expression change. I had the pleasure of visiting Sado Island, and seeing the works of art that are Bunya puppets in the “flesh”. My parent’s long-time friend is a Canadian-born artist, who has been living on Sado Island for 12 years and had the honour of apprenticing under the master Moritaro Hamada (1900-1998), who said that Sado puppetry may rest in his hands (Wales). When we were visiting, he was working on a piece in honour of Sado Island including puppets of the ever-present raccoon-dog and the quintessentially Sado tugboat fisherman. Bunya puppetry, an important cultural feature of Sado Island, is an art form that celebrates Japanese folkloric tradition with increasingly more modern elements.
~guest blogger, Bianca Martella