Mar 9, 2010

Puppet show in Kawano district, Okutama Town, Tokyo

On March 5, my friend and I visited the Kawano district in Okutama Town, Tokyo, where a traditional puppet show was held. In the show, each puppet was manipulated by one person with an unusual method. The puppet manipulator uses both hands and both feet while sitting on a small box-shaped stool which is equipped with wheels. Thus, the puppet manipulator can move freely by the wheels while working the puppet.

On that day, we drove the car past Okutama Station, a terminal station of JR Ome Line, and went further westward along the lakeside of Okutama Lake. After driving across several bridges and through several tunnels, we went through the Kawano Tunnel. Here, the raised land over the tunnel juts out into the lake, and Kawano Seikatsu-kan, the venue of the today's performance, is located on this jutting land.

There was a parking lot just close to the exit of this tunnel, and, later, we were to park the car in this parking lot, but at that time we went further westward for Yamanashi Prefecture side, along the Ome Kaido street, for lunch. Beyond another bridge spanning the lake, there were several restaurants. We entered the one named "Jinya."

Sitting at a table in the restaurant, we heard several kites cry up in the sky. They were wafting on the wind, slowly enjoying a circular flight in a clear sky. The only earlier visitor, who seemed to be a taxi driver from his attire, was hanging about in the restaurant, looking bored. On the street, there was generally a quiet atmosphere except when vehicles passed occasionally.

Both of us ordered soba-teishoku (soba lunch set), which included a bowl of rice, soba noodle, tukemono (vegetable pickles), and konnyaku sashimi, priced at 1400 yen for one helping. The soba had moderate body and was tasty.

After finishing the lunch, we drove back to the parking lot near the Kawano Tunnel, and parked the car there. Kawano Seikatsu-kan was in the distance of a three-minute walk from the parking lot.

The building of the venue was small and it seemed to have two main meeting rooms. The two Japanese style rooms, which seemed usually to be partitioned with removable fusuma doors (sliding doors made of wood and paper), were used as one at that time. One of the rooms had a stage on one side, and a drop curtain was hanging down. We enter the room about 30 minutes before the opening of the show, but there were those with photo and video cameras were occupying their own places. Fortunately, they all were setting their tripods in the rear of the room, and there was much space for us to sit down in the front. So, we occupied quite good places.

There were four plays that day: Goshugi Sanbanso (御祝儀三番叟), and three stories of Hitomaruhime Michiyuki no Dan (人丸姫道行段), Akoya Jigai (阿古屋自害), and Gokuya-yaburi no Dan (獄舎破段) from Hyuga Kagekiyo Ichidaiki (日向景清一代記). However, before starting these plays, major members of those concerned appeared on the stage and neatly sit there in a row. In the center of the row, a puppet, which was probably regarded as the manifestation of the god, was placed, and one of them made a respectful bow to the puppet. Then, he scattered rice on the stage and then to us in the auditorium. Then, they drank a toast of local sake Sawanoi, and clapped hands.

The drop curtain was closed, then wooden clappers were beaten and the start of the show was announced.

The first play Goshugi Sanbanso was a short religious and ceremonious dance, in which the player preyed for the safety of the show and good health of the audience. The puppet looked pretty but the movement was quite dynamic. It danced a pleasant dance, sometimes showing a comical expression on its face. I felt this dance had purified the place.

Following the Goshugi Sanbanso dance, all the subsequent three plays were from Hyuga Kagekiyo Ichidaiki, which depicted the life of a samurai who lived in the late Heian Period (12th century). He was in favor of the Heike clan, which was then in confrontation with the Genji clan. Even after the Heike clan was annihilated by the Genji, he kept attempting to make a telling reply to the Yoritomo, the head of the Genji. But he was finally caught and put in jail by the Genji.

Of the three plays, Hitomaruhime Michiyuki no Dan and Gokuya-yaburi no Dan were performed by students of the local primary and junior high schools, and Akoya Jigai was performed by puppet manipulators from Kawano Kuruma-ningyo Hozonkai (Conservatory Institution of Kawano Kuruma-ningyo).

Not to speak of the performance by the adult, the children's performance was also great. Rich expression in the movements of puppets had power that drew the audience into the story. Since manipulating the puppet with four limbs while sitting on the wheel box, the puppet manipulators had limitations to their movements, but I could see they rather made good use of such limitations in their performance. I think this is a method of expression.

In a scene from Akoya Jigai, the woman named Akoya, who had two children by Kagekiyo, killed them with a knife and then killed herself. Seeing the ghastly manslaughter and suicide performed, I felt like I wanted to withdraw my eyes from the scene for a moment. The performance had such reality. I think an interesting point of this art is that sometimes puppets look like more human than real humans.

This art is supported and maintained by extraordinary efforts made by people in the local districts. The group named Kawano Kuruma-ningyo wo Tsutaeru Kai (Group Bequeathing Kawano Kuruma-ningyo) organizes Kawano Kuruma-ningyo Kodomo Kyoshitsu (Children's Class of Kawano Kuruma-ningyo), in which Kawano Kuruma-ningyo Hozonkai (Conservatory Institution of Kawano Kuruma-ningyo) teaches children from the local community how to manipulate these puppets.

It is difficult for the children to gather for practice of the art because of the poor transportation (actually, we had to visit this place by car because of poor availability of the route bus service). Their activity relies on the support of parents and other people from the local districts. For example, they help send children to and from places of practice and performance, help with preparation and clear-up for practice, and so on.

Now, I have something to wary about. It is the issue of depopulation and aging. With the help of parents, members of the Conservatory Institution are giving instruction in techniques of this performing art, but the children may have to leave their small districts for their study or jobs in the future when they grow up. If you expect that the children will come back home to these places after all to continue making efforts for the preservation and patrimony of this performing art, you are too optimistic. But, I think the tradition of a performing art peculiar to a locality must be maintained by people living in the place. If this Kawano district wanes due to depopulation and aging, the continuation of this performance art is also at stake.

I strongly hope that valuable cultural assets like this performing art of Kuruma-ningyo will be handed down from generation to generation and be preserved for good and all. Each of diverse traditional performing arts in various places reflects the cultural climate of the place. I recommend you to visit any local place, actually see one of their performing arts of the place yourself, and experience its loveliness.

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