• Abby Fisher

Playing with Puppets: A Look at Johoku High School’s Folk Arts Club

Updated: Aug 21, 2020

At Johoku High School, there’s a group of students who share an unusual hobby for teens their age: playing with dolls. Of course, we're not talking about action-figures or Barbies; instead, the members of Johoku’s Folk Arts Club use intricate, expertly-crafted puppets for the art of Ningyo Joruri — Japanese puppet theatre.

It’s a tradition more sophisticated than its English name suggests. Instead of figures hobbled together from socks or scraps of felt, ningyo joruri uses wooden puppets that can be more than a meter tall. Often they’re outfitted with clever mechanisms to control their facial features; a doll’s eyebrows may furrow with the pull of a string, or the flip of a lever can slide back panels revealing flushed cheeks.

Now imagine these effigies used to act out dramas of Shakespeare’s caliber. Set that to a soundtrack of ancient instruments, and you’ll have an inkling of the kind of spectacle that the Folk Arts Club provides for its viewers. The people of Tokushima have enjoyed this style of theatre for more than 500 years, and to this day, local citizens remain proud of their connection to puppetry. This is why a handful of schools around the prefecture offer ningyo joruri as an extracurricular activity.

Johoku in particular is dedicated to the craft, and in the corner of the school’s campus sits a specially-built puppet theatre, or ningyokan. The interior is furnished in the same style of traditional kabuki theatres, with audiences sitting on floor cushions and the tatami mats segmented into separate “theatre boxes” by wooden rails. The ningyokan has offered a space for Johoku students to practice ningyo joruri for more than 50 years, and in 2015, it was listed as a Nationally Registered Tangible Cultural Property.

Unusual for such an important piece of heritage is the fact that it’s been left to the care of teenagers, but the members of the Folk Arts Club have proven themselves to be trustworthy stewards of history. The students dedicate two evenings a week to practicing one of the three crafts that are vital to the performance of ningyo joruri. The most obvious role is that of the puppeteers, and three students are needed to control just 1 character: one for the legs, one for the head and right arm, and one dedicated solely to the left limb. The role of providing a voice to the puppet, however, falls to the show’s narrator, who sits on a platform beside the stage. They read all the play’s dialogue from a scroll, using a thin, melodious chant that changes pitch and speed to signify different characters’ voices. Accompanying the narrator are 2 musicians, one of whom plays a 3-stringed, lute-like instrument called the shamisen and another who uses a traditional drum called the tsujumi.

What is it about ningyo joruri that draws students to the Folk Arts Club? After all, most of their peers opt to participate on a sports team or in the school orchestra. For many members, it’s the allure of practicing an ancient art that brings them to the ningyokan. One of the club’s puppeteers told me that, whenever he slips his hand into the back of a doll, he can feel the power of all the people who have performed ningyo joruri before him. In kabuki, actors are allowed to ad-lib and fit in modern-day references, but ningyo joruri is considered an “author’s theatre”, and so players make a vow to faithfully follow the script before each performance. Because of this, today’s ningyo joruri productions are almost identical to those staged hundreds of years, and students forge a connection to the performers of the past as they follow in their exact footsteps.

( *please note: due to Japanese privacy laws, students' faces have been obscured in the following photographs* )

Sitting on a tatami mat, immersed in the warbling tones of the shamisen, audience members can also feel as if they’re one with history. For anyone wishing to experience the sensation for themselves, a great chance to see Johoku’s Folk Arts Club in action is during the school’s Culture Festival in early September. Typically students will perform a selection of scenes from a drama called “Keisei Awa no Naruto” – the Tragedy of Naruto, a play which is partially set in Tokushima.

Also be on the lookout for combined events, as Johoku’s Folk Arts Club typically performs with other ningyo joruri troupes several times a year, either at cultural fairs or for special events and anniversaries. It’s encouraging to see the younger generations doing their part to preserve Japan’s ancient culture, and thanks to their efforts, the art of ningyo joruri survives to this day for all of us to enjoy.

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