From “Some Prefer Nettles”

From “Some Prefer Nettles” March 23, 2013

Natives of Awaji say that the puppet theater originated there. In the center of the island there is a village called Ichimura that even now has seven puppet companies. Once there were thirty-six. Ichimura is known as “puppet-town,” and its theater goes back, one hardly knows how many centuries, to a certain court nobleman who was banished from Kyoto and came to live in Ichimura, and who in his boredom with country life took to making puppets and manipulating them for his own amusement. The famous Awaji Gennojo family descends from him, it is said. The family still has an impressive estate in the village, and its puppet company goes on tour from Awaji to Shikoku on the south and to western Honshu on the north. But the Gennojo family has no monopoly on the Ichimura puppets. One might say, in fact, with perhaps a little exaggeration, that the whole village is in some way occupied with the puppet theater, as singers and accompanists, puppeteers and stage managers. In busy seasons the people of Ichimura move out to work in the fields, and in slack seasons they fall into puppet companies to tour the island. The Awaji theater is in the truest sense a folk art, an art born long ago of rural tradition.

January and May are the theater months. If one crosses over to Awaji then, one finds plays in the towns and in the fields, all over the island. In the larger towns a building is sometimes borrowed, but for the most part the plays are given half out of doors and under makeshift shelters of logs and rush mats, and when it rains, that is the end of a day’s performance. A real puppet madness occasionally seizes the Awaji farmer. He wanders from house to house with little one-hand marionettes, going through a favorite passage, himself both singer and puppeteer, when someone asks him in; he may even bring his house to ruin with his puppets, and he has been known in an extreme case to go quite insane.

But with the new age and its pressures, even this proud art is dying. The old dolls deteriorate until they can no longer be used, and there is almost no one who can replace them.

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