Mechanical puppets of Japan. The word karakuri can be translated as automaton or hidden mechanism, “trick” (as in “magic”) to produce a sense of wonder. The word, ningyō, which means puppet, also covers a variety of automata whose origins are linked to the development of clockworks and mechanisms from 16th and 17th century Japan. Inspired by the Nō theatre, faces and representations were crafted with great care. Elaborate figures evoke emotional responses and awe with subtle and graceful movements. There are three categories.

The most technically elaborate puppets are the small zashiki karakuri, which were made for private use (zashiki: presented in salons). Ancestors of robots, these indigenous creations worked via clockwork mechanisms. The most noted are a miniature tea server (chahakobi ningyō), dating from the 18th century, and especially the astonishing little archer (yumi-iri doji) made in the first part of the 19th century by engineer and inventor Hisashige Tanaka (1799-1881) who is recognized as founder of the contemporary Toshiba Corporation.

Dashi karakuri are mechanical puppets on moving carriage-like floats that are brought out for festival and ritual celebrations. Dashi karakuri flourished at the beginning of the 18th century and continue to the present, particularly in the Inuyama Festival of Aichi Prefecture (held the first weekend of April), Ōtsu Festival of Shiga Prefecture (October), Tushima Festival of Aichi Prefecture (October), Takayama Festival of Gifu Prefecture (April 14/15 and October 9/10), and Kyoto’s Gion Festival (mid July). The puppets are operated by means of strings, which trigger various gears, by several manipulators hidden in the carriage.

Butai karakuri (entertainment automaton) are directly linked with puppet performance. Introduced by clockworks master Takeda Ōmi on 25 May 1662, they were shown in the Osaka theatre district of Dotonburi in a specially built theatre. Some figures used clockworks’ toothed, wooden gear wheels; others used sand, water, or pulley-lever systems. Takeda Ōmi’s younger brother Kiyotaka (Takeda Ōmi II) succeeded him around l674. The company had its greatest success during the 1740-1750s under Takeda Ōmi III when it was located in Edo (Tokyo), but by this time other theatres offered similar displays. By 1772, the last theatre closed its doors. Such mechanical figures on tracks then largely vanished, but old style karakuri can still be seen at Yame (Fukushima Prefecture) each September at the Hanchiman Shrine where a 250-year-old tradition is perpetuated and which Jacques Pimpaneau (1978) describes. “A puppet circles on the front of the stage. Manipulators are on the ground level underneath the stage and pull on strings making the puppets move on the tracks above their heads. Two other puppets are in the back part of the stage on a raised plane and also move on tracks. The manipulators are in the wings to the right and left, and manipulate at a distance through the use of long wooden bars rods which are pushed or drawn and which, running between the tracks, are attached to the puppet strings. Each puppet is made up of a mechanism with springs which bring each part of it back to the original position once there is no longer any pull on the string.” This combination of lateral and vertical movements gives the impression of a graceful dance; the scene is accompanied by a storyteller/narrator (gidayu, chanter/musician) and orchestra. This manipulation technique was similarly developed in the 19th century by Hisashige Tanaka who showed his own puppets on the same type of stage.

Recent robotic performances by Japanese modern dramatist Hirata Oriza in collaboration with the Osaka University Department of Adaptive Mechanics may merely be revisiting, with more elaborate machinery, a Japanese tradition of almost four hundred years.

(See Japan, Mechanical Theatres.)


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