Kuruma ningyō, literally, “puppets on wheels”, also called “cart puppetry”, is a reference to the wagon on which the manipulator sits and is a variation of Bunraku. The aim of the former however is to limit the costs of the latter which involves the presence of three manipulators per figure. The first attempts were made in the 19th century at the initiative of a professional puppeteer – Nishikawa Koryu (1824-1897) – in the region of Saitama to the north of Tokyo. Many troupes adopted the technique, which permit a single puppeteer to control the movements of the figure, but today it is only practised at Hachiōji, the suburban town west of Tokyo, where it has been directed since 1997 by the fifth Nishikawa Koryo.
The wagon is a wooden box with wheels. (The flat part is about 23.5 centimetres long and 17 centimetres wide, and the box 22 centimetres high.) It is mounted on wheels (two in front and one in the rear which allows for easy turning in place). The manipulator works on the stool on the wagon, moving freely and advancing the wagon with the feet. The stool is attached to his clothing and he can sit straight if necessary. He holds the right hand of the puppet in his right hand and the left hand and head in his own left hand. However, the head is not articulated. The hooks which the manipulator controls with the toes are attached to the heels of the puppets, and these last give the movement and rhythm of his own movements to the figure which seems to really walk and not to float on the air.
The manipulator is in a black cowl and, as in Bunraku, the text is delivered by the narrator. The repertoire is fundamentally identical, except that modern books and novel adaptations are also mounted. Since 2003, the troupe of Hachiōji has presented a puppet version of the historical comic novel Tōkaidō-chū hizakurige (On the Tōkaidō Road, 1802-1822). Differently from Bunraku, kuruma ningyō uses another narrative style, sekkyō-bushi, which was particularly popular in the Edo era in the east and north of the country, but the style can be performed to classical gidayū-bushi (on these genres, see Japan) and holds the same diversity and is composed to contain the puppetry text.
The Hachiōji Kuruma Ningyō troupe experienced hardships in the post-war period, but is now recognized as a “cultural highlight” of the Tokyo area. It has been recently very active in tours and Japan’s international exchanges. Moreover, it prepares young artists and encourages the writing of new scripts.