Traditional Japanese puppetry. Introduced on Sado Island (Niigata Prefecture) in the Sea of Japan in the 17th century, the puppet theatre of Sado-ga-shima is close to the form of old style ningyō jōruri, forerunner of Bunraku, since it uses a single manipulator for a puppet, the practice at the time of Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724) and his predecessors. These simpler puppets have no legs, an empty “body” cavity under the costume, and head and neck were originally carved from a single piece of wood. Around 1870, a detachable head allowed the figure to nod. The head rod passes through the shoulder piece which supports the costume. Hands are not articulated, but sometimes have a hole pierced in them. With his right hand the puppeteer holds the right hand of the puppet. Meanwhile, the left hand is attached to a rod that crosses the head rod at a right angle, allowing that same hand of the puppeteer to control the puppet’s left hand and hold the head-neck and shoulder-body of the figure.

The artists – reciters, shamisen musicians, and manipulators – are curtained from audience view. For a long period this theatre remained true to sekkyō bushi, a style of chanting associated with Buddhist miracle plays. This narrative form was prior to the gidayū bushi of bunraku narration and was still demonstrated in annual festivals each August on Sado Island, but has long lost popularity. At the beginning of the Meiji era in the 19th century, most of the Sado Island troupes converted to bunya bushi. This was a more dramatic narration style innovated in the Osaka area by Okamoto Bunya (1633-1694). It was in fashion in the Osaka-Kyoto area at the end of the 17th century, but thereafter neglected, but is preserved on Sado Island where it was first performed as recitation only, but by the Meiji was combined with puppetry.

In the first decade of the 21st century, ten groups offered regular performances in the bunya ningyō style and performances are given daily in season at the Koei-za theatre in Sawata-machi. The third and final style of Sado puppetry is noroma ningyō, a genre with puppets’ heads in dark shades with burlesque features. Noroma means “dimwit”. In the beginning of the 18th century, such figures were used for comic interludes between scenes in ningyō jōruri in Edo (Tokyo). They take their name from Edo puppeteer Noromatsu Kanbee and are in the mind of some scholars linked to old fertility rites. These puppets on Sado-ga-shima tell of the misadventures of Kinosuke, a village idiot who always ends up naked with phallus exposed, rousing humour in the audience. There are five characters that appear in this genre: priest, old man, the female Ohana, and Kinosuke. Performances of this comic art is a tourist attraction on the island.

(See Japan.)


  • Lancashire, Terence A. An Introduction to Japanese Folk Performing Arts. Osaka Ohtani University (Japan)/Farnham (UK): Ashgate Publishing, 2011.