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Autumn Leaves 2016

Ningyo Joruri: The Greatest Puppet Show on Earth

Photo: Photo by Tokushima Prefectural Government

Ningyo Joruri: The Greatest Puppet Show on Earth

Donna Sheffield

You’ve never seen a puppet show like this before. Ningyo Joruri is a 500-year-old tradition that combines three traditional Japanese arts: storytelling, music and puppetry. It’s a spellbinding combination and ranks alongside Noh and Kabuki as one of Japan’s greatest performing arts.

Ningyo means doll or puppet, and Joruri means narrative. While there are some variations of this art being performed across Japan, Awaji Island in Kansai is considered to be the birthplace of Ningyo Joruri. Over 40 puppet troupes from Awaji Island once travelled all around Japan in the 18th century, entertaining millions with their stages. Skills have been passed down from generation to generation there, and it’s no surprise to hear that the Awaji Puppet Theatre is a National Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property.


Photo by Tokushima Prefectural Government

Each Ningyo Joruri performance requires three key human performers to bring the wooden puppets and their stories to life: the narrator, the shamisen player, and the puppeteer.

The narrator, or tayu, introduces the overall story and also voices each character in what sounds like one long, emotional song. The narrator sits to the right side of the stage, so the audience’s attention is not focused on him or her, but take a quick peek over during the performance and you’ll see an actor expressing deep emotions through melody, pitch and tone.


Todd on Flickr

A shamisen is a three-stringed instrument that is often heard at traditional Japanese music events. It produces both high pitch and deep vibrating unique sounds. The player is seated cross-legged on a cushion next to the narrator, to the right of the audience.


NelC on Flickr

The puppeteers, ningyo-zukai, perform on stage in front of the audience, but as they wear black from head to toe - including a face cover - they quickly become invisible artists as the story unfolds. It takes three puppeteers to manipulate one puppet. One works the head and the right hand, another works the left leg, and a third looks after the legs, helping the puppet ‘walk’ around the stage. The movements are incredibly lifelike. Watch carefully, as some puppets can blink, open their mouths, and appear to hold objects in their hands.


Robert Izumi on Flickr

The puppets themselves are carved from wood, painted beautifully and dressed lavishly. Awaji’s performances usually includes a quick costume change on stage. Puppet character styles can vary from troupe to troupe, but usually good and bad characters can be identified by their eye shapes; those with sharp eye corners are good or main characters; those with round eye shapes are more likely to be the bad guys.


Photo by Tokushima Prefectural Government

Awaji Puppet Theatre opened a new theatre in August 2012, and gives daily 45-minute performances of a variety of plays. Printed English translations of the story are given to non-Japanese speakers and the staff are eager to answer any questions. Before the show, the puppeteers demonstrate how the the puppets work, and after the show you’re able to pose with one of them for a photo.



Watching a performance of Ningyo Joruri is an overwhelming visual and audio treat. Sit back and enjoy the emotional tales of old Japan, told by a troupe of modern skilled performers.

More information:

Awaji Puppet Theatre Official Site

Tel: +81(0)799-52-0260
Daily performances, times vary by season
Prices: Adults ¥1,500, High school/Junior high school students ¥1,300, Primary school students ¥1,000, children ¥300.
Access from Sannomiya, Kobe: Travel 90 minutes by express bus to Fukura, Awaji Island.