Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo – Takaosan
At a stage in western Tokyo’s Takaosan I saw the fifth generation master puppeteer of the Hachioji Kuruma Ningyou Nishikawa Koryu troupe perform for the public. This puppetry movement is a late Edo period off-shoot of the traditional Japanese puppetry of Bunraku. The difference between Bunraku and Kurumaningyo is in the name – while three bunraku puppeteers manipulate each of their dolls the Kurumaningyo puppeteer operates one doll all by him- or herself. They do so by sitting on wooden boxes with three wheels, one large and two small, and by shifting their weight slightly from one front wheel to another they can be surprisingly fluid in their movements around stage. Normally they perform on beautifully decorated and lit stages, wearing black against a black background, so that after a while you simply forget about the person operating the dolls. On this stage however, they performed against a light background in full daylight so I got a great view of how they move their dolls around stage.
Hachioji Kurumaningyo originated in the western Tokyo town of Hachioji, by a master puppeteer born in 1825, Nishikawa Koryu. The present Nishikawa Koryu is the fifth generation master, making this traditional art form possibly the last of the great cultural assets to be born in the Edo period. The troupe sometimes travel abroad and they have made it their tradition to always add one local act to their repertoire with a specially designed doll. In this case, they showed a doll they made for a visit to Mexico, performing a local dance to traditional Mexican music. It was amazing to see how seamlessly the troupe switched from the movements and gestures common in Japanese theatre to the flamboyant mexican dances! It made me curious to see their other foreign dolls.
I used one of my very rare tele lenses to get most of these shots, the amazingly cheap Sigma 70-300mm macro tele (a camera lens I like to use especially when other photographers are watching). I wanted to see the faces of the puppeteers, to see their concentration and yet very relaxed looking expressions. I can imagine that this art form is supremely difficult to master yet looks like nothing but the simplest child’s play when performed correctly.