There is a long tradition of puppetry in Japan that stretches back to the seventeenth century. Puppet theatre predates kabuki theatre and informed much of the style, dramas and conventions that kabuki adopted and made its own. Not only does puppet theatre (bunraku) have an important place in Japanese culture but so do its close relatives: the extraordinary lifelike tableaux of life size dolls, called Iki-Ningyo, that were the craze in Edo Japan in the nineteenth century. These staggeringly naturalistic creations are pictured in woodblock prints by Kuniyoshi and other ukiyo artists, although in most cases there is little way of telling that the figures acting out popular melodramas are in fact not human.
Traditional Japanese puppetry requires three active participants: the puppeteers, dressed in black robes identifiable on ukiyo prints by the mysterious black veils over their faces; the storytellers who narrated stories of modern melodrama and tragedy or else legends of heroic samurai; and the shamisen players – the shamisen being a plucked, stringed instrument like a long double bass. Bunraku reached its peak of sophistication in the coming together of these elements and the technological advances of the puppets themselves. These became larger in the eighteenth century and required three puppeteers to operate them. The heads were exquisitely and realistically carved, often with moveable features, elaborate costumes and articulated fingers and thumbs. Typically the stage of a bunraku performance is wide and narrow with the puppeteers quite visible; as in the kabuki theatre, there would be costume and scene changes and also head changes to some puppets to show aging or dramatic changes in expression. The puppeteers were highly skilled taking up to ten years to master the complex and lifelike movements. The bunraku plays really got going under the writing skills of the great playwright Chikamatsu (1653 – 1724). His domestic dramas that brilliantly captured the loves, lives and often suicides of contemporary Edo people tended to be more popular than the conventional epic dramas and so began the long tradition of scripts passing back and forth between the puppet theatre and the kabuki theatre. Inevitably with the phenomenal rise of kabuki in the nineteenth century, bunraku was marginalised and finally found a specialist home in Osaka.
The skills of the puppet-makers seem to have been transferred to those of the mannequin makers of iki-ningyo (living dolls) – life size hyper-real dolls, clothed and posed in scenes from history or lurid domestic dramas and popular stories. These lifelike sculptures are even today breathtaking, not just in their realism but also in the quite extraordinary humanity and insight. The papier-maché and ground oyster shell models became popular in Edo in the 1850’s with performances of still tableaux by an ex-puppet maker and doll craftsman called Oishi Ganryusai Yoshihiro. His creations are life size and of the most incredible detail; human hair was used on the models’ heads and ivory was used to make the teeth. The figures were modelled with absolute attention to character and realism, from clothing to artefacts, as in these wrestling men to the left. The performances proved so massively popular that they were quickly followed by outlandish tableaux of exotic figures (pictured above by Kuniyoshi) which showed what people of other countries might look like – incidentally, this gives a good idea of how insular and isolated the Japanese were at this time. Perhaps more common were lifelike representations of popular heroes and men and women of courage, disaster, suicide and thwarted love. The print below by Kunisada shows the housewife Mayazumi who contributed to the disaster relief fund of one of Edo’s many natural disasters. These figures with their glass eyes and individually set human hairs of ordinary people living their lives were not only popular in Japan; they were widely exported to the big international exhibitions all over the world. Iki-ningyo became one of the early means for which Europe and America viewed the newly opened Japan. Sadly not many of these delicate sculptures survive but there is an interesting account of the ongoing restoration of one of them at the Victoria & Albert Museum London here.
Like kabuki, the bunraku puppet theatre and the iki-ningyo died out during the period of Meiji modernisation in the late nineteenth century. Advanced technologies including film and photography became more popular and these extraordinary art forms died out. Japanese fascination for mimesis and technical excellence has continued however. The video below shows a contemporary automaton maker from Japan, continuing his family’s traditions of making extraordinary working models of people shooting arrows or drawing calligraphy for example. The incredible expertise that is used is in a direct tradition from the tableaux of Edo Japan in the previous two centuries.
To bring this tradition right up to date there are of course the contemporary Japanese sex dolls and companion dolls which although bleaker in their intended use, nevertheless retain the same demanding skills of realism and likeness that has been a Japanese obsession for so long. If you get the chance, look out for Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s 2009 film Air-Doll which tells the story of a man falling in love with his living doll and the doll subsequently coming to life. Using silicone and miniaturized motors instead of gofun and papier-mache, current Japanese robot and doll technology remains outstanding and continues to push the limits of art’s ability to mimic nature.