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Traditional puppetry is one of Japan’s many gifts to world theater. And it is so important to the history and present-day culture of Japan’s Awaji Island, near Osaka, that every day master puppeteers offer a performance in a striking new puppet theater overlooking the Naruto Ohashi Bridge.

It usually takes a long journey from Seattle to witness this vibrant style of folk art in action. However, for one night only this Saturday, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the sister-state relationship between Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture and Washington State, the Awaji-ningyô-za (Awaji Ningyo Joruri Japanese Puppet Theatre) will bring the traditional art form to ACT Theatre. Though the company’s performance of the folk tale “Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees” is sold out, the history of this strain of Asian puppetry is fascinating in itself.

“We’re bringing in from Japan six puppeteers and four other artists who do music and chanting, ” said Brian Chu, education and cultural coordinator for Seattle’s Hyogo Business and Cultural Center, which is presenting the show in association with the Northwest Puppet Center, the Consulate General of Japan and the Washington State Arts Alliance.

“We also have a special guest from Canada who will emcee the event in English,” adds Chu. (That is Katsura Sunshine, currently the only storyteller in Japan’s Rakugo comic tradition who is of non-Japanese descent. He will perform a separate solo show in Seattle on Aug. 29, at the Japanese Cultural Center. )

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But the main event here is a rare U.S. look at this venerable school of puppetry, known as Awaji Ningyo Joruri, which extends back centuries and was a precursor to Japan’s better-known Bunraku puppetry style.

This theatrical tradition is deeply embedded in Awaji Island culture. Long ago the islanders considered puppets to be spiritual beings with magic powers to vanquish bad fortune. In Ichi-Sanjo, a village on the southern part of the island, families have passed from generation to generation an annual religious puppet play in order to seek the blessings of the gods.

Though the more elaborate form of Bunraku (developed in Osaka in the 1700s) is considered an offshoot, its Awaji progenitor is distinctively different. Manipulated by three puppeteers at one time, the lifelike, vibrantly costumed Awaji puppets are larger in size (three to four feet high), some equipped with expressive moving eyes, eyebrows and mouths. Also, the shows feature numerous quick changes of costumes and stage settings.

Each performance is accompanied by chanted narration, and by music played on the samisen, a traditional Japanese three-stringed instrument.

There also is still a religious element in this kind of puppetry. At the new year, the sacred puppet Sanbasô visits seaside village homes and gives a ritual New Year’s blessing. Related dances and folk songs are performed on other festive occasions.

At one time there were many puppet troupes on the island. Today, the Awaji-ningyô-za is the only remaining active one, and the cherished tradition has been officially designed a National Intangible Folk Cultural Asset by the Japanese government.

Misha Berson:

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