Shikou Yoshida is a puppeteer at the Awaji Puppet Theater Company, one of the biggest and most successful puppet troupes from the early 17th to mid 20th century. Shikou joined the Theater Company upon graduating from junior high school on Awaji Island where he started to learn puppetry. Since then, he has worked with puppets and given lectures on the movement of puppets not only in Japan but also in the USA and some European countries.
Photo: Awaji Puppet Theater Company
Interview with Shikou Yoshida
– Please tell us about Ningyo Joruri.
Ningyo Joruri is a traditional Japanese puppet show that combines three types of work; a narrator called “Tayu” who voices the puppet, a shamisen player, and a puppeteer.
An origin of Ningyo Joruri traces back to wooden doll shows to pray for the God introduced by a person named “Hyakudayuu” in Awaji island, which is an island off Hyogo prefecture. The technique of moving wooden dolls was developed to Ningyo Joruri around 400 years ago. Ningyo Joruri was originally performed only by one person as a way to pray to the gods during traditional shinto ceremonies. Many groups of people who performed Ningyo Joruri travelled all over Japan for their performances. As performers sought for their puppets to move more smoothly as human beings do, they started to control the puppets with three people rather than one person. This method gained popularity in Awaji Island, and subsequently spread all over Japan.
– What made you decide to become a professional player of Ningyo Joruri?
My hometown in Awaji Island had a Ningyo Joruri group, and since I was little I learned songs called “Danjiri uta”, which are sung at the last scene of Ningyo Joruri performance. But my first exposure to Ningyo Joruri was not until I went to a junior high school where I officially started to learn Ningyo Joruri through a club activity at my school.
Since I didn’t like to study when I was in a junior high school, my teacher suggested that I pursue a career as a Ningyo Joruri performer after junior high school. I was too young at the time to further consider his suggestion. At that time, I simply thought it would be a good choice for me as I didn’t have to study at a high school. It was around 40 years old when I finally realized that I really liked my profession. There was no a-ha moment for me but it suddenly came to me as a natural feeling. Until then, I was not quite sure if I really liked this job or not. Sometime I liked it, but sometime I didn’t. When I finally asked my wife to let me continue this job, she had already knew I had a passion for Ningyo Joruri. 30 years have passed since I started my career, but I still have many things to learn and I feel my career has just started.
– Awaji Ningyo-za, which you belonged to, has flourished by preserving the tradition of Ningyo Joruri especially in Awaji Island. Some tradition may have changed as time goes by but there must be something that have never changed. Can you please share these things?
The most important thing for Ningyo Joruri performers is “zu”, which is the unspoken consensus among performers during a show. As I said before, three people move one puppet. The person in charge of moving the head of the puppet is always the one who shows a subtle movement of the puppet without words as a sign of letting the other two performers know what the next movement of the puppet should be. Based on these unspoken instructions, feet or hands of the puppet are moved. We shouldn’t have a plot for puppet’s movement. Audience cannot never tell the subtle messages of “zu”, but it needs to be preserved and inherited as this is the basis of Ningyo Joruri performance.
– What kind of message do you want to send to your audience through your Ningyo Joruri performance?
Whenever I have the opportunity to hold workshops at elementary schools or junior high schools in Japan, I tell kids that we are humans that need to express our feelings. As they grow up, they have a chance to present themselves and their feelings in various situations. Japanese traditional culture or performance is a good way for them to learn these presentation skills. Therefore, I want young people to learn Japanese traditional culture in the area where they live and also find some tips for presentation.
Japanese people are not very good at showing their feelings because they are shamed or care so much about how others see them. But I want to deliver a message to the Japanese that this is not the case through my performance.
– What was the most memorable moment among your many performances in foreign countries? Also, did you see any difference in reaction to your play in Japan and outside of Japan?
I have learned a lot from my show at Japan Society in New York back in 2009. Normally we do everything for our play by ourselves including driving a car to carry goods for performance, taking them off the car, making a stage for the show, putting the items back to the car, and moving to another city for a next show. However, at the show at Japan Society, it was done all by staff they arranged, and we were able to focus on our performance. Also, I was impressed to learn tips for performance in New York, which is different from Japan.
What struck me the most at the performance in New York was standing ovation that we received, which I had never had in Japan. Also, reaction from the audience was very direct and straightforward, which I think is a reflection of people’s eyes on arts.
– Please tell us about your dreams in the future.
As a Ningyo Joruri performer, I still use a puppet but I’m interested in combining my puppet performance with various things such as classical music and rakugo, a traditional Japanese comic storytelling. I would also like to tour in the US and somewhere else to introduce Ningyo Joruri to as many people as possible as I want to let them know such interesting tradition that has been inherited in Awaji Island.
Shikou Yoshida is a professional puppeteer of Ningyo Joruri, which has been classified as a Japanese National intangible treasure. Ningyo Joruri is a puppet show with narrative called Tayu and music played by a three stringed lute shamisen, and it traces its origins back over 400 years ago. Shikou joined Awaji Puppet Theater Company, one of the biggest and most successful puppet troupes from the early 17 th to mid 20 th century, upon graduating from junior high school on Ajwaji Island in Japan’s Seto Island Sea. Since then he has performed puppetry and given lectures not only in Japan but also in the USA and some European countries such as Italy, France and Germany.
For more information about the Awaji Puppet Theater Company, please visit http://awajiningyoza.com.