electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Article 3 in 2005
First published in ejcjs on 17 June 2005

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Kiritake Masako's Maiden's Bunraku1



Darren-Jon Ashmore

School of East Asian Studies
University of Sheffield

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For those who live and work within the confines of the modern Japanese revival of traditional culture, especially within minzoku [folk] culture, the issue of the perceived control of culture has become very important indeed. In a world where so much−from funding, through rights to teach one's art, to access to the academic community−is determined by one's standing in the revival hierarchy, it can be no surprise that controlling folk culture has become the central issue within the revival community itself: with the ability to dictate the terms of the history on which such revivals are based quietly driving many organizations within Japan into fierce competition. It is the exploration and examination of this obfuscated conflict within the Japanese folk culture revival is part of the overall purpose of this project which attempts to raise some of the important questions which surround this process. Can any group be said to be able to control the creation, or preservation, of a cultural tradition?

Specifically, in the pursuit of this question, this article takes up the study of one aspect of the Japanese revival community−puppet theatre−and uses a case study of Kiritake Masako's Maiden's Bunraku as an example of the histories, development and current state of being of a number of specific properties within this frame, as a way to test the questions regarding the rights and responsibilities of the masters of the Japanese cultural revival.

We are one man's dream that refuses to fade away

Kiritake Masako: Puppeteer, Shingi-za and
Master, Kiritake Masako Otome Bunraku.
Interview with the author, December 9 2001.

Until relatively recently, the study of Japanese puppet art has largely been limited to the arts of Bunraku and the Edo period forms of ningyō jōruri [puppet drama]2 from which it evolved. However, beyond the bounds of these forms there existed, and still exist, a wealth of puppet based theatre which has largely been overlooked by the Anglophone academic community. It has only really been in the last decade, with the publication of such works as Jane-Marie Law's Puppets of Nostalgia, Poh-Sim Plowright's Mediums, Puppets and the Human Actor in the Theatres of the East or A. Kimi Coaldrake's Women's Gidayū and The Japanese Theatre Tradition3, that interest in non-elite forms of Japanese puppet art has begun properly to develop in Western academic circles. This article, like its parent doctoral dissertation, is an attempt to encourage further this burgeoning interest in the more 'common'caspects of Japanese performance art (and not just puppet based) and, as such, has been selected from among the studies in the original work because it involves the story of, arguably, one of the most remarkable branches of Japan's 'puppet art tree' musume jōruri [young women's drama].4

The core of this article was researched in the summer of 2001, when the author was, thanks to the generosity of the Leverhulme Foundation, on study leave in Japan and is the result of several detailed discussions5 with masters Kiritake Masako and Kiritake Masaya, as well as the gift of a number of rare documents from Kiritake Masako which detail the history of her troupe. The intent in the original thesis was to present the perceptions of people who live within the bounds of a particular art form and analyse their motivations in comparison with other troupes (there are four case studies in the original work) and the external groups which work with them on the revival process (from government departments, through academic circles to fan clubs). As such, the paper lacks the usual bibliographic references and it might be said that extracting such an unusual case study from such an unusual thesis was perhaps not the best way to go about creating a journal paper. However, as was discovered in the creation of the original document, there is something of value to be found in the perceptions (honest or biased or deceitful though they may be at times) of those who have attached themselves to these arts. These are voices which are rarely heard and, whatever we, as scholars, might think about the fitness of their statements they do allow us a window on the beliefs which support them.

April 13 2001: Dance of the Dead

While the Ishinji Temple in Osaka might certainly be seen as a very unusual venue for theatrical performances of any kind, it is perhaps not wholly inappropriate for something after the fashion of a demonstration of musume jōruri. It is a truly modernist ritual complex in the main, though built on the site of a compound which was founded in the twelfth century. The current Ishinji Temple was designed in the early 1980s to guard the sacred Ashen Amitabha, which stands, much like the giant guardians at the shrine's gates, as a memorial to all those who have departed this world.6 It is a place of great contrast throughout; from the imposing glass and steel gates which, incredibly, seem to merge seamlessly with few fragments of original wall which survived the destruction of the war, through the elegant cafEwhich has been inserted into the gutted remains of a burned-out seventeenth century storeroom, to the huge concrete administrative building which has all but swallowed-up the reconstructed wooden great hall in which the Ashen Amitabha stands. Yet, for all that the modern world has imposed itself on this place, it seems that nothing exists in the temple which is at all out of place, or without purpose, and even the lone figure of a striking, black clad woman elegantly gliding about the worship hall manipulating a beautifully ethereal puppet, does not disturb the air of melancholic reverence which the ubiquity of the temple's focus of worship creates.7

Image 1: Kiritake Masaya, Isshinji Temple April 13th 2001 - photograph by the author.

Kiritake Masaya has performed several times at the Ishinji Temple since her teacher in the musume jōruri arts, Master Kiritake Masako−first pupil of the tradition's recognized founder and one of the art's most respected living exponents−introduced her to the Head of the temple complex in 1996. For the most part she performs during devotional times and limits her recitals to relatively melancholic dances which the temple directors feel are appropriate to such a solemn place. However, the thirteenth of April 2001 represented something of a departure from Masaya's usual fare, in that she had been invited to use the temple's main hall as the setting for an evening of ningyō shibai under the umbrella of the 2001 Osaka International Puppet Art Festival. Organised by the Osaka city government and the National Bunraku Theatre, the event, run as part of the city's preparations for the World Cup finals, was designed to showcase the best in puppet art from around the Kinki region and demonstrate Osaka city's claim to be the centre of puppet art history for the whole country.8

Image 2:  Kiritake Masako, Otome Bunraku Publicity Image 1935 - from the collection of Kiritake Masako and used with permission.

Image 3: Kiritake Masako, 'at home' 2001 - photograph by the author.

On stage, holding a huge half scale articulated puppet, Masaya seems to be the perfect expression of Uemura Bunrakuken's well respected art, save for the small points of her gender and the strange brace which she wears round her waist, the purpose of which only becomes apparent when her performance begins. Inserting the rod which supports the puppet's head into a copper tube on the front of this arm brace, Masaya quickly attaches the puppet's extremities to her own with rods and wires so that the doll appears to be hovering a few inches in front of her, suspended in the air. Moreover, as Masaya moves, the puppet emulates her dancing perfectly and, in the gloom of the hall, with the puppet's brilliant white robes contrasting with her jet-black attire, seems to acquire a sense of vitality of its own, becoming divorced from the accomplished young woman, whose presence the audience feels less and less as the hypnotic dance goes on.

Musume jōruri, as a concept, appears to be completely out of sorts with the signification its practitioners have managed to create in the minds of the people who enjoy it in the contemporary setting. It seems to balance techniques which have been adopted from classical bunraku with innovations which have been created within the living memory of some of its current Masters and has acquired a history which has been cobbled together to act as justification for the modern creation of the art. Of all the revived arts which exist in Japan at this time, it might be seen as one which really should not exist at all, for it seems to have no purpose. Yet, persist it does, standing as an expression of a wide variety of social significations for its aficionados. Though not a folk art in the most demanding sense of the concept, nor yet a classical art, Masaya's performances always draw a great many people who seem to have accepted this young woman's artistic vision as perfectly expressing the hybridised folk identity which has become theirs in the last century; mixing ancient and modern social aesthetics, much like the architecture of the Ishinji Temple. It is an art whose practitioners have always understood the artificial nature of social reality and which mirror's that perfectly in their performances.

Unwilling Seductresses: Women in Edo Period Puppet Theatre

In the Summer of 1873, shortly after opening the doors of the recently re-named Bunraku-za in Osaka, Uemura Bunrakuken III, the founder of modern bunraku, decreed that, though the Edo period laws on the involvement of women in the theatrical arts had been overthrown by the incoming Meiji authorities in 1870, no women would be allowed to work at the Bunraku-za in any capacity other than as backroom, or front-of-house staff. This seems to have been explained as a way of protecting the theatre from the sort of artistic associations which female puppeteers had picked up during the Edo period, when they were forced out of the theatre districts proper and into the brothels of the growing pleasure quarters. The distinction might have been a subtle one for the lawmakers of the period, for at that time in 1629 a variety of morality edicts were being revised, actors (and puppeteers) were only marginally better off socially than common prostitutes, but by the time of Bunrakuken III the gap which had opened up between professional male artists and female ones had become very wide.

Specifically, what Bunrakuken III seems to have been worried about in refusing to lift the bar on women in bunraku in 1873 was the fact that, male performers were, by the Meiji period, socially very different to their female counterparts. Essentially, though both male and female performers had begun their segregated lives under the 1629 morality laws on a similar social level, since then male performers had been able rapidly to improve their social signification in the eyes of the general population. Female performers had not only to contend with having to work in environments which would always carry a very powerful signification of social corruption about them but also with the fact that, once they had been forced out of the theatres, and into the brothels or tea houses, their social standing ceased to be that of joyu [performer] and turned into yujo [women of pleasure] no matter whether they were actually prostitutes or not9. This suppression of the Japanese woman in public life, might be seen as something of a reflection of the way that the Tokugawa government preferred to have their rule viewed by the population of this, technically10, unified nation.

The increasing stability of the early part of this period, achieved and maintained almost exclusively through fear of military force, seems to have been contrasted very sharply, in the minds of the ruling elite, with the anarchy and social confusion of the age which had preceded it. The civil war period seems to have been viewed as a time in which every important institution of the state had somehow been corrupted by the gekokujo [low overthrowing the high] mentality which had characterised the social reality of the time. Teppo [arquebus] armed peasant ashigaru [quick feet] levies had replaced the bushi as the most important source of military strength for the lords of the land. Moreover, the most noble warriors in the land had been dominated, if only for a short while, by one of those peasant soldiers made great, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and plunged by him into the nation's most disastrous military misadventure: the ill-fated invasions of Korea. The law-makers of the Edo government thus began with edicts to restrain the still powerful warrior households which they felt might rise up against the Tokugawa. Masking these laws under a cloak of martial language samurai were exhorted to live frugal and moral lives free from the sort of distractions which might enflame passions to violence熔f which theatre was considered one of the most obvious. However, the regulation of warrior households and castles was only the beginning, in that the policy makers of Edo felt that the only way to bring a real end to the uncertainty of the previous century was to confine every person within the strictest possible legal codes. Thus, in order to protect the nation from the corrupting affects of 'theatre', barring women from enjoying the activities which, in the eyes of the government, led to the moral decline of the weak was not enough. Women had to be barred from working in such places as well, at least where it suited the public face of public morality.

Although it may seem obvious that the ruling elite in a male dominated military government would focus their attention, albeit erroneously, on issues such as the control of Japanese womankind, this seemingly incomplete position in which the Tokugawa authorities chose to place the females of the nation is a very important issue. Indeed, one would think that, as long as licensed pleasure quarters, such as the grand Yoshiwara of Edo11, existed in this sort of society, it would be impossible for the government to enforce the desired level of moral rectitude on the population, with these places acting as a constant reminder of the fluid state of society before the Edo period. However, it is my contention that, much in the same way that Special Status outcaste communities long provided the 'common Japanese' with a form of negative social model, these pleasure communities served a very important purpose for the stability of Edo Japan; not simply in giving the wealthy elite of society the opportunity to vent themselves in environments which were beyond the social norms which otherwise bound them. Rather, the workers in these islands of pleasure, cut off from the mundane world and, for the most part, unable to defend themselves against the sorts of (mainly) negative significations which were built up around them, became a similarly negative social model for the women of the nation; everything that a good daughter, sister or wife was not, and engaged in all the sorts of social interaction which men believed that moral women should avoid.

In this regard it can be argued that the stage professions of the transition years of the Tokugawa period provided the authorities with perfect models to hold up in support of their radical claims of national moral decline. Some of these one might regard as relatively obvious choices for suppression, such as Kabuki for example, which was the most popular form of theatre at the start of the Edo period. This seems to have been singled out at a very early stage in the crack-down, in that it had long been openly viewed as being little more than a form of lightly pornographic theatre, with troupes trading more heavily on the sexual tension which existed in performances than on the artistic merits of performers, and certainly not appropriate for the religious centres12 which profited from the skills of the women involved. However, for the government's position to have any impact, its prohibition had to be seen to be a total one and so all theatre traditions, from sarugaku to ningyō jōruri, were also stripped of their female performers by the 1629 morality laws. Thus, once this act had fully taken effect and Japanese women had been removed from the art world at a root level, with those female performers who survived the censure being re-signified as little more than courtesans, the stage had been set for the creation, nearly three centuries later, of Osaka's otome bunraku.

Though it cannot be doubted that all the performers of the age initially hated the laws which had essentially broken up important performance traditions, this is not to say that they did not accept the impossibility of challenging the legislation. Indeed, most seem to have decided very quickly that in order to make the best of the situation each party found themselves in, it was necessary to play up to the nature of the law and redefine their arts to suit the expectations of their audiences. Within the puppet art community especially this was very quickly realized, as [...] the female puppet performers of the pleasure quarter were working to find an identity which would be all their own, and not just a women's version of the arts of stage outside the pleasure quarters.

Kiritake Masako: Puppeteer, Shingi-za and
Master, Kiritake Masako Otome Bunraku.
Interview with the author, December 9 2001.

As Kiritake Masako quite correctly points out, the most effective way for these small scale women's puppet theatres to survive in the very focussed environment of the pleasure district, was not to fight against the authority which had condemned their arts to this state, but to actively take on board the significations of the elite law-making agents and re-model puppet art in a way which fed off (and accentuated) the desires of those men. Essentially, to have performed grand historical drama in a cavernous theatre would have been totally inappropriate to the very intimate nature of the businesses alongside of which these performers worked. Rather, it seems to have been the norm to find troupes performing in the most compact of venues, often in the main rooms of larger brothels13, and engaging in very sexually charged character plays14 and erotic dances in which puppet manipulators, given the relatively free dress codes within the confines of the theatres and brothels, enhanced performances by dancing in attire which was designed to excite their audiences as much as their performance. Indeed, it was erotic dancing which formed the heart of most musume jōruri activity in the pleasure quarters of the Edo period, and even after the rise of the sewamono [domestic things] narratives of Chikamatsu Monzaemon to popularity15, with their highly charged interpersonal relationships, the bill of fare at most pleasure quarter theatre remained much the same.

However, this focus on intimate personal dance-theatre might also have risen out of the simple fact that the vast majority of these musume jōruri venues, indeed the vast majority of all women's theatre in this age, were relatively small affairs when compared to their grand city peers and could have ill afforded to put on anything on such a grand scale. Their target demographic was, though undoubtedly wealthy, a relatively small group and, without wishing to seem indelicate, not overly concerned about the artistic splendour of the theatres they were in or the acting skills of the performers. Lack of sympathetic advertising16, poor access to proper professional training over the years17, little real patronage, and lack of effective recruitment strategies18, all seem to have led to a gradual, but noticeable, decline in performance standards in pleasure quarter bound theatres which, Kiritake Masako contends, was increasingly covered up by such troupes relying heavily on the sort of dance which had become musume jōruri's trademark by the 1750s.

It was difficult for women's theatres in the pleasure quarters to stay out of the sex trade themselves, especially as their performances were designed to enhance the sexual mood of the areas client's, but a good many troupes seem to have managed it after a fashion. Whether this was because the performers still saw themselves as more than common prostitutes, or whether they wished others to see them in the role they had once occupied outside the pleasure quarters, no-one knows for sure. I myself believe that, in a world of women who were offering themselves for sale19, it was the ones who could not be bought, such as the grand geiko [ladies of art], who attracted the most ardent admirers. I may be wrong, but in any case, it cannot be doubted that those troupes that could demonstrate at least some level of  'abstinence' eventually won out over the laws which had placed their artistic ancestors into the floating world.

Kiritake Masako: Puppeteer, Shingi-za and
Master, Kiritake Masako Otome Bunraku.
Interview with the author, December 9 2001.

What Master Kiritake is referring to here is the fact that, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, as the parasitically patriarchal Tokugawa government began the slow process of internal collapse, the laws which had held society in check through fear, including those which hemmed the nation's passions into the various pleasure quarters, also began to weaken. Protected by the very real authority of the emerging middle (merchant) classes which, it might be argued, instigated the ruin of the Tokugawa government's feudal society, it was not long before Osaka performing groups were regularly leaving the pleasure quarters to perform in homes and small theatres. Moreover, it does not seem to have taken Edo's female artists long to catch up to their, perhaps more urbane, Osaka counterparts.

However, once again, and perhaps not unsurprisingly, considering the nature of the Tokugawa government, the administrators of the age seem to have immediately come to the wrong conclusion about the situation and set about trying to tighten up the nation's morality codes, under the firm belief that the trouble which was visible to the eye was the cause of the nation's social ills, rather than the symptom it was. Over the next two decades a variety of laws were unsuccessfully applied to the major cities, culminating in Mizuno Tadakuni's Tenpo edicts of 1841, under which the use of military force was proposed to press the nation's passions back into line. However, the shogun of the period, Tokugawa Ieyoshi, seems to have realized that a government attempt to use its increasingly restless house troops to enforce these unenforceable social laws on regional lords, some of whom were very close to open rebellion anyway, would be political suicide. Thus, less than a year after the Tenpo edicts came into force they were quashed by the shogun's office and no further attempts to reign in women's theatre were made by the central government before the incoming Meiji rulers actually struck the original Tokugawa morality laws from record.

Yet, just because Meiji period musume jōruri troupes were able to perform within a more mundane social context than they had for two centuries, does not mean that their general signification had changed to any great degree. They had certainly been freed, but only to serve the needs of the groups which negotiated their specific social reality, and not because removing them from the pleasure quarters was the right thing to do. They were still expected to perform the same dance-dramas which had been made their own in confinement and to be an adjunct to the more 'substantive' parts of those patron's social activities, in this case visiting the theatre proper, and, perhaps above all else, they were expected to play no part in the profession which they had been torn out of in the middle of the seventeenth century. However, this bar seems to have come not from a government scrabbling to place some form of social restraint on all female art forms, but from the art establishment itself, with many Masters refusing female troupes access to their venues on the grounds that such groups were still, technically, illegal. The arts had grown apart in the intervening years and very different definitions had been built up around them. The kabuki was now a respectable classical art form and the Bunraku-za puppet theatre was the most refined in the whole of the country. To have brought musume jōruri troupers back into those environments would have essentially turned those arts into light hearted entertainment halls at best and brothels at worst. It may have been wrong on so many levels, but the fact remains that male artists perceived that they had to disown their long lost sisters in order to maintain their hard won and self formed professional reputations.

This then is arguably the line which Bunrakuken III took in 1873 when he confirmed that, though the change in law once again permitted women to perform on the professional puppet stage, there would be no females employed as puppeteers, musicians or chanters at his theatre. His ancestors had created an art form which had acquired a certain artistic standard and to change the definitions which its supporters had come to accept would be damaging to the future of the art as a whole.

Musume jōruri legally remained in existence, but having been denied a place in the classical pantheon by the Master of Japanese puppet arts, its exponents were bereft of any artistic foundation and scattered to the four winds. Most theatres were forced to close in the anti-traditional surge which followed the immediate rush to modernize Japanese society and the few which survived were, without any unifying force to support them, quickly absorbed into the broad church of the folk art community; where, as Kiritake Masako tells us, the already diversified art of musume jōruri fragmented into many, very distinct, performance styles and, seemingly, lost any chance to be more than an interesting footnote in Japanese puppet art history20. Apparently on a professional whim, Uemura Bunrakuken III had denied female puppeteers throughout Japan the right to be recognized for what they, and their forebears, represented to the art as a whole. To be fair to him, his motives, as hinted at above, might be seen as being merely protective of the position which his theatre had achieved in this, culturally precarious, Meiji restoration. Moreover, his rejection of performance traditions which had historical connections to his troupe might be viewed as simply a way of re-enforcing the signification of elite status which the Bunraku-za had been afforded by those who took power in 1868. However, whether or not this is the case, his dismissal of the possibility of (re)integrating female performers with his theatre in 1873 can only be seen as dealing a near mortal blow to an aspect of Japanese puppet art which desperately needed just this sort of affirmative revival.

It is my contention that, without some element of the professional puppet community taking a stand to recognize the artistic credentials of female puppeteers, the whole concept of musume jōruri would never be able to rise above the significations which it had acquired as part of the floating world: forever seen as one more fragile reflection of the history of Edo social excess. Caught between competing artistic standards, musume jōruri had been passed by and few who commented on such matters at that time seem to have been at all concerned that one of the most impressive stories of Japanese cultural survival had come to an end under their care; as all who had negotiated musume jōruri's social reality in the Edo period had simply let the property go after Bunrakuken III made the professional artistic position abundantly clear in 1873. However, as we have discussed previously, just as it is impossible to re-signify something without the support of enough agents, likewise is it impossible for even a determined group to completely erase an undesirable signification if even one agent considers it has some merit and is able to rally enough like minded agents to his or her cause. Thus it was, as we shall see, the case with musume jōruri, as the few adherents which remained, quietly performed and waited for an opportunity to raise their lost arts to prominence once again.

While the Cat's Away: Otome Bunraku and the Bunraku-za

According to my Father, the opportunity which the [musume jōruri] community was waiting for arrived in the form of Japan's desire to expand into Asia in the 1930s. The [bunraku] Masters went sailing off to Manchuria, never thinking that their students would take that opportunity to break away and form their own theatre within the Bunraku-za. It might not have been a very long lived theatre and [its founders] might, very fairly, be called artistic thieves, for what they took from the [true] modern founder of otome bunraku, but had things not developed the way they did, I think Masaya and all other modern otome bunraku performers would not be working at all.

Kiritake Masako: Puppeteer, Shingi-za and
Master, Kiritake Masako Otome Bunraku.
Interview with the author, December 9 2001.

At the turn of the century, the Bunraku-za was still enjoying the upsurge of popularity it had achieved under Meiji government patronage, when it was trumpeted to the world as the most refined form of puppet art known to man. However, as the Meiji period drew to a close and the country's leadership became ever more serious about the full modernization of the country, the success of the Bunraku-za began to fade away. Indeed, by 1909, the company was in such dire financial straits that Uemura Bunrakuken IV was required to sell it to a theatre administration concern known as the Shochiku Stock Company who took over the, still critically acclaimed, Bunraku-za as the old management felt incapable of marketing themselves properly to a modern audience. The Shochiku people already had achieved a great measure of success in re-popularising several of the kabuki theatres of Osaka and, when their offer was put to the bunraku performers by Bunrakuken IV, even the grand old Masters of the theatre, such as monshita [senior performer] Takemoto Tsudayu II, the ailing Kiritake Monjuro I, and Naniwa Genaya, realized that no better opportunity would come their way.

With the news of the take-over stirring up much interest among fans of both the ningyō jōruri and kabuki, the deal initially promised to be profitable. However, when the great Monjuro I died less than a year after the contract was signed, it boded very poorly for the company. Indeed, within the space of five years two more of the great Masters had passed away and, as is often the case with personality cults which lose their figureheads, the popularity of the company once again began to fail. What made matters worse for the Bunraku-za was that, over the next decade and a half, several more of the old cast, those who had the best chance of replacing the old Masters as figures of popularity, died at frighteningly regular intervals, all of which further hit the company's reputation and, consequently, its coffers. Indeed, by 1925 it was being joked that the Bunraku-za was cursed by the shades of Uemura Bunrakuken's I through III, who did not like the idea of their theatre being in the hands of a non-puppet art family. However, talk of a curse lost what little humour it had in 1926 when a great fire destroyed the Bunraku-za (actually the Goryo Bunraku-za, which had replaced the original in 1884) and risked pushing the company into final decline. However, perhaps spurred on by the blaze, the Shochiku employers rented another venue in Osaka and, as the place was so small, sent several of the Bunraku-za companies out on the road to tour the provinces, something which, to the very self assured Bunraku-za personalities, would have seemed quite demeaning before the loss of the old Goryo theatre.

The company survived in this fashion till 1930 when the Yotsubashi Bunraku-za was finally opened, built with aid from an increasingly nationalistic government which seems to have realized that bunraku, as an art, might easily be co-opted to serve as 'traditional' propaganda for its colonial expansion into Asia. In 1933 the Diet was persuaded to pass acts to support the Bunraku-za with grants to help to offset the work which the theatre was required to carry out on modern plays for the government21. Moreover, as the decade progressed, the senior members of the company appear to have spent more and more time away from Osaka, performing for government officials, the army, and visiting dignitaries in Tokyo−all of which played havoc with regular performances and resulted in several sessions in late 1934 being almost completely unattended. When the Head of the group, Takemoto Tsudayu IV, who had replaced Takemoto Tsudayu II, raised this matter with the government it was decided that, as well as providing more funds to the company, the senior performers should make a tour of Manchuria to entertain the troops. This lasted from the Summer of 1935 to the Spring of 1937 and during their absence, several of the junior performers used the opportunity to step out from their Master's shadows and create something on their own; it was their creation, the Shingi-za [New Theatre], which would become the focal point for the revival of musume jōruri in the modern age.

Shortly after the senior company left for Manchuria in 1935, several of the Bunraku-za's young chanters who had not been taken to the mainland with their Masters met up and began discussing how they could best maintain their skills without their teachers to guide them. Toyotake Tsubamedayu and Takemoto Nanbudayu suggested the creation of a small sujōruri22 troupe, to be named the Shingi-za [New Art Theatre], and proposed that all the young chanters and shamisen players whose Masters had left them in Osaka when they joined the army in Manchuria should be invited to join them. Proceeding cautiously, for it was not certain in those early stages whether the Shochiku Company would permit such a break with tradition. The company was not fully recruited till the December of 1935 and did not officially form until the February of the following year, when Tsubamedayu won the approval of the Bunraku-za owners23 who even agreed to the troupe's use of the Bunraku-za itself.

The troupe seems to have proved immediately popular in Osaka, with every performance from March to June 1936 being the sort of sell out houses which the Bunraku-za had not seen since 1930. Moreover, the Shingi-za had become quite the darling of the Bunraku-za itself and had begun to attract the attention of some of the older Masters who had remained in Osaka to administer home performances. One of these was the puppeteer Kiritake Monzō V, who along with his friend and puppet maker Oe Minnosuke approached the Shingi-za company in the May of 1936 and suggested, as Kiritake Masako tells us, making the troupe into a full-blown ningyō jōruri troupe by using musume jōruri trained girls to manipulate the troupe's puppets.

Even the most radical members of the [Shingi-za] were initially scandalized by the suggestion of bringing women into the Bunraku-za. However, when Yoshida Eizai reminded us all that the bar on women performing at the Bunraku-za only technically applied to the main hall itself, the group agreed to try the idea, mindful of the fact that the idea presented them with a very unusual way of presenting ningyō jōruri, which befitted the radical status they wished to take on themselves. What was more amazing, and is never mentioned, is that the Shochiku Company approved the plan without a complaint. However as these girls would only be working for a short while on rented stages and only be paid a fraction of what a male puppeteer would be, maybe it is not so odd that the company quickly agreed to test the form.

Kiritake Masako: Puppeteer, Shingi-za and
Master, Kiritake Masako Otome Bunraku.
Interview with the author, December 9 2001.

A group of eight girls, including the fourteen year old Kiritake Masako, the Head of the puppeteers, was introduced to the Shingi-za by Kiritake Monzō in the July of 1936 and the Osaka Otome Bunraku Troupe presentation took place in early September. If anything, these performances proved to be even more popular than the previous Shingi-za presentations with crowds becoming very eager to see what sort of unusual puppeteers the 'radical' Shingi-za had discovered to enhance their exciting, fresh performances24. However, in many ways it does not appear to have been the girls themselves which the people were entirely interested in, for though the arts of musume jōruri were rare at this time, they were not exactly unknown to the more dedicated fans of the puppet stage. Rather, it seems to have been the puppets themselves, or more specifically how they were manipulated, which attracted everyone's attention. It must be remembered that the sort of Takeda style puppet which were used here were half scale affairs and very heavy. Aficionados of bunraku were used to seeing three men wielding these enormous puppets, so to see a single girl making one dance as if it were floating on air must have been incredible to behold.

The secret of the Shingi-za's success with otome bunraku was a pair of chest mounted devices which were created to hold a Takeda ningyō firmly in place on the torso of a performer freeing up her hands to work the puppet's arms. The most common type at the Shingi-za, used mainly for long jōruri plays in which puppets were required to move slowly and gracefully, was known as the dogane [torso clamp] designed by Oe Minnosuke. This, as can be seen from images 4 and 5 below, was a relatively simple belt onto which a frame which could be fastened in order to secure a puppet's considerable weight. When a puppet attached to this frame an otome bunraku performer was free to handle each of its arms with her own. Of course it made it impossible to operate any of the karakuri features which a puppet might possess, but this lack was offset by using a wire, strung from the puppet's head and looped round the puppeteer's, to allow the head to turn, seemingly independently (Image 6 below).

The Dogane: demonstrated by Kiritake Masaya January 2002 - photograph by the author.
Image 4.

Image 5.

Image 6: Dogane and head wired puppet, Otome Bunraku performance, 1935 - from the collection of Kiritake Masako and used with permission.

The other form of frame which was used for Osaka Otome Bunraku was known as the udegane [arm clamp] which was, though similar to the dogane in most respects, quite a radical piece of technology in comparison. As can be seen from images 7 and 8 below, it shared all the basic features of the dogane save for the belt, which was replaced by two metal hooks. These were placed in the crooked elbows of the performer which, while bearing the weight of the puppet, still allowed them to use their hands to work its arm rods. Apparently a very difficult piece of technology to master, the udegane was only used for short dance performances or scenes which called for more active movement in a puppet, for though the girls of the troupe could not wield puppets using the udegane for very long, the increased range of movement they possessed made for very expressive presentations.

The Udegane: demonstrated by Kiritake Masaya January 2002 - photograph by the author
Image 7.
Image 8.

Thus otome bunraku was born and became something of an exemplar for the musume jōruri environment as a whole, much in the way that the Bunraku-za had become for ningyō shibai in general. Kiritake Monzō V and Oe Minnosuke were feted, along with their girls, by the cream of Osaka society and even Yanagita Kunio is said to have, according to Kiritake Masako, attended several performances in Tokyo which were given in 1936 as part of a six month long tour of the country:

Much as it was with the old Bunrakuken-za and the arts of ningyō jōruri, so it was with the Shingi-za and musume jōruri. There can be no doubting that after the Shingi-za, with its association to the Bunraku-za by default, took on those musume jōruri performers and called them an otome bunraku troupe, the profile of those arts began to radically improve. However, Kiritake Monzō and Oe Minnosuke were not the creators of otome bunraku; not of the concept, nor of the technology which made it possible. They had the credibility, the artistic weight and government support, but it was Hayashi Jiboku who had the specific knowledge they needed and his role is often overlooked by scholars today because of how he was, eventually, frozen out by the Shingi-za.

Kiritake Masako: Puppeteer, Shingi-za and
Master, Kiritake Masako Otome Bunraku.
Interview with the author, December 9 2001.

Hayashi Jiboku seems to have already achieved something of a reputation for being a talented amateur puppeteer when he arrived in Osaka in 1926, looking for work among the small theatres of the city. However, what was not known at that time was that Jiboku, and his tayu chanter partner Inoue Seijiro, also had a plan for restoring Edo period musume jōruri to popularity through an invention which he had perfected in 1925 which would allow a single puppeteer to handle even a Takeda ningyō effectively on stage: the udegane. Patenting it in 1926, Jiboku set about building up a small musume jōruri company with Seijiro and, by the summer of 1928, they were ready to present their 'musume bunraku' to the paying public. According to Kiritake Masako, Jiboku was very excited about the performance style his girls worked in and apparently anticipated many theatres taking up his designs as the heart of a revival of musume jōruri in general25.

The troupe was hired by the New Osaka Radium Spa to perform light musume jōruri dance pieces for its guests during the summer and winter treatment seasons, and worked there for some years. However, despite Jiboku's best efforts, his technological breakthrough completely failed to excite any interest among the professional puppet art community until 1936, when Oe Minnosuke approached the Spa troupe and negotiated access to the udegane technology for a Bunraku-za troupe of musume jōruri performers at the Bunraku-za, which was eventually redesigned as the dogane by Master Oe.

Even making this technological innovation part of the legend of Osaka Otome Bunraku, which was built up in the very few years that the Shingi-za operated, could not save the company in the long term. Indeed, once the old Masters had returned from their Manchurian tour early in 1937, the Shochiku management wanted the Shingi-za closed up as quickly as possible. Partly this seems to have been because it needed the staff to begin putting on full scale shows again, but also because Masters such as Takemoto Tsudayu IV complained that the success of the renegade Shingi-za threatened the artistic credibility of the main company.

Silencing the new troupe proved to be very difficult and only when the group was dispatched to Taiwan for the summer, leaving its main sponsors behind at the request of Takemoto Tsudayu IV, was it possible to act. Openly tempting Toyotake Tsumabedayu back into the fold with a more prestigious position within the main company, the Shingi-za lost its most ardent supporter and though the troupe persisted until 1939 as a company, it was essentially doomed; being broken up as the war in China accelerated. Though powerful conservative negotiators and the widening of the invasion of mainland Asia conspired to close down the Shingi-za at the height of its influence, the fate of otome bunraku as an art had been irrevocably altered for the better by its association with the Bunraku-za. According to Kiritake Masako this can not only be traced back to both the way that the Bunraku-za quickly disposed of everything relating to the Osaka Otome Bunraku Troupe in 1939 but also the way in which it turned a blind eye to the fact that certain Masters continued to directly support certain otome bunraku troupes, especially after the war ended.26

Image 9: The Shingiza on tour in Taiwan, 1936 - from the collection of Kiritake Masako and used with permission.

To most people who hoped that the experiment would herald a new openness in the professional bunraku community, the Shingi-za was something of a failure in that it did not manage to deliver the artistic changes which its members had sought when they moved up to independent performance in 1936. Indeed, it would be nearly a decade before the members of this rebel troupe would have the opportunity to stage another artistic breakaway such as this, and one which would come to very much the same end. However, this remarkable theatre, for all that it was a short lived affair, enlivened ningyō jōruri as a whole and made it impossible for the professional puppet artistic community to go on denying the importance of fringe branches of puppet art which were essentially represented in Osaka Otome Bunraku. No matter the circumstances, the Bunraku-za had validated musume jōruri when it allowed the creation of the Osaka Otome Bunraku troupe in 1936. Although the Masters of the professional company might have been able to physically close the doors of the Bunraku-za on the women of musume jōruri, the signification negotiations they helped establish in the 1930s could not be so easily undone after the art was let loose among independent artists and followers.

Indeed, after the war, once all the surviving Osaka Otome Bunraku troupers returned to everyday life, they found, according to Kiritake Masako, that they still had a very dedicated fan-base, especially in the towns which they called home. Yoshida Oyuki, who had been the assistant to Kiritake Monzō in the 1930s, had already founded a troupe called the Otome Bunraku-za (an incarnation of which still performs at the National Bunraku Theatre) to which he was able to attract half of the returning members. Hayashi Jiboku invited others to join him at Hiratsuka City, to bolster his udegane based Musume Bunraku-za. However, the Osaka Otome Bunraku Troupe of Kiritake Monzō retained enough staff to operate independently, and for over twenty years gave regular performances around Japan under the watchful eyes of Kiritake Monzō's most favoured disciple, Kiritake Masako. Even when the Osaka-based company eventually wound up−its performers scattering to other theatres, shrines or private teaching−the arts of the musume jōruri stage were passed on to another generation. In this regard Kiritake Masako was particularly active, teaching a number of girls who have since gone on to found their own traditional dance or theatre troupes.

However it was only in 1998 that Master Kiritake became involved with a pupil whose professional interpretations of musume jōruri have come closer than anything else in the history of the art to taking otome bunraku out of the folklore revival environment and into the arena of modern performance art: Kiritake Masaya. The pair have cut something of a swath through the otome bunraku revival community, much to the chagrin of more conservative minded performers, with their modern dance techniques, electronic music and choice of venues. However, the way in which both Masako and Masaya have responded to their critics leaves us in no doubt that they are more than capable of defending the process of negotiated evolution which their branch of puppet art is, at least in part, undergoing. Rather than opposing their fellow negotiators within the more conservative revival, of which Masaya is still an agent as she performs very 'traditional' otome bunraku when the mood takes her, the pair have simply assisted the popular creation of a specific signification for their modernist interpretations around which a whole raft of other negotiators have clustered to largely drown out the criticism of Masaya's detractors.

Sea Change: Kiritake Masako and Kiritake Masaya

Kiritake Masaya was born Sakamoto Manami27 on the Island of Awaji in 1967 in the Tsuna district of the island. Raised from birth, or so she claims, with puppets in her hands, it was not long before she set out for Osaka as much to learn more about the arts of ningyō shibai as to go to university there. Studying classical and modern dance, drama and the history of puppet theatre, Masaya seems to have excelled at her studies and returned to her home in 1988 full of confidence that she would be snapped up by the Awaji Puppet Theatre at Fukura as a prize catch: After all she was university educated, incredibly skilled, and was a native of Awaji Island. However, as she tells us herself, this seems to have counted for little in the end as:

Though I was given a trial at the theatre and, according to their director, Mr. Umazume [Masaru], demonstrated a level of talent which was equal to their best, I was actually turned down by the theatre.

Kiritake Masaya: Artistic Director, Otome Bunraku Troupe.
Interview with the author, January 6 2002.

It does not seem to have been out of dislike for her that Masaya was rejected by the most famous theatre on Awaji (for, as Umazume Masaru later admitted, the troupe would have loved to hire her)28, but simply because the way that the theatre was being revived required that it draw its pupils exclusively from the high-schools and clubs of the Fukura district in which the theatre stood. This derived from the fact that those who negotiated the social reality in which the Awaji theatre operated seem to have come to an agreement that the theatre was to serve the local area before all other considerations. This, very sadly, meant that the few places which became available each year were only offered to young people from the surrounding area.

Returning to Osaka, Masaya was recruited by La Clarte on a full-time basis and, over the course of the following nine years, she studied a wide variety of puppet theatre forms whilst with that eclectic company−ranging from native three man sangyo, through Russian marionettes, to English Punch and Judy. However, there appeared to be one school of thought which La Clarte could not offer and which had been on Masaya's mind ever since she first saw a performance of it in 1987: otome bunraku. As with many who come to this remarkable art unprepared, the art appears to have left an indelible mark on the young puppeteer and it was not long before Masaya had taken up study, under Master Yoshida Mitsuko, who was−and remains−a leading musume gidayū figure at the National Bunraku Theatre. However, it was not until 1998, that Kiritake Masaya became the disciple of Kiritake Masako, and the heir apparent to the legacy of Kiritake Monzō's Osaka Otome Bunraku Troupe.

However, even Masaya, who had proposed a programme of renewal, as well as preservation, to her prospective new Master, was apparently taken quite by surprise by the freedom of artistic expression which Kiritake Masako proposed giving her new disciple. Indeed, as she tells it herself, it was not long before Masako was actively attempting to convince Masaya to focus almost exclusively on her own interpretations of musume jōruri and not so much on how Masako, or other members of the 'otome bunraku generation' worked. Masako's reasoning seems to have stemmed from her apprenticeship with both Kiritake Monzō, as well as her friendship with Oe Minnosuke, and a recollection of what her tutor had instilled in her about the nature of otome bunraku as compared to more historical musume jōruri.

When Kiritake Masako had joined the Osaka Otome Bunraku troupe at the Shingi-za in 1936 as senior puppeteer she seems to have been rather puzzled as to what purpose the troupe was to serve for its Shingi-za Masters. Raised in a household in which traditional theatre, especially formal bunraku, was the most important constant for all members of the family, Masako apparently joined this troupe under the impression that it was to be either a female version of the Bunraku-za, or a subdued version of Edo period musume jōruri29. However, when Masako was handed a dogane for the first time she inquired of her new Master as to the sort of theatre which the troupe would be focussing on and was apparently told that whatever else it eventually became in the eyes of the public, it certainly would not be a slavish copy of the Bunraku-za or of any musume jōruri troupe which had ever existed. In Kiritake Masako's own words:

On the one hand [Kiritake Monzō] was trying to satisfy a group of chanters who had grown bored with traditional bunraku delivery and required their puppeteers to work in a way which suited their more expressive forms. Then there was the fact that the rigs we were using, the dogane and udegane, automatically made anything we did very 'new' save for the few patrons who had been to the Radium Spa. Master Monzō was forced to think his way around these and many other such problems and come up with a performance style which satisfied all the people who had put money and time into it.

Kiritake Masako: Puppeteer, Shingi-za and
Master, Kiritake Masako Otome Bunraku.
Interview with the author, December 9 2001.

This he seems to have done by not looking backwards to earlier forms of Edo period musume jōruri30, or bunraku, but to the sort of free spirited modern dance and review theatres which were the most popular forms of mass entertainment in the 1930s, and which would be the Osaka Otome Bunraku's prime competition. He regularly took the girls to performances of the Takarazuka, required them to see imported movies whenever possible, had them read American dance magazines, and even engaged an expert in western fashions to help design their stage attire. On top of all this, he seems to have encouraged his staff to use their own innate performance skills alongside the limitations of their dogane (or udegane) rigs as the basis for their stage work, with only the most limited reference to 'standard' puppeteering practice31.

For Monzō this was more for practical reasons and especially related to the fact that he had months to train his troupe and not the years which the Bunraku-za spent on the process. Even taking into account that the girls of the Osaka Otome Bunraku Troupe did not have to learn the intricacies of the sangyo system which must have flattened out the learning curve somewhat, from the first rehearsals, in the Spring of 1936, to the first public performance in September, Monzō and Oe Minnosuke had barely three months to bring the girls up to speed. This is, according to Kiritake Masako, why he hired only girls who could demonstrate a professional command of dance, possessed a good working knowledge of puppet manipulation and had already performed in public. In simple terms, he was attempting to short circuit the training process32.

For Kiritake Masako and her puppeteer colleagues, the matter resolved itself simply into an argument about the relevance of women's theatre for a generation which saw the Takarazuka as the acme of performance perfection, a fact which, though possibly verging on misogyny considering that company's history, could not be ignored. Osaka Otome Bunraku had to appeal to patrons, both people on the street and wealthier−increasingly corporate or governmental−sponsors, who had come to signify female performance art in a very restricted way and were likely to view otome bunraku in that light no matter how it was presented to them. Indeed, considering that it was pleasure quarter performances which provided the popular signification for these later review theatres33, it was going to be impossible to completely re-signify the professional revival of musume jōruri at the Bunraku-za, considering the nature of Kiritake Monzō's key audience.

Tradition was not important at the Shingi-za as far as puppet performances went, because no-one living, not even Masters Monzō or Minnosuke, knew what traditions we should have been reviving anyway. Even if we could have magically discovered the workings of one Edo period musume jōruri troupe, who would have been the person to judge if that was right or not. [...] No, just as musume jōruri as a whole was forced to adapt to its time and re-create the world of puppet art within a very specific context, so too did the [Osaka Otome Bunraku] Troupe. It might not have been historically accurate and it might not have been the most artistic thing in the world, but it was emotionally engaging enough, and allowed people to interpret performances in two ways: either as musume jōruri renewed, or as a daring new interpretation of bunraku.

Kiritake Masako: Puppeteer, Shingi-za and
Master, Kiritake Masako Otome Bunraku.
Interview with the author, December 9 2001.

Thus, for Kiritake Masako, her job as she saw it had become one of making use of the popular significations of puppet art, women's theatre, modern dance, bunraku, the sexual politics of the age and even the infighting within the Bunraku-za, to create something which was entertainment as much as art. It was almost devoid of tradition and technique and very heavily based on the personal skills of the people who performed it. However, when carefully married up to the few significant trappings of its parentage it possessed, this seems to have made otome bunraku popular with a society which did not know what historical musume jōruri looked like and was only really interested in the form because it satisfied a desire for traditional art which was also entertaining. Even after the war, when the revival movement took hold properly and otome bunraku techniques were codified by the first generation of post-war students, Kiritake Masako, alone among her peers, seems to have remembered that her art was little more than a hodgepodge of performance techniques and social significations which, though important, were not sacred.

One some levels it might seem wrong to be mixing European ballet techniques, avant-garde musical accompaniment, or video imagery with something like otome bunraku to maintain the validity of Kritiake Masaya's performances. However, it might also be said that the only way for the art to survive in the long term is to trade on the one fact which has been constant through musume jōruri history: artistic innovation which keeps the fundamentals of a performance relevant to whatever audience interacts with it. Not unlike the best maintained folk arts in this regard, Kiritake Masaya's otome bunraku is, being as much about contemporary issues as creating a window on the past, still a popular success around Japan (and the world, having visited Europe, Asia and the United States a number of times in the past seven years) because it allows negotiators to approach it on several different, and mutually compatible, levels. Historians can interact with the purely factual version of the art which Masaya practices on request, a fact which the national Bunraku Theatre has recognized and supports through regular performances with the Yoshida Otome Bunraku troupe which is based there. Followers of a less dogmatic nature can appreciate the historic associations which the art has while at the same time enjoying the very accessible nature of the most common dance performances. Even people who see themselves primarily as aficionados of the more experimental nature of performance art are catered to by Kiritake Masaya both at her regular performances, which always feature something of a more esoteric feel, and the few avant-garde evenings which she participates in each year along with like minded performers.

However, not everyone seems to agree that this relatively new performance art is worthy of inclusion among the great folk arts of Japan. Indeed, it is not an uncommon thought among more conservative bunraku aficionados that Osaka otome bunraku should simply be written out of the overall history of Japanese puppet art as one man's deluded and quite unnatural attempt to resurrect an art which had died a natural death. This view I find to be reprehensible, in that it does not take into account the fact that one cannot simply erase something which has been an important part of a process of artistic/social development for so long. One has to simply accept that the otome bunraku of Kiritake Masaya is as valid a part of the history of ningyō shibai as any other, having developed a base of negotiators who signify it in a variety of internally important ways. Indeed, it might be considered to be one of the most important of the revival communities because of the way in which its development demonstrates that 'folk' culture has always had just as much a part to play in the development of urban social realities as it has within the more commonly recognized rural environments. Osaka Otome Bunraku was developed as a response to the significations of the specific social reality of an increasingly cosmopolitan Osaka. Its revival continues to reflect the conflict between 'tradition and change' and as long as people such as Kiritake Masaya and Kiritake Masako are willing to experiment with the boundaries of that debate, then otome bunraku will always have a place in the city of its birth.


This conflict between internal and external negotiators is at the heart of modern otome bunraku (indeed, all such cultural revival) and it would seem that it always has been: the way in which everyone in this process of negotiation, from performer to patron, openly recognizes that the art which they are helping to signify is a completely artificial creation which very imperfectly seeks to recreate a hugely diverse world of feminine artistic involvement in traditional art into a single figure on stage. This is not to say that the agents who are involved in other revived cultural properties are completely oblivious to the artificiality of their property's revival. However, in these cases we find a great deal of negotiation taking place among the parties involved to obfuscate the worst excesses of revival in order to create something which appears more traditional than it actually is. In the world of otome bunraku however (though this is true for performing art in general), there appears to exist among the art's supporters not just a tacit acceptance of the constructed nature of otome bunraku, but what can only be described as a real passion, especially among art groups which experiment with the traditions of musume jōruri in their work, for the art's historically ambiguous nature. Indeed, as Kiritake Masaya tells us:

One of my more ardent fan-clubs has taken to portraying me as a sort of reborn [Izumo-no-] Okuni, in that I have seemingly taken everything which the male cultural establishment holds dear in their traditional arts and do as I will with those treasured things. It is certainly true that I hold nothing as completely sacred and I am certainly happy to engage in something if it offends the sensibilities of some elite observer. However, it must be also said that a thing stays in my performance repertoire only as long as it is profitable, which is to say that it can easily find an appreciative audience which is willing to pay hard earned money to see it. Thus, though I am certainly happy to call myself a feminist or political performer, I am little more than a common ningyō mawashi, peddling my skills for a bowl of rice. Yet, it matters little what I think about myself when compared to what others think about me or my art, and this seems to change on a daily basis.

Kiritake Masaya: Artistic Director, Otome Bunraku Troupe.
Interview with the author, January 6 2002.

Essentially no-one seems to mind that otome bunraku is not quite Heian period kagura, nor Kamakura period sangaku, nor Muromachi period sekkyo, nor Edo period (brothel) ningyō jōruri even though it is held up as one of these arts' logical successors. The specifics of what happens on stage is unimportant when measured against the signification which has been built up around the art (from the very beginning) as being somehow more rebellious than other traditional arts and encapsulating an important aspect of a radical response to the increasing social entrenchment of formal cultural revival, in that otome bunraku has never made any pretence about reviving anything, if it has anything at all to revive at all.

Master Kiritake's interpretation of otome bunraku seems to survive very well in the contemporary setting. Indeed, her work seems to actually flourish, if the regular overseas trips, constant professional bookings and ardent fan-clubs are any indication. This seems to be due to the fact that, of all the samples of revived Japanese puppet art under discussion in this article, it is the one which is most easily and frequently re-signified by its negotiators as circumstances demand.

First, both Master Kiritake and Master Kiritake are unusual in that they accept that all they do is essentially the intellectual property of their patrons and it is only by the will of the audience that any performances take place at all. Theirs is a world in which the art itself is less important than the audience's expectations and this has effectively, and possibly accidentally, resulted in the perfect re-creation of the sort of mutable theatrical environment which so many other revived properties strive to be. Without wishing to oversimplify the case, this state can be attributed simply to the fact that these practitioners recognize the essentially commercial nature of all artistic activity and the important part that negotiation between creator and consumer plays in the development, or preservation, of things such as otome bunraku.

Nishinomiya's puppet rites to Ebisu will always be focussed on that ekibyogami because of the way in which that very immutable deity is central to a number of social and religious significations which cannot be altered by anyone: take away the kami and the rite falls apart. In a similar fashion North Tonda's traditional puppet theatre is rooted so firmly within the geographical setting of that Shiga village, the historical setting of the 1835 blizzard which founded it and the artistic setting of its contact with the Bunraku-za, that it would be impossible to exploit it in any other way than its supporters have done. Moreover, in the case of Shikoku's Takenoko Puppet Theatre the revival has become so tied up to the artistic vision of a handful of great Masters from Yanagii Juzō to Ikehara Yukio that, though the site comes close to being what otome bunraku is, its supporters will never be free to alter its overall signification too far without risk of damaging what they have built up.

Otome bunraku's founders are largely perceived as never speaking in terms of stylistic associations, geographical roots, artistic fundamentals or the role of founding Masters, and this has grounded the art in what can only be accurately described as a culturally neutral middle ground between the various social realities to which it has been linked up in the years since it was let loose by the Bunraku-za and had to find its own level through constant re-negotiation. Otome bunraku has become an art which is able to speak to everyone, in many different ways, without running the risk of damaging the fundamentals of the 'tradition' if only for the very practical reason that no-one knows where to start assigning such matters to the art, and as such is a performance tradition which is beholden to no other form, save in ways which its practitioners choose and its other negotiators support.

Further Reading

Coaldrake. A. Kimi. (1997). Women's Gidayū and The Japanese Theatre Tradition. London: Routledge.

Boyd, Julianne. Mamana. (1987). The Bunraku Puppet Theatre From 1945 to 1964. New York: University Microfilms International.

Doi Jun'ichi (1995) Otome bunraku no kenkyū. In: Ryūkoku daigaku ronshū, Vol. 44
Miyake, Shutaro. (1948). 'Bunraku ha Shinu-no-ka?' In, Jiron. Tokyo: Jidiaisha.

Omori, Tetsuro. (1989). Bunraku Mondai Yuron. Osaka: Kaiho Shuppansha.

Yamagawa, Junichi. (1994). Bunraku no Onna. Kyoto: Tanko sha.

Homepage of Kiritake Masaya.


1. This article has been extracted from a larger parent work (a recently completed doctoral thesis) which explores the current state of revival among Japanese non-elite puppet theatre groups in the Kansai region−with particular regard to the processes of negotiation which underpin the day-to-day running of such theatres. However, whilst this might make the piece seem rather awkward. Even after careful stitching it is hoped that it remains an interesting work in that it offers up a very unusual aspect of Japanese performing art to scrutiny: women's puppet theatre.

2. Kiritake Masako: Puppeteer, Shingi-za/Master, Kiritake Masako Otome Bunraku. Interview with the author, December 9 2001.

3. The classical three man puppet theatre which was made popular in the cities of Edo and Osaka in the early 1600s.

4. Law, Jane. M. (1997). Puppets of Nostalgia. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Plowright, Poh-Sim. (2002). Mediums, Puppets and the Human Actor in the Theatres of the East. New York: Edwin Mellen Press. Coaldrake, A. Kimi. (1997). Women's Gidayū and The Japanese Theatre Tradition. London: Routledge.

5. One of many variant terms used to describe female forms of theatre (both with and without puppets) in Edo period Japan: other popularly used terms include onna gidayū [women's chanting] and musume gidayū [girl's chanting]. Coming with the rising popularity of pleasure quarter theatres, the terms seem to have been conceived to reflect the 'initial' popular view that such theatres were not replacements for the arts outside the floating world, but were a more feminine adjunct to them. In this work two terms are used. Musume jōruri is used to refer to the arts of female puppeteering in general, whilst otome bunraku is used to refer to the forms created, and maintained, by those people associated with with Kiritake Masako's company.

6. The sessions were loosely structured and were not designed to be seen as interviews, more like conversations, with the hope being that this would take some stress out of the situations and encourage everyone to speak more freely−to which end the nature of the equipment being used (micro-fine USB voice recorders and non intrusive microphones, laptop recording etc.) contributed greatly. It must be noted that each of the discussions took place in the context of a broader web of such conversations and which took place with the other sample theatres in the original study. As questions begat answers so these points were put to the other troupes in order to see how alternate viewpoints were viewed by the very different theatres. The interviews were translated by the author and a research assistant (Ms Nakajima Taeko) and transcribed to a text file in English.

7. Founded in 1185 by the ascetic monk Jien, the temple has long been associated with the worship of the Buddhist powers which rule over death, the Hells, and rebirth. The majority of buildings being destroyed in 1944, during the firebombing of the centre of Osaka. The Ishinji's focus of worship is a statue of the Amitabha Buddha which has been fashioned from the cremated remains of worshippers.

8. The observations for this description were taken on the April 13 2001 at the Ishinji Temple, between the hours of 3 and 10 pm.

9. Coaldrake, A. Kimi. (1997). Women's Gidayū and The Japanese Theatre Tradition. London: Routledge.

10. Though the Tokugawa authorities firmly maintained that they ruled over a completely unified nation, the country was, as their own commentators faithfully attested, essentially in a state of uneasy neutrality, with many old loyalist (pro-Hideyoshi) families only partially under the control of the state.

11. It eventually covered more than twenty acres and existed as an isolated, and very recognizable, other-world of physical pleasure quite at odds with the moral landscape of the 'ideal' Tokugawa city.

12. With the shrines and temples on the banks of the Kamo River in Kyoto being the hub of the kabuki scene in the Kansai.

13. Although this sort of performance, noted from the early 1700s onwards, is possibly representative of brothels catching onto the popularity of musume theatre and training some of their courtesans in basic performance techniques.

14. The sexual farces of the Tokugawa period would, in the late 1600s, actually make their way out of the pleasure quarters and, in the hands of male performers, become a very popular part of the lower end of the mainstream puppet art environment, known to followers as the noroma [dunce puppets]. Probably devised by Noromatsu Kambei, the noroma puppet plays revolved around five basic characters; a lecherous old magistrate/scholar, his nymphomaniac wife, a corrupt military official, that officer's wily young sister/wife and a crafty prostitute/maid (who always seems to be the ultimate winner in these plays). The magistrate was considered to be the central character, and most plays centred on the other puppets repeatedly taking advantage of the old man's sexual frustration, expressed through a huge, articulated water spraying phallus, in order to gain concessions from him. A fierce, and very Punch-like, form of social criticism, the art did not remain popular for long when removed from the pleasure quarters and, by the mid 1700s, all the noroma theatres had been closed, save on Sado, to which the art is said to have passed with one of the island's prisoners in the 1680s (Sado Island is currently the only place where noroma can be seen in revival).

15. It is interesting to note, though by no means provable, that, according to Eisai Ishibushi, the great jōruri Master was a patron of several musume jōruri theatres in both Kyoto and Osaka brothels in his youth, taking from the time he spent in such places a very acute knowledge of how important a role true emotional, and not just sexual, catharsis played in developing a the structure of a narrative. Eisai Ishibushi: Vice Chief Priest of the Kozai Temple and Chikamatsu Monzaemon Shrine. Interview with the author, December 9 2001.

16. Only word of mouth could be used to promote certain theatres outside the pleasure quarters.

17. Most male performers from outside the pleasure quarters would not risk their careers by training musume jōruri troupes on a regular basis.

18. After female only troupes were consigned to the pleasure quarters, they could either recruit directly from the brothels (indeed many retired prostitutes seem to have joined such theatres as managers, cleaners, etc.) which was always a hit and miss affair, or from the poorer ranks of peasant society outside (which was likewise an imperfect solution, in that the sort of people who would be willing to sell a daughter into a pleasure quarter were more likely to wish to sell to a brothel which could afford to pay more than an unattached theatre).

19. Although even small pleasure districts could boast of their bishonen [handsome youth] male prostitutes.

20. Kiritake Masako: Puppeteer, Shingi-za/Master, Kiritake Masako Otome Bunraku. Interview with the author, December 9 2001.

21. Such as 'Bakudan Sanjushi' [Three Heroic Human Bombs]. Several such 'modern' plays were written and performed during the 1930s, all focussing on themes of military loyalty and the duty of the Japanese to civilize Asia, but few have been performed since the end of the war.

22. Sujōruri is a form of gidayū theatre which has been stripped of all its puppets/actors and scenery and presents the narrative elements of a play through the medium of a tayū and shamisen player. However, it is a far more complex thing than simply 'stripped down' kabuki or ningyō jōruri, in that the narratives in question take on a very different character when performed without a visual component. Its roots technically reach back as far as the Kamakura period, during which itinerant biwa hoshi [lute priests], were popular entertainers. However, it is commonly thought to have become popular as a form in the early seventeenth century, as a way for people to enjoy theatre in the setting of the home. It is essentially ningyō jōruri theatre without puppets. The form had long been very popular in amateur theatre circles and in the regions.

23. As these young Masters were being paid whether they performed or not, letting them form up the Shingi-za seemed as good a way of minimizing the overall losses to the parent company.

24. Kiritake Masako: Puppeteer, Shingi-za/Master, Kiritake Masako Otome Bunraku. Interview with the author, December 9 2001.

25. Kiritake Masako: Puppeteer, Shingi-za/Master, Kiritake Masako Otome Bunraku. Interview with the author, December 9 2001.

26. Kiritake Masako: Puppeteer, Shingi-za/Master, Kiritake Masako Otome Bunraku. Interview with the author, December 9 2001.

27. As is common in traditional Japanese theatre, Kiritake Masako awarded her disciple with a performance name on the completion of her apprenticeship.

28. Umazume Masaru: Former Director, Awaji Ningyō Jōruri Theatre. Interview with the author, July 15 2001.

29. To compete with the ebullient girls theatres which had taken over much of the Osaka entertainment scene on the back of the success of the Takarazuka Review.

30. These, by this time, were becoming quite difficult to piece together anyway, as the, very, few surviving troupes had, it seems, been less than thorough in recording the day to day practicalities of performance. Added to the fact that, as yet, the academy was not really interested in women's puppet art revival and could/would not devote the level of research required to facilitate an accurate reconstruction of an Edo period musume jōruri troupe.

31. Save in the way that he and Oe Minnosuke used the experiences which Hayashi Jiboku gained at the Osaka Radium Spa to speed up the process of education.

32. Kiritake Masako: Puppeteer, Shingi-za/Master, Kiritake Masako Otome Bunraku. Interview with the author, December 9 2001

33. It can be argued that western theatres, in the style of the Moulin Rouge, did not create the Japanese fascination for female review, but simply took advantage of a popular signification which had, by the 1870s, only just been fully released from the geographical bondage of the pleasure quarters and already had many adherents in the cities of the Meiji period.

About the author

Darren-Jon Ashmore gained his PhD in 2005 from the School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield. His work focuses on the role of non-elite forms of art in Japan from the perspective of the cultural anthropologist. His primary interest is the way in which different groups lay claim to shared cultural properties in different ways and essentially negotiate their perceived 'reality' for the larger community. He is currently working on the revival of agricultural puppet rituals on Shikoku and their transformation into pure art under the aegis of international sponsors such as UNIMA.

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Copyright: Darren-Jon Ashmore
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