Mar. 2, 2009
PG puppetry: Japanese puppets used to depict sex, sin and violence
Unlike in other countries, "in the United States people have the impression that puppets are for children," said Jane Marie Law, Cornell associate professor of Japanese religion and local expert in Awaji Puppet Theater.
Yet for many, such as the Japanese, puppets are used in religious rites of appeasement and blessing, Law said at a press conference Feb. 12 at the A.D. White House, held prior to the Awaji Puppet Theater performances in Cornell's Bailey and Barnes Halls, Feb. 24-25.
The Japanese Awaji puppetry tradition, dating back to the 16th century on Awaji Island, combines dramatic recitation, puppet manipulation and shamisen (a three-stringed lute) musical accompaniment. Awaji puppet artists were famous throughout Japan for their ritual expertise, Law said.
The puppets are used in performances, she said, that include "sex, transgression and violence"; some puppets depict hermaphrodites, prostitutes, wounded and lacerated individuals, alcoholics and the diseased. The puppets, Law said, were sometimes used to represent demons or be possessed by demons, and "had a history of being tied to the afterlife and bringing back the dead."
The performances at Cornell highlighted the Awaji puppet's elaborate theater sets, costumes and props, and highly refined mechanisms that manipulate the facial expressions of the puppets.
Awaji puppets are sometimes "creepy," she said. "Children may be frightened by some of the graphic depictions of Awaji puppetry."
The puppets are brilliantly and intricately designed. "[They] are incredibly expensive, so beautiful, even priceless works of art," Law said.
"It is our responsibility to protect this unique artwork and form," she added.
The Awaji Puppet Theater visit was sponsored by the Cornell East Asia Program, Japan Society, Japan Foundation and Agency for Cultural Affairs.
Graduate student Marcus Walter is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.