Aug 12

Available from Hobbylink Japan


Dolls, Not Action Figures… 😉

Though I spend much of my time here making up mechs and vehicles, my professional line is in dolls and puppets: the history, development and use (ritual and secular) of human and animal effigies.

At my university, I teach a number of courses which intersect with my research – from anime and manga history, to Japanese society and, of course traditional theater. I was raised in a household in which professional puppeteers (Punch and Judy) spoke of their creations in interchangeable terms – dolls, puppets, and figures in all the same way. Indeed, I remember my Grandad’s humorous chuckling when I insisted that my Action Man and Star Wars toys were ‘totally not dolls’, but action figures…

It is something which causes a great deal of contention in the collecting World today, with different groups signifying their preferred collectibles – be it traditional ceramic figures, puppets, Super Dollfies, RAH, fixed pose figures or whatever – in a way which separates them from the view we have of dolls being unacceptable for grownups…

Toys in general, for that matter.

Now I understand what tickled my Grandad so much when I was young.

No matter how much I might have denied it, I was playing with and collecting dolls.

And that’s Cool and the Gang!

Call them what you will; signify them in whichever way suits your own sense of purpose.

If you are here, reading this review, you are part of a much larger collective of fans than you might realize. However, the reasons behind this fascination we have with the human form enshrined in an inhuman vessel are fascinating indeed, so I propose to turn this unboxing into quite a rambling address on what I love about dolls.

I’m going to use Japan as the case-study here, as it is what I know best, but much the same applies across the world.


Negotiating History: Dolls in Japan’s Past

To understand the importance of dolls in contemporary Japanese society – traditional and popular – it is necessary to examine them within a historical context, and especially with regard to early religious use, from which all modern Japanese attitudes to ningyou (人形:doll) develop. Here we are dealing with the very stuff of creation, body doubles, puppet ghost busters, and effigies used to cure disease. It is a grand story, and one which might give you an insight to your own collections, and your attitudes to your own dolls.

However, where to begin?

There are many individual stories concerning the origins of doll lore in Japan.

Some, no doubt, are fantasies; others clear exaggerations; and yet more seem to be complex weavings of myth and fact, impossible now to untangle fully. Yet, each one of these stories possesses an undeniable significance to the Japanese.

The most important of these legends is the story of the kugutsu [puppet][1], about which almost nothing is known for certain, but a very great deal has become ‘fact,’ as folklorists, practitioners and scholars have essentially negotiated a reality for the few scraps of information which they possess.

The word itself possibly derives from the Altaic term kukli [doll or puppet], or the Chinese kuirui [puppet],[2] and probably arrived in Japan in the late Asuka (500-710) or early Nara (710-794) periods with one of the final waves of migration from Korea. However, kugutsu (also pronounced kairaishi) only really comes to notice with the popularization of a short Heian period (794-1160) poem known as the “Kairaishi-ki[3],” written by the court scholar Oe Masafusa (1041-1111), in which the lifestyle of an ill-disciplined group of itinerants, known to the author as the kugutsu, is described in some detail. The body of the poem makes it clear that Masafusa perceived the kugutsu as the antithesis of court, portraying them as untamed wildlings who practiced all manner of rebellious activities with which the incumbents of the capital were unlikely to be involved. However, the way the text is written also indicates that that these kugutsu were not being viewed in a negative light by the author, in that Masafusa never goes as far as admonishing their behavior and, actually, makes their lifestyle seem rather mysterious and attractive.

Though this ambiguous quality of the text itself already makes the poem’s interpretation very problematic for the researcher, this is further exacerbated by two equally unusual facts. First is that the poem is not only written in the style of the Chinese court of the period, but is also littered throughout with, according to Yamaji Kozo, poetic devices and references to continental cultural practices which are not noted anywhere else in the surviving native literary or historical records and can therefore only have been lifted directly from existing Chinese works[4]. Secondly, the term kugutsu itself, meaning a specific group of people, causes a problem of interpretation in that this definition appears in no literary sources prior to the date of the “Kairaishi-ki” and in only a small handful of subsequent texts, most of which are commentaries on Masafusa’s work or court diaries whose authors could simply have adopted the term from the “Kairaishi-ki.” Thus it becomes very hard for the researcher to either accurately place Masafusa’s source of inspiration or to establish what sort of impact the “Kairaishi-ki” had on the signification of these, so called, kugutsu in subsequent generations outside the court.


Further stalling research into the text is the way in which the Japanese academy is effectively polarised between two very hostile camps concerning the historical accuracy of the “Kairaishi-ki.” If, like Kawatake Toshio, the researcher argues for a factual interpretation of the text, this automatically places Masafusa’s kugutsu at the center of subsequent developments in ritual puppet arts in that the story contains all the basic elements which later appear as part of the ritual puppet art of religious complexes[5]. However, to argue from such a position requires that a researcher also address the important issue of the lack of material directly relating to the existence of kugutsu as people before and after the popularisation of the “Kairaishi-ki.” This stems from the fact that if the poem had been written as an accurate representation of the lives of an identifiable cultural group, it is unlikely that the “Kairaishi-ki” would be the only available examination of their ways. If however, the researcher follows Tsunoda Ichiro in seeing the work exclusively as a poetic exercise in Chinese court verse, this would conveniently allow the seemingly out-of-place continental motifs and descriptions of nomadic lifestyle which appear in the poem to be explained as licence[6]. However, as Donald Keene has demonstrated, while Chinese court literature of this period often served as the inspiration for Japanese court writing, this level of borrowing is unknown in the archives of the classical era (500-1185, Asuka to Taira periods) and thus cannot simply be written off as a court convention. Moreover, accepting this raises the question of why Masafusa would create such an elaborate, and obvious, deception before attempting to present it as fact, requiring that the scholar account for the albeit very sparse references to the kugutsu outside the context of the poem[7].

To a very great degree, the Kawatake and Inoura argument that the text refers to an identifiable moment in Heian period cultural development, still seems to be the most commonly held belief in both Japanese academic and folklore circles. Supported by the work of such well-respected scholars as Noma Shoji and Mori Shinroku, the existence of Masafusa’s kugutsu provides a very convenient and wholly ‘folk’ starting point for the development of puppet theatre customs. As a result, it still persists as a plausible explanation, especially in the folk art community, where scholarship is often required to conform to the self-mythologizing of professional performers. Indeed, according to Ikehara Yukio, the resilience of the Masafusa-poem-as-founding-myth may be found very much in the way that the Japanese academic establishment and the groups which are perceived to have descended from the kugutsu have collectively negotiated the meaning of the text as a way to put a much-needed sense of closure on certain revived folk customs, each supporting the other in pursuit of their own redefinition of Masafusa’s puppeteers[8]. This is especially important because in most cases, accurate histories for such properties do not exist and the temptation for their revivers to extrapolate backwards to a suitable starting point, whether or not their choice can be justified, has often proved to be all too tempting, as is the case with the National Bunraku Theatre[9]. Certainly the Masafusa poem does provide an exceptional example of folk arts as being part of Japan’s own classical period. The poem, being regionally specific, has allowed art groups in the areas mentioned to take up the kugutsu as something akin to folk heroes, whose work stands as validation for ‘allied’ groups’ contemporary activities. It is also a socially vague text, in that the narrative seems to place the culture of the puppet stage somewhere between the common and elite environments, and has allowed groups concerned with burakumin [people of the village][10] rights, folk cultural revival and even elite art to claim the kugutsu traditions as their own, often simply labelling established properties as kugutsu in an attempt to give them valid cultural boundaries[11]. It might even be fair to say that because of the artificially crafted reality which now surrounds it, the “Kairaishi-ki” has ceased to be the subject of rational research and has become an object of faith for various scholarly groups which wish to prove or disprove it, and for native performance cliques whose members wish to exploit its pedigree to bring credibility to their work. Indeed the text is now so deadlocked interpretively that it has become, as Jane Marie Law suggests, totally impenetrable, with most agents on both sides of the argument having abandoned any attempt at rational debate and simply standing by, or condemning, Masafusa’s work; seemingly dependent only on how successful they have been in negotiating access to the Masafusa signification[12].


Perhaps it is because of the complex nature of this work that very few people outside Japan have taken up the Masafusa poem as part of either research into puppet theatre or as part of the broader issue of early Japanese interactive social development. Donald Keene did address this issue in his overview work “Bunraku” in the 1960s, but only to the extent that he acknowledged that many scholars in Japan viewed the poem as being historically accurate. This seems to be due to the highly inaccessible nature of the poem itself. The work is poorly supported by contemporary records, neither are there any commercial translations or commentaries currently available to inspire further interest in the West. Moreover, being the focus of so much academic acrimony in modern Japan seems to have made use of the “Kairaishi-ki” difficult in any serious context. However, in the last few years, Jane Marie Law has turned to the document, and her intriguing theory on the purpose of Masafusa’s poem not only seems to balance out the problems associated with the hostile debate between the history versus fiction argument, but also expands the importance of the “Kairaishi-ki” as a contextual tool for understanding changing perceptions of common Japanese culture.

Law’s theory holds that the poem is factual to the degree that it was actually inspired by the lives of a wide variety of historical itinerant entertainers and ritual specialists, including puppeteers, but that these groups have been signified in such a way by Masafusa that their individual lifestyles have been merged in the author’s poem and all appear under the same banner of kugutsu to him. Everything about his description of these people is distant and mysterious; tied into Heian society very superficially and only in ways which secure the myth of the poem to the audience. Masafusa’s fondness for Chinese literary motifs for example, though probably only internally recognizable to his peers at court[13], are the most extreme example of this, but he does not limit his writing to such word games. Placing the main force of his kugutsu in the sparsely-populated and wilder regions of the land he is emphasizing the peripheral, even foreign, nature of his performers, as these areas were in the eleventh century the frontier between the Yamato state and the island’s as yet-unconquered clans.

Even Masafusa’s choice of name – kugutsu – seems wholly appropriate for his puppeteers because of the very liminal qualities it possessed in the language of the Heian period, carrying several distinct definitions[14] which lent magical qualities to these puppeteers. It was something of a generic term that could be used to describe many things, and it is this that may have been the reason why Masafusa selected the term to describe his own generic other, for these people were truly kugutsu to him, no matter what they might have been within the larger context of Heian society: they were his puppets, strung up to his pen and subject to his will. Fundamentally though, the fact that the kugutsu probably never existed as Masafusa imagined them is of little importance when compared to the influence that the signification of otherness which he seems to have imposed on his puppeteers had on subsequent generations. As Law reminds us, he had created a group, he had named it and given it a reality based on his, or his social group’s, preferred understanding of outcaste peoples in general. For many this view must have come to have some value, especially if, as often happens with the work of the writer, the generations which followed Masafusa mistook the original intent of the poem, possibly as unknown to them as it is to us, as historical fact[15].


The Puppet and Pollution

If we are to accept that the kugutsu of the “Kairaishi-ki” did not exist in the form stated, but were an elite literary interpretation of outcaste communities in general, some of whom manipulated puppets in their rituals, then it is also required to ascertain what evidence exists for ritual use of dolls outside the parameters of the Masafusa poem, as practiced in the context of the fringe folk arts of outcaste peoples.

As has been said before, part of the reason why the “Kairaishi-ki” is considered such an important source for native scholars of Japanese doll history is the general dearth of ancient and medieval sources on the subject in the Japanese record. However, one interesting document does exist which re-enforces the position that puppet arts were practiced, or at least understood, as part of a signification that fell outside that of the “Kairaishi-ki”, the Usa Hachiman-gu Hojō-e Engi [The Usa Hachiman Rite for the Pacification of Souls]. Recorded by the priests of the modern Oita Prefecture Usa Hachiman Shrine complex, the text describes the creation of a still-practiced hojō-e and the part that puppets played in its formation. Essentially, it suggests that sometime during the Yorō age (717-724) of Empress Geshō (rd. 715-724), the Hayato clan of Kyushu rebelled, fortifying seven large fortresses in their home province, before being besieged by imperial forces. According to the rite, only when warrior priests from the influential Usa Hachiman-gu Shrine were persuaded to join the battle with an array of puppets did the sieges end, the defending soldiery being enticed from their bastions to watch the Hachiman performance before being taken prisoner and executed. In the years following the battle, the Hachiman shrine incorporated several presentations from the battle, including the dance of the puppets into a new hojō-e and, when perfected in 745, the Hachiman priests were able to negotiate with Emperor Shōmu the granting of an imperial charter to practice the rite, on behalf of the state, to quell a plague that was felt to stem from the souls of the dead Hayato warriors[16].


It seems unreasonable to suggest that the sieges of the Hayato campaign themselves did not actually take place, for though no first hand accounts of the engagements exist, it is known that the Hayato were one of the clans which fought during the division of northern Kyushu into the realms of Buzen and Bungo in the eighth century[17]. Moreover, it is a commonly accepted local legend on Kyushu that the shamans and warrior-priests of this age often accompanied soldiers into battle to work their magic in war, with several more continental sources supporting the Japanese use of such ritual specialists[18]. However, whether or not the Hayato were actually distracted by Usa Hachiman-gu puppeteering cannot be directly proven and, in truth, it does seem rather unlikely. However, this is not the important issue. The fact that the later narrative about the battle, the power of Hachiman and the souls of dead Hayato, includes important references to ritual puppeteering demonstrates that puppets were already being considered as objects of religious power by influential social negotiators in Japan.

According to Kadoya Mitsuaki and Yamamoto Reiko, Japanese dolls and puppets have long been thought of as a powerful expression of both the divine and the mundane, possessing a dual existence as both animate and inanimate objects which can move easily from one state to the other at the will of their manipulators[19]. In a ritual context, this allows the puppet to be both physical and spiritual in the same instant, creating a tangible vessel through which mundane significations of the spiritual might be expressed and from which an agent might receive the favor of the spirits in return[20]. Thus, because of the way in which the native faith has always been based around possession rituals, puppets have likewise been thought to have the ability to house or express all the physical, emotional and intellectual characteristics of the spirits which are associated with them[21].

Resulting from a mixture of shamanistic influence and respect for the human form, the best example of this innate spirituality in the ningyō [puppet or doll] can be seen at the Awashima Shrine in Wakayama Prefecture. Built in the Edo period as a center for the worship of the bodhisattva [Buddhist Saint] Kannon, the current temple has become home to thousands of dolls, puppets, and other figurines which have been deposited by owners who have become fearful of the spirits which they sense within the effigies. In 2001 alone the temple, according to Kawanishi Hiroko, gathered about one thousand ningyō into the shrine, raising the total possessed by the centre to over ten thousand ningyō. This is in addition to the hundreds which were ceremoniously destroyed on the third day of March: either by being floated out to sea each year or burned to release the spirits within them[22].

In this sense the puppet becomes a direct interface not only for humanity to negotiate access to the realm of the spirits, but also a way for that realm to access the mundane world and, through that, the already complex significations of man and spirit are given an intriguing alternate frame, in which the relationship between puppet and manipulator becomes representative of the relationship between mankind and the gods. However, as Obayashi Taro reminds us, some of the kami of Japanese native beliefs were not always viewed as the benign figures of modern Shinto, but as stern elemental beings with potentially cataclysmic powers at their command, balancing out the blessings that they also bestowed on their faithful worshippers[23]. Nakayama Taro further suggests that it is from this wild elemental nature, when bound up in the control of specially trained shamans or priests, that we begin to see the notions of taboo and pollution which came to signify access to the kami by the time large-scale records begin in the early imperial period. His argument is that Japanese ritual specialists, probably following continental traditions of shamanism, protected their positions within society with taboos surrounding the forms which were required to negotiate with the spirits effectively (rigorous training, sacred objects, special language etc.) and that a notion of contamination, taken through illicit contact with a spirit or sacred object/site, was one such bar[24].

An interesting parallel with the puppet as mediator can be found in the kagura, a dance ritual dedicated to negotiation with the spirits. First recorded in the legend of Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto in “Kojiki”, this ceremony seems to have been conceived as a way for a shrine to attract and contain a spirit in order that the kami may be persuaded to provide favors in return for being entertained. The interesting aspect of this is that the agent who actually interacts with the kami during the ritual is not a priest but a trained maiden whose sole job is to abjure spirits and contain them within a prepared vessel, a gōshintai [protective body]. Generally called miko [Spirit child], these girls are able to safely traverse the taboos regarding contacting the kami, something which even priests may not do safely, and aid supplicants in their negotiation with spirits without too much risk to themselves. Nakayama Taro believes that the work of the miko actually derives from the way in which shamans were often drawn into working at shrines in the Nara period, allowing the incorporation of established matriarchal rituals into the increasingly male dominated Yamato state religion[25]. However, whatever the reason, the practical result seems to have been the creation of an extension of the signification of the relationship between kami and the mundane world. At one time, the shaman would have dominated all aspects of the negotiation between spirit and man, a dangerous connection that placed only one fragile gatekeeper between a largely unknown power and the world of the living. However in breaking the position of the shaman down into separate areas of power and making them part of the state religion, not only was the well-known old faith tamed to the will of the new state, but the relationships between mankind and the gods were also reduced in power by giving greater order to the rituals involved. The priest controlled the rites in general, while the miko negotiated with spirits directly and controlled the boundaries of their manifestation, while the prepared vessel became the mediation point between the two worlds.


It is the potential for violence which was thought to exist within the kami that, according to Law, probably created both the need for puppets in a ritual context and ritually adept individuals to manipulate them. Of all the kami which are enshrined around Japan, only a very few have been known to number puppeteers among their retinues. Known as the ekibyō-gami [spirits of disease (control)], they included Hachiman, Ebisu-Hyakudayu of Nishinomiya, and Sanbaso[26] among them. Each one of these spirits represents both violent and benign forces to their worshippers, to a much greater degree than any other kami in the Japanese heavens[27]. Regular worship of these deities could, according to Yoshii Sadatoshi, be very dangerous and the pollution emitting from these kami, especially from the jovial Ebisu, was perceived as being in excess of anything a miko alone might easily contain. Only when bearing an effigy of the kami, created in the image of the most benign aspect of the spirit, could a manipulator be employed to calm them during rituals[28].

This notion of extreme pollution might also be used to explain why we do not see records of shrine miko handling puppets even at the Ebisu and Usa shrines in the historical record. Both sites are known to have employed miko, but it was puppeteers from sanjō districts, areas in which outcaste people were permitted to live, who actually handled the sacred puppets, which Yoshii Sadatoshi explains as something like religious apartheid.

“At a shrine as important [as Nishinomiya], miko, who were never easy to locate in the first place[29], were certainly not going to be of common stock. The job was seen as a worthy position for the daughters of minor nobles or bushi [warriors] to have until they married, you see. The chance of being contaminated by the kami [Ebisu-Hyakudayū] during a ritual was something which the shrine could not afford, especially considering the violent nature of the military classes, and so miko were barred from puppet rituals as a matter of course.”[30]

Perhaps this represents a rather prosaic way of looking at the relationship between outcaste people, kami, and puppet, but one that should not be taken lightly. Removing pollution resulting from contact with most kami was, as Tsurumi Kazuko describes, a fairly simple affair of subjecting oneself to a cleansing ritual to acknowledge the breaking of a taboo. However, as ekibyō-gami contact was perceived to result in very tangible plagues, perhaps this is why transgressions against Ebisu, for example, were, when not punished directly by the kami, subject to rites of cleansing comparable to physical pollution with blood or dead flesh, the most potent of contamination to the Japanese[31].

This alone might account for the prominence of outcaste peoples in the rites of such dangerous deities. However, Law makes one more intriguing suggestion regarding the status of the ekibyō-gami which seems to strengthen their connection to the outcaste community. It has long been thought that the Seven Gods of Fortune, of which Ebisu is one, were in fact Japanese variants of the Great Immortal Sages of China[32]. Certainly they have always been depicted with dark skins and continental costumes, and are manifest in legends that always involve travel from a far-off place to the site of their worship in Japan, the epitome of otherness one might say. In fact all the ekibyō-gami might be described as liminal deities, not part of the imperial family of powers, either through being imported, like Hachiman, or through being rejected, as one of Ebisu’s guises[33] was[34], and subject to the same sort of signification that marginal people have always been exposed to[35]. While all kami might be, to a degree, considered as representing an aspect of the other for society, certain exigencies also permit them to claim status within one or more groups. For example, it could be argued that the first truly unifying signification for the Japanese as a people was related to certain kami moving from their permanent status as external powers into a position of clan membership – in their new role as the ancestors to the founder of the imperial line.

However, the ekibyō-gami, having no real native connection to the state and, possessing an unmatched potential for good or evil in the physical world, have always been kept at arms’ length by the Japanese religious system. Their eventual (re)adoption by the state, always resulting from some powerful intervention that was interpreted as the anger of the kami manifested against humanity, should not be confused with true acceptance, because while all were created as patrons of luck or security, none were enshrined out of a sense of loyalty and only installed as national deities out of a fear of the power they might release if not constantly pacified. Indeed, returning to the Usa Hachiman-gu’s involvement with the rebellion of the Hayato, it is possible to see in the writings that describe the hojō-e, which evolved from the battle ritual itself, that Emperor Shōmu only installed the ritual to Hachiman after an epidemic of plague in the Yamato region, blamed on the dead souls of the Hayato acting through the will of Hachiman, let loose by the Bodhisattva after his work in ending the siege was not honored as it should have been.

The question as to what came first, the ekibyōgami or the outcaste person, is something of a chicken-and-egg question, made all the more impossible to answer due to the lack of sources for the period in which these associations must have been first evolving. However, the fact that most of these ekibyōgami are recorded as being officially enshrined by the state in the eighth century, the same period in which laws concerning the marginal status of outsider groups were being negotiated, has led Yoshii Sadatoshi to believe that the elite of the land effectively forced both kami and people into the same marginal space around Japanese clan groups because they were attempting to use both kami and outcaste people in the same way – further helping to define boundaries for their developing clan groups[36].


This is why the puppet is so important to certain branches of Japanese religion. Worship of a kami is not a one-way affair and anything which brings a supplicant close enough to engage with the spirit world also allows the occupants of that realm to affect the mundane. In effect, the power of the spirit is summoned to the physical realm and needs to be controlled in order to be of value to the community. However, unlike the familial spirits of the land such as Amaterasu, who can, thanks to the general intercession of the emperor, be appeased by the dancing of a young girl in effigy of lady Uzume, outsider spirits like Hachiman or Ebisu need stronger boundaries to confine them. A puppet can house ekibyōgami far more safely than could a miko. It can be used as a mobile shrine to the kami, which befits its liminal status, and can wander wherever disease or pollution require subduing. However, perhaps just as importantly, it acts as a protective interface. It allows humanity to interact with ekibyōgami, but prevents them from drawing too close to the spirit, as if the human, animate, nature of the puppet allows a degree of sympathetic signification, while the inanimate, material, nature of the object denies it. Moreover, it also creates an interface between different levels of society, creating a portable marginal space from behind which a outcaste manipulator might wield the power of their kami, while elite members of society, humbled just as any person is before the might of an implacable epidemic, offer up prayers, and respect, to both the kami and its bearers.

It is clear that the ritual puppeteer had become, by the end of the Heian Period, a very powerful cultural icon in the central regions of Japan. Whether they were considered outcaste or touched by the gods, the fact remains that they were effectively the only people, other than the emperor himself, who could negotiate contact between kami, who were worshipped out of dread of their contagious power, and mankind. Whether people admired or hated it is clear that, like with Oe Masafusa, the population of the country was fascinated with the work of the ritual puppeteer, and it is this interest in the ritual aspects of puppeteering that might best explain the popularity of the puppet’s secular incarnation in the theatre.

Well… We’ve rambled on a bit too much, I think and we still have a figure to discuss.

That being the case, I propose to leave part one here, with some close ups of the unboxing, and pick up with something on the anime doll boom of the last decade in the actual review itself.


RAH Kantai Collection (KanKolle) 1/6 scale Akagi Doll by Medicom

Medicom has really taken the challenge of Hot Toys to heart and really upped their game with their figures.
Post Madoka Magica releases have really picked up on all the things which I love about 1/6 scale anime figures.

I’ve always liked the idea that the aircraft carriers in Kantai Collection are represented as archers (not that I dislike the more traditional mecha-girl aspect of the other ships).

Now that Medicom has gone over full time to tampo-printing for eyes – as opposed to decals – I think the consistency as well as clarity have improved.

Flight deck shoulder armor? Can I get a ‘Squee!’ from someone?!


I’ve been a collector of 1/6 scale dolls since I was bought my first Action Man back in the day and I’ve always had a soft spot for the Medicom lines – from the Lupin series to the present day. I’ll admit to letting my Medicom purchases fall off recently, with all the attractive flash and bang coming out of Hot Toys. However, you know what they say about healthy competition… Medicom is really taking back the block and reminding everyone why they run this pitch!

Stay tuned for part 2, in which I tell you just how wonderful this latest doll is.

Spoiler… IT ROCKS!

Dr. Robodaz


[1] 傀儡 First noted in the Chinese historical records of the Han dynasty (206BC-317AD), these characters were, for many years, associated exclusively with religious and funerary effigies. Not until the middle of the Sui dynasty (589-618) are they recorded as referring to theatrical puppets.

[2] Donald Keene even suggested that the term might be tentatively traced to the Turkish kukla and the classical Greek koukla, both meaning puppet. See, Keene, D. Bunraku. (Page 19).

[3] “Kairaishi-ki” by Oe Masafusa (c. 1070). “Kugutsu are people with no permanent residences. They raise their tents at will under the heavens, as water and fodder demand: much in the fashion of the Northern horse-peoples [of China]. Kugutsu men are expert horse bowmen. Some juggle swords or up to seven balls or make peachwood puppets compete in wrestling contests. They can make these puppets seem as if they are alive and these performances come close to those of the Fish and Dragon Artists of China.* They can change sand or stones into gold coins, and transform grass or wood into animal forms [dazzling]+ the eyes of onlookers. Kugutsu women use makeup on their eyebrows, in order to make their appearance seem sad and grave. They swing their hips as the walk, daringly flash their teeth when they smile and use vermilion powder on their cheeks. Their performances speak of physical pleasure and their magic lures young men to them. Their parents and husbands recognize these facts and yet do not punish them. Rather, they actively assist their young women in dalliances with other travellers, who certainly seem to find union with these beauties worthwhile. Indeed, if these men are taken with their Kugutsu partners, they often lavish money, embroidered cloth, hairpins and lacquered boxes on the women, and [this is understandable as] there is not a person alive who would not accept such an experience as worth cherishing. The Kugutsu cultivate not one inch of land, nor gather even one twig of mulberry. As a result they have no connections to the authorities and are truly landless folk who drift along in life not knowing even the name of the ruler. [Moreover,] the Emperor knows the Kugutsu not at all and these folk enjoy life completely free from taxation, celebrating this fact at night in worship of the One Hundred Spirits, through animated dancing and drumming. Their focus of worship is an effigy of a male god with an enormous head. These people are strongly represented in the Eastern provinces of Mino, Mikawa and Tōtōmi. However, other Kugutsu also live south of the mountains [of the Japanese Alps] in the region of Harima. And some small groups can also be found in the west, in the areas of Saikai and Tajima, and these are considered to be the lowest of the people in status. Some of the better-known women among the Kugutsu are Komi, Nichi-yaku, Sanzensai, Manzai, Kogimi and Magogimi. They raise a great deal of dust when they sing and even the rafters of buildings are disturbed by the noise. Audiences are unable to control themselves and end up soaking [chewing?] the tassels of their hats. Agricultural songs, poetry, traveling songs, magical rituals, Buddhist chants, boatmen’s songs, roadside songs, and folk songs: it is not possible to list all the songs that Kugutsu use. The Kugutsu are one of the many things under heaven. How could a person fail to be moved by them?”

* The yulong manyan zhixi [transformation of fish and dragons].

+ The original is missing a character here and I use dazzling here after the work of Professor Jane Marie Law.

Original Japanese text provided (in photocopy form) by Yoshii Sadatoshi, drawn from Gunsho Ruijū Maki Kyū [A Collection of Texts Volume Nine] (1928). (pp 324-325).

[4] Yamaji, Kozo. (1986). “Kugutsu”. Chusei no Minshu to Geinō (中世の民衆と芸能) [The Arts and People of the Middle Ages]. Kyoto: Aunsha. (Page 55).

[5] Inoura, Yoshinobu., and Kawatake, Toshio. (1981). The Traditional Theatre of Japan. New York: Weatherhill.

[6] Tsunoda, Ichiro. (1964). Ningyō Geki no Seiritsu Minzoku Jiten (人形劇の成立二巻する研究) [A Two volume Research into Puppet Theatre]. Osaka: Kuroya Shuppan. (PP 331-335).

[7] Keene, Donald. (1965). Bunraku: The Art of Japanese Puppet Theatre. Tokyo: Kodansha. (Page 20).

[8] Ikehara Yukio: Director, Takenoko/Dekojuku Saibata Puppet Theatre. Interview with Darren-Jon Ashmore January 15 2002.

[9] Even though the modern theatre possesses no direct connection with the Takemoto-za, either through lineal descent or legal inheritance, it has not stopped its directors from claiming to be the direct heirs to the three masters (Chikamatsu Monzaemon, Takemoto Gidayu and Takeda Izumo II) who effectively created modern ningyō jōruri in the late seventeenth century. However, this might be said to have stemmed from the claim that the first Uemura Bunrakuken made for his first theatre at Takatsu, in as much as he had hired some of the last surviving students of old Takemoto-za masters and used positive public signification of that connection as justification for styling his Bunrakuken-za as the successor to the great theatre of Takemoto Gidayu.

[10] In recent years, bodies such as the Buraku Liberation and Human Rights Research Institute (部落解放・人権研究所) have become ever more active in the area of cultural re-negotiation, bringing the plight of modern day outcaste people to notice by highlighting the way in which Japanese society in general has co-opted many elements of what they feel is buraku culture.

[11] Yoshino, I. Roger. With, Murakoshi, Sueko. (1977). The Invisible Visible Minority: Japan’s Burakumin. Osaka: Buraku Kaiho Kenkyūsho. (pp 47-48)

[12] Law, Jane. M. (1997). Puppets of Nostalgia. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (page 103).

[13] The most problematic aspect of dealing with such old texts is correctly placing the modern reader amid the social and cultural significations of the intended audience.

[14] In the few eleventh century references left to us, it is made clear that kugutsu can stand for puppet, puppeteer, and puppeteering equally as well as for a variety of ritual figurines, tomb offerings etc.

[15] Law, Jane. M. (1997). Puppets of Nostalgia. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (pp 100-101)

[16] Law, Jane. M. (1994). “Violence, Ritual Re-enactment, and Ideology: The Hojo-e of the Usa Hachiman Shrine in Japan”. In, History of Religions 3, no. 4. (pp 325-357).

[17] Toyoda, Hiromi. (1997). Oita Ken no Rekishi (大分県の歴史) [The History of Oita Prefecture]. Yamagawa Shuppansha. (PP 18-20).

[18] Nakano, Hatayoshi. (1976). Hachiman shinko-shi no Kenkyū (八幡信仰史の研究) [Research into the History of the Hachiman Faith]. Yoshikawa Kobunsha. (pp 92-94).

[19] Kadoya, Mitsuaki., and Yamamoto, Reiko. (1991). Awaji Ningyō to Iwate no Geinō Shudan (淡路人形と岩手の芸能集団)[Awaji Puppet and Iwate Art Groups]. Morioka: Shigunaru-sha. (pp 14-16).

[20] Ibid. (pp 26-27).

[21] Umazume Masaru: Former Director, Awaji Ningyō Jōruri Theatre. Interview with Darren-Jon Ashmore, July 15 2001.

[22] Kawanishi, Hiroko: Miko, Awashima Shrine. Interview with Darren-Jon Ashmore, February 4 2002.

[23] Obayashi, Taro. (1961). Nihon Shinwa-no kigen (日本親和の起源) [The Origin of Japanese Mythology]. Tokyo: Obunsha. (pp 31-32).

[24] Nakayama, Taro. (1930). Nihon Fujo shi (日本巫女史) [A History of Japanese Women in Shamanism]. Tokyo: Okayama Shoten. (pp 101-103).

[25] Nakayama, Taro. (1930). Nihon Fujo shi (日本巫女史) [A History of Japanese Women in Shamanism].

[26] While Sanbaso is often seen alone, he also appears either with a twin brother, or in the company of two other kami, Okina and Senzai. With forms taken from the no these kami are often viewed as land bound counterparts to Ebisu by performers and supplicants.

[27] Fudo, Saiichi. (1937). Awaji Ningyō no Yurai (淡路人形の由来)[The Origin of Awaji Puppets]. Mihara-gun: Awaji Ningyō Hozon Kai. (page 44).

[28] Yoshii Sadatoshi: Chief Priest, Nishinomiya Ebisu Shrine. Interview with Darren-Jon Ashmore, April 16 2001.

[29] Ideally a miko should be a maiden of between twelve and twenty five years, without physical blemish or sexual experience.

[30] Yoshii Sadatoshi: Chief Priest, Nishinomiya Ebisu Shrine. Interview with Darren-Jon Ashmore, April 16 2001.

[31] Tsurumi, Kazuko. (1977a). Social Price of Pollution in Japan and the Role of Folk Beliefs. Research Paper Series A-30. Tokyo: University of Sophia. (pp 12-13).

[32] The most popular belief holds that Tokugawa Iemitsu, second Edo period shogun, and one of his priestly advisors, Tenkai, created the group from powerful ekibyōgami  as exemplars of the duality of mankind. Each of the gods manifests in both positive and negative guises. Jurojin represents longevity, but also has the power to cut a person’s life short by erasing him from his role of the living. Daikoku controls the wealth of the nation, but can be as miserly as he is can be generous. Fukurokujin represents chimerical popularity. Benten, a popular kami with entertainers, represents both skill and jealously. The soldierly Bishamon guards treasures of all kinds, but is prone to being violently covetous. Hotei, while the source of human magnanimity, can also be greedy and rapacious. Finally, Ebisu, as has been said, controls not only the bounty of the seas, but is also the source of health (and disease) as well as both faces of outsiders, both fearful and friendly.

[33] His main guise, the jovial fisherman, might also be considered a marginal or foreign persona. Fishermen were, in the Nara/Heian periods considered to be outcaste peoples for many reasons. Dwelling on the margins of society, working in an environment which in itself is a signification of otherworldly power, and seen as able to negotiate access to that inconstant reality with ease.

[34] Ebisu is often connected to Hiruko-no-kami, the Leech Child of Izanagi and Izanami, one of their first offspring which was rejected because of the inauspicious way that its parents conceived him.

[35] Law, Jane. M. (1997). Puppets of Nostalgia. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (pp 112-114).

[36] Yoshii Sadatoshi: Chief Priest, Nishinomiya Ebisu Shrine. Interview with Darren-Jon Ashmore, January 10 2002.



  1. This is an awesome read. Thank you!

  2. Squee!!!
    But seriously, although it took me the better part of the morning to read this (over-?, but that only shows your passion of the subject. Which is admirable!) researched article, I loved the historical facts and the origin of the “dolls” as we know them in this day and age
    And now we even get to know a bit more about the great Dr. Robodaz.
    Thank you for again a great read!

  3. mejor reseña no puede haber, gracias por tu aportación. saludos

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