Butai Karakuri

Many Japanese came to know about karakuri after TAKEDA Omi gave the first Karakuri show at Osaka's Dotonbori in 1662. TAKEDA Omi was a clock maker. His creations were not only mechanical, but also utilised water (like earlier water clocks), taking advantage of the position of the theatre on the banks of the Dotonbori canal.

Nagoya Noh Theatre

On 25th May 1662, he opened the Takeda-Za for performance of Karakuri. After establishing the theatre and running it for twelve years, TAKEDA handed over operation to his young brother Kiyotaka (TAKEDA Omi II).

TAKEDA Omi III had his greatest triumph in Edo (now Tokyo) in 1741. The crowd apparently rushed the theatre, causing it to be closed down for three consecutive days. By 1758 the theatre performed 27 programmes a day, starting at 8 in the morning and ending at 4 in the afternoon. By 1772 the last of the theatres had closed down. (HILLIER 1976, p 36)

The gestures and movements associated with Noh, Kabuki and Bunraku theatre arts are directly related to the way the Karakuri Ningyo perform. Many forms of expression within these fields of theatre are direct imitations or mimics of puppet performance.

During the Edo period, the best and the most celebrated plays were written for puppet performances, and this accounts for certain peculiarities in their construction. Since many of the plays written for puppets were adapted for the ordinary stage, the technique of acting in Japan shows traces of puppet influence. These facts should always be borne in mind when studying Japanese theatre, and they should be allowed for when considering the literary value of the plays. (SANSOM 1931, p 486-7)

Unlike the development of theatre in the West, Japanese theatre forms were performances without any pretence of realistic portrayal. It seems particularly in Japanese culture, nonverbal behaviour appears more significant than the spoken word. (MATSUMOTO 1996, p 3) Gesture and movement is used to enhance expression, and has formed its own abstract language. Dance is an integral part of the performance, and is intrinsic to Noh and Kabuki theatre.

"Traditional Japanese dance has a variety of origins:
Kusemai: Mime performed by Buddhist monks while reciting poetry.
Kagura: Shinto dances containing the use of the fan and the form of the musical ensemble, used to invited the Gods to be present.
Eunen: dances of the Buddhist priests at their festivals.
Dengaku: music and dances from the fields and the rice festivals.
Bugaku: imperial court dances of 12th century Japan.
Furyu: popular songs and dances of the 14th century performed intermittently to avoid pestilence or achieve salvation.
Sarugaku: acrobatics and magic tricks.

It has been suggested that these have even older origins in 'Mai' and 'Odori'. Mai means turning and refers to a dance form reputed to have been done by itinerant priestesses in Medieval times, circling a shrine, and attempting to encourage spirits to come down and possess them (ITO 1979, p 271). Odori means leaping and refers perhaps to the leaps of male Shamans when they attained the ecstatic frenzy of possession.." (HERBISON-EVANS 2001)

'Kata' is also employed in Noh and Kabuki theatre. Kata is an important performing style, and can be thought of as a minimal instant of expression, or a part of a series of gesture patterns. The style is a combination of symbolic mime and dance movements.

In 1629 the Shogunate had banned all women from performing in Kabuki plays. 'Onnagata' were male Kabuki actors performing as women. Some actors specialized exclusively in women's roles, while others played both men's and women's parts. They often directly portrayed puppets in performances.


Yuki-hime acting in puppet style. (GUNJI 1985, p 143)

The above image depicts a puppet-style of acting called 'Ningyo-buri', used to expresses very strong emotions, as in the case of Yuki-hime (above), in the "Kinkakuji Scene" of Gion Sairei Shinkoki…. Pretending that Yuki-hime is a puppet, a black robed actor plays the role of puppeteer while she imitates puppet movements." (GUNJI 1985, p 143)

Bunraku is the name commonly used for 'Ningyo Joruri', literally meaning puppets and storytelling. Bunraku dates from 1684, when GIDAYU Takemoto set up his own theatre in Osaka. "Of the most celebrated was at the Dontonbori in Osaka. It was chiefly for this theatre that MONZAEMON Chikamatsu, Japan's greatest playwright, worked for over thirty years. He wrote in particular for a Joruri singer named GIDAYU Takemoto, the most celebrated performer of his day, who gave his name to the style of chant still called GIDAYU and still praticed." (SANSOM 1931, p 486-7) Along with TAKEDA Izumo, who crafted the puppets for the stage, these three men invented the Bunraku style of performance. TAKEDA Izumo would have learnt from his cousin, the great Karakuri master TAKEDA Omi.


SANSOM, G. B., 1931. Japan - A Short Cultural History. 4th Edition. London: The Crescent Library.

HILLIER, M., 1976. AUTOMATA AND MECHANICAL TOYS, an illustrated history. London: Bloomsbury Books.

GUNJI, M., 1985. Kabuki. Tokyo: Kodansha International.

HERBISON-EVANS, D., 2001. Noh Dancing [online]. Basser Department of Computer Science, University of Sydney. Available from: http://linus.socs.uts.edu.au/~don/pubs/noh.html [Accessed 24 September 2003]

MATSUMOTO, D., 1996. Unmasking Japan - Myths and Realities About the Emotions of the Japanese. California: Stanford University Press.



Karakuri Origins

Dashi Karakuri

Butai Karakuri

Zashiki Karakuri

Edo Society

Edo Mechanisms

Karakuri Masters


Robot Perspectives

Karakuri Robots


kirsty @ karakuri . info

Last modified 14 January 2008
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