Dashi floats are made up of three decks. On the 'Uwayama' (top stage) there are usually 2 or 3 puppets, performing plays and stories relating to traditional Japanese myths and legends. In the middle level of the float are puppeteers, and at the base are the musicians who play flutes and drums to accompany the show. The wooden carriages are pulled through the streets by approximately 20 men, and are featured in 'Matsuri' (festivals) held in roughly 50 areas around Japan. (SUEMATSU 2001)
Puppets in Japan have traditionally performed an essential ritual function. Jane Law, an academic who specialises in the ritual use of puppets in Japan has noted: "They mediated the boundaries between the distinct but sometimes overlapping worlds of sacred forces and human beings, order and chaos, life and death, fertility and infertility. Their ritual performance served to usher in the New Year, purify dwellings for another season, and revitalise sacred forces in communities. On occasion their rituals were used to bring rain, drive away noxious insects, prevent epidemics, and ensure safe travel. They performed before audiences in all levels of society, for the emperor, lords, and ladies at court to merchants and farmers." (LAW 1997, p 51)
The 7th TOKUGAWA (Owari) Muneharu was a great supporter of festivals and Dashi Karakuri. The tradition flourished under his patronage during the Edo period. (SUEMATSU 2001) During the same period invention and mechanisation were declared unlawful. This was with the exception of activities relating to religious or festive services. Inventors and scientists turned their skill to the Karakuri Ningyo craft. (SUEMATSU 2001) It was also forbidden to use accumulated wealth to better one's social standing. Instead wealth was spent beautifying daily life, with festivals being a main outlet for celebration and extravagance.
For residents their matsuri and featured Karakuri are symbols for what makes their town stand out for them. (ASHKENAZI 1993, p 28-9) Every Dashi float is different in style and decoration, reflecting the traditions and cultures of the local area.
Members of the community would donate their share towards the construction of the float, according to their means. Thus the float became property of the whole community, with communities competing against each other to produce the most beautiful floats, and therefore the best festival.
Momotaro (peach boy) Dashi and Karakuri Ningyo. (KITO 1997, p46-7)
"The atmosphere was festive and casual, and everyone would bring tatami mats to sit on, elaborate box lunches, and gourds of cool sake to share. In the middle of the day, there was about a two hour break, and everyone would break open bento and socialise. The performers would sometimes join the audience for the feast, creating a social event where the distinction between 'performers' and 'audience' became non-existent and all were participants…" (LAW 1997, p 199) In this way, the festivals were not only spiritual, but also very sociable and entertaining.
Law's research has found that puppets would perform selected scenes usually relating to traditional myths and legends. "The presentation of scenes rather than entire pieces raises an interesting issue for our understanding of these puppetry festivals. Since a scene is by definition a part of a larger play, presenting only this segment means that the audience had to fill in the rest. Before and after the performance of a single scene, nearly everyone present would reconstruct the rest of the play, arguing occasionally over nuances or details. This arrangement provided a built in opportunity for meanings in the puppet theatre to be reinterpreted and experienced. This should be understood as being an integral part of the performance." (LAW 1997, p 199)
Inuyama Festival, Aichi Prefecture
Dashi float from the Inuyama Festival, dating back to 1873. The performance tells the story of Urashima Taro. (KITO 1997, p 52-3)
Takayama Festival, Gifu Prefecture
Gion Festival, Kyoto
ASHKENAZI, M., 1993. Matsuri: Festivals of a Japanese Town. Honalulu: University of Hawaii Press.
KITO, H., 1997. Karakuri Ningyo Sekaiten (The World of Karakuri Ningyo). Tokyo: NHK Kinki Media Plan.
LAW, J. M., 1997. Puppets of Nostalgia. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
SUEMATSU, Y., 2001. The Japanese Love of Robots lecture 5, Dash (Carriage) Karakuri at Work in Festivals Everywhere, Department of Electronic-Mechanical Engineering, Nagoya University.
kirsty @ karakuri . info
Last modified 14 January 2008