Mori Butai

Artist: Various
Location: Naka Town, Tokushima, Japan
Year of completion: 2012
Researcher: Leon Tan

Post World War II, the Japanese government promoted economic development policies that contributed to large-scale rural-to-urban migration. While this was successful to some degree in establishing Japan as a major economic power in the second half of the twentieth century, it also had the effect of depopulating the countryside. Threatened with the loss of cultural identity, many villages supported a revival of Ningyo-Joruri (sometimes known also as Bunraku), a traditional form of puppet theatre, using the stages that came with rural shrines as performance venues. Ningyo literally means puppet or doll, while Joruri refers to the combination of shamisen playing and chanting. A performance usually involved Ningyozukai or puppeteers, Tayu or chanters, and shamisen players. In the 1970s, approximately 100 stages were identified by national research. Today, the Ningyo-Joruri stages number approximately 70, and the art form is in decline.

The siting of a village shrine and stage was always a matter of careful consideration, since it was important to protect this sacred complex from potential natural disasters as well as to plant and cultivate the kinds of trees required for the building’s periodic renovation every two or three decades. The stage itself was held to be the perfect platform for the expression of awe and gratitude to nature, and the performance of Ningyo-Joruri was, in fact, dedicated to nature/God. Mori Butai was a project that took the village shrine and stage and their history as inspiration, using art as a means of developing the cultural value of coexistence with nature among contemporary audiences.

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Mori Butai consisted of several events, including a photography competition and exhibition, kinetic sculpture workshops with school children, and public art installations within several sacred shrine-stage complexes in Tokushima Prefecture on the island of Shikoku. Given its emphasis on nature, it should come as no surprise that the project explored ecological themes. The school workshops, for example, taught children how to make electricity-generating wind wheels by recycling PET bottles. Similarly, the public art installations focused on sustainability issues. Situated in shrines in the Haigyu area and along the Momiji River, these sculptures incorporated local materials such as paper, flower petals and on-site audio recordings. Many effectively revitalized disused stages, exploiting their dilapidated condition to evoke feelings as well as a sense of the passage of historical time.

Significantly, the project engaged the elderly as well as the young, directly inviting residents of the area, the majority over the age of 70, to join conversations with the participating artists, Ritsuko Taho, Izumi Hosaka, Koji Nakamura, Yuki Shibata, Ryo Yamada, Hidenori Sonobe, Kanako Hayashi, Nao Nishihara, Kosuke Ikeda,Yusaku Mochizuki and Ayaka Kaneto. Mori Butai is an outstanding placemaking initiative, which catered to diverse audiences in neglected/marginalized locales (Naka Town’s population is barely over 10,000) through the staging of artistic experiences of nature and history. Its environmental message is highly relevant given the reality of global warming and the lasting impact of ecological disasters such as Fukushima. Since 2012, the project has been re-staged and expanded, with considerable success.

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency