Online screening and Q&A

The Departure and Death of Atsumori

May 18, 2022

Online screening followed by a Q&A with Koryu Nishikawa V, in conversation with Claudia Orenstein (Hunter College), Elizabeth Oyler (University of Pittsburgh), and John Bell (Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry, University of Connecticut). Yuko Eguchi Wright (University of Pittsburgh), translator. Hosted by the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry. (Video available below.)

The Departure and Death of Atsumori (1992)

Ichinotani Moritoshi Atsumori and Ichinotani Atsumoria sequence of two cart puppet plays derived from the Japanese epic Tales of the Heike. 

Performed by the Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo The Koryu Nishikawa Troupe (cart puppetry company) of Japan.


Derived from the Japanese epic The Tales of the Heike, Ichinotani Futaba Gunki depicts the Taira (Heike) clan’s prosperity and downfall after the battle with the Genji (Minamoto) clan. Because Ichinotani Futaba Gunki is a long story, the entire story is not usually performed. Instead, the most famous or popular events in the story are performed in a show.

Ichinotani Moritoshi Atsumori (Moritoshi’s Report / Atsumori’s Departure)
Heike’s warrior Moritoshi realizes that the Heike clan is losing. He rushes to inform Taira no Atsumori of the situation and urges him to escape. However, Atsumori is determined to go to the battle even though he knows there’s no chance for him to survive.  Sonoo, his newly married wife, begs him to remain at home, but her pleas are in vain.

Ichinotani Atsumori (Atsumori’s Death)
Kumagai Naozane, one of the famous figures of the Genji, challenges Atsumori and overpowers him. At the last moment, Kumagai hesitates to kill him, realizing that Atsumori is as young as his own son. However, other Genji warriors are approaching, and there is no way for Atsumori to survive. Prepared to die, Atsumori tells Kumagai to take his life. This is one of the best-known scenes from the Tales of the Heike.

Program Notes

The story of the death of the young warrior Atsumori is among the most enduring episodes from Japan’s medieval war tale, the Tale of the Heike. An account of the epic clash between two great clans, the Heike and the Genji, the Tale of the Heike not only celebrates valiant warriors on the battlefield but also laments the loss of life and the end of Japan’s aristocratic age in the face of the rise of the warrior class that would rule Japan in one form or another from the end of the war in 1185 through the late 19th century. [Click here to read more.]

The story of the death of the young warrior Atsumori is among the most enduring episodes from Japan’s medieval war tale, the Tale of the Heike. An account of the epic clash between two great clans, the Heike and the Genji, the Tale of the Heike not only celebrates valiant warriors on the battlefield but also laments the loss of life and the end of Japan’s aristocratic age in the face of the rise of the warrior class that would rule Japan in one form or another from the end of the war in 1185 through the late 19th century. The character of Atsumori, a scion of the losing Heike side, brings together these threads. A beautiful young aristocrat famed for his skill at the flute, Atsumori is also an honorable warrior who, when challenged by the seasoned and powerful Genji warrior Kumagai Naozane, chooses to face him bravely rather than escape to a ship that would carry him to safety. In close combat, Kumagai is overcome by the beauty and bravery of the young man who reminds him of his own son, and at first wishes to free the lad, thinking one man’s life or death will not alter the fate of the battle or the war. But his superiors are bearing down, and he is forced to either kill Atsumori himself or watch others kill him. He chooses the former course, promising to spend his days praying for the repose of Atsumori’s soul. The experience motivates him to take the tonsure.

The Tale of the Heike’s “Death of Atsumori” was so popular over the course of the medieval (ca. 1180-ca. 1600) and early modern (or “Edo”) period (ca. 1600-1867) that numerous retellings and augmentations appeared in the narrative and performing arts, including versions that gave this probably fictional character a wife and child. Beginning in the medieval period, several plays in the noh theatre repertoire center around Atsumori. In the early modern period, the play Ichinotani futaba gunki, popularized on both the kabuki and puppet stages, created an even more elaborate plot in which Atsumori was not actually a scion of the Heike clan but a secret son of the retired emperor.

“Moritoshi’s Report/Atsumori’s Departure” derives from the Ichinotani futaba gunki story, adapted for the cart puppet troupe using a script by the scholar Nishitsunoi Masahiro based on a version of the story from the sekkyōbushi tradition – a narrative art from the late medieval period. First performed by the Nishikawa troupe in 1986, it captures the bravery and pathos of Atsumori’s resolve to die on the battlefield to repay his debt to his foster family, the Heike, even as he has learned that he is actually an imperial son. Such plot twists were increasingly popular in early modern works like Ichinotani futaba gunki. The narrative style, reliant on the gidayū chanter accompanied by the shamisen, is also a convention of the puppet theatre developed during the Edo period.

“Atsumori’s Death” is a more experimental piece for the cart puppet troupe, one that explores the roots of the story in the Tale of the Heike tradition. The story portrayed is very close to that told in the tale: in the midst of battle, Kumagai spots Atsumori fleeing the battle, calls him back, and the two men fight. In place of the gidayū chanter and shamisen player, “Atsumori’s Death” employs a biwa (lute) performer, Handa Junko, who also recounts the story as she plays. This nods to the original form of the tale, which was sung by blind lutenists known as biwa hōshi (“lute priests”), who told episodes from the tale for audiences as they traveled the realm. Ms. Handa’s biwa playing style was developed during the Edo period, but the use of the biwa to tell a story from the tale echoes these origins. This version also includes Shiba Sukeyasu playing the ryūteki flute, suggestive of Atsumori’s fame as a flautist. “Atsumori’s Death” was premiered along with “Moritoshi’s Report/Atsumori’s Departure” in 1986.

By Elizabeth Oyler (University of Pittsburgh)

About the Show

In terms of artistic expression, the first play is performed in a traditional way. The second is performed with a biwa (wooden lute) player, which the troupe explored a few decades ago.

Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo is a form of puppet theatre created by the first Koryu Nishikawa around the end of the Edo period. It is called Kuruma Ningyo because the puppeteer sits on a small seat with roller wheels (the rokuro-kuruma) and operates the puppet (the ningyo). This small seat, and the fact that only one person is needed to operate one puppet, distinguishes Kuruma Ningyo from Bunraku, in which three people are needed to operate each puppet. This one -to-one relationship allows great flexibility and realism as the puppet and the puppeteer move in unison.

Q&A Panel

Koryu Nishikawa V


Master puppeteer Koryu Nishikawa V is currently the head of the Koryu Nishikawa Troupe, located in Hachioji, Tokyo. Since his childhood, he received training from his grandfather (the 3rd Generation Master) and father (the 4th Generation Master). He also studied the three person Bunraku style at the National Bunraku Theater. In addition to annual performances in Hachioji, Koryu Nishikawa V and the troupe are frequently invited to performing engagements throughout Japan as well as around the world.

Claudia Orenstein


Claudia Orenstein, Theatre Professor at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, has spent nearly two decades researching and writing on contemporary and traditional puppetry in the US and Asia. Recent publications include the co-edited volumes Women and Puppetry: Critical and Historical Investigations with Alissa Mello and Cariad Astles and The Routledge Companion to Puppetry and Material Performance with Dassia Posner and John Bell. She was dramaturg for Tom Lee and kuruma ningyō master Nishikawa Koryū V’s Shank’s Mare and for Stephen Earnhart’s multimedia production Wind Up Bird Chronicle. She is a Board Member of UNIMA-USA and Associate Editor of Asian Theatre Journal. Current book projects are Reading the Puppet Stage: Essays on the Dramaturgy of Performing Objects and the two-volume co-edited anthology Puppet and Spirit: Ritual, Religion, and Performing Object,s with co-editor Tim CusackShe is the recipient of a 2021-22 Fulbright Research Fellowship for research on ritual puppetry in Japan and will be the Editor of the new, online, free access journal devoted to puppetry, masks, and related arts, Puppetry International Research, published by The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center in collaboration with UNIMA-USA.

Elizabeth Oyler


Elizabeth Oyler is Associate Professor of Japanese in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research focuses on the representation of historical and cultural memory in literature and performing arts from Japan’s medieval period, particularly the fifteenth century. She is the author of Swords, Oaths and Prophetic Visions: Authoring Warrior Rule in Medieval Japan and co-editor, with Michael G. Watson, of Like Clouds or Mists: Studies and Translations of Noh Plays of the Genpei War, as well as articles on medieval narrative and performance traditions. A second co-edited (with Katherine Saltzman-Li) volume, Cultural Imprints: War and Memory in the Samurai Age, is forthcoming from Cornell East Asia Series (Feb. 2022). She is working on a book-length study of noh drama, specifically how the staging of a set of plays about the Genpei War by early playwrights simultaneously codify and undermine spaces of the poetic and social landscapes of the early fifteenth-century.

John Bell


Puppeteer and theater historian John Bell is the Director of the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry and an Associate Professor of Dramatic Arts, both at the University of Connecticut. He learned puppetry as a member of the Bread and Puppet Theater company from 1976 to 1986, and received his doctoral degree in theater history from Columbia University in 1993.  He is the author of many books and articles about puppet theater, including American Puppet Modernism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) and Strings, Hands, Shadows: A Modern Puppet History (Detroit Institute of Arts, 2000). He edited Puppets, Masks, and Performing Objects (MIT Press, 2001), and with Dassia Posner and Claudia Orenstein edited The Routledge Companion to Puppetry and Material Performance (Routledge, 2014). He is an editor of Puppetry International, the publication of the U.S. branch of the Union Internationale de la Marionnette. John is a founding member of the Brooklyn-based theater collective Great Small Works; one of the creators of the Honk! Festival of Activist Street Bands; and a member of the Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band.

Puppet plays and Q&A video

A video of the two plays with English subtitles (immediately below) will remain online for a short period of time only.  The video of the Q&A session (the second video below) will remain online indefinitely.


Columbia University

This screening is part of the “World Epics in Puppet Theater: India, Iran, Japan, Italy” project, a Columbia University Humanities War & Peace Initiative which “fosters the study of war and peace from the perspective of scholars in the Humanities, in conversation with colleagues from around Columbia and the world […] with an ultimate goal of perpetuating a more peaceful world.”


The Koryu Nishikawa Troupe

Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo The Koryu Nishikawa Troupe is a Japanese cart puppet company in Tokyo with 160 years of history. While continuing to perform traditional works of the Edo Period, the Koryu Nishikawa Troupe is forever seeking new directions and fresh innovation in order to keep the spirit of the troupe, and hence the performances, vibrant and creative. Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo was designated as an Intangible Cultual Asset by the Tokyo government in 1962. The national government recommended that it be recorded as an Intangible Folk Custom Cultural Asset in 1996. Kuruma Ningyo has been enthusiastically received in a number of foreign countries. [An introduction to the art of Kuruma Ningyō puppetry and to the Koryu Nishikawa Troupe, with Nishikawa Koryū, Nishikawa Ryūgyoku, and Claudia Orenstein, can be found at “Global Conversations Japanese Cart Puppetry: “Kuruma Ningyō.”]

Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry

The Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry (BIMP) is one of America’s hidden treasures—a superb collection of over 3,500 puppets from all over the world; an archive of books, manuscripts, posters, drawings, audio-visual materials and photographs all covering the history of puppetry. It is also the new home of the Puppeteers of America’s Audio-Visual Collection: the largest collection of videotapes, films, and other media about puppetry in the United States. The Ballard Institute curates and produces exhibitions of puppetry, both at the Ballard Museum and for touring across the United States. The Institute also offers workshops, museum tours, artists’ forums, film showings, performances, and other events and programs that promote the art of puppetry as a twenty-first-century art form with deep historic and global roots.

Academic Committee

Jo Ann Cavallo

(Columbia University)

Olga M. Davidson

(Boston University)

Claudia Orenstein

(Hunter College, CUNY; UNIMA-USA)

Elizabeth Oyler

(University of Pittsburgh)

Paula Richman

(Oberlin College)

Poupak Azimpour Tabrizi

(University of Tehran, Iran)


Columbia University

The Humanities War and Peace Initiative, through the Division of Humanities in the Arts & Sciences .

The Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture.

University of  Connecticut

The Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry.

The Puppet Arts Program, Department of Dramatic Arts.

Museo Internazionale delle Marionette “Antonio Pasqualino” in Palermo, Italy 


University of Pittsburgh