Monday, October 3, 2016

Preparing for Ota Festival

I climb the steps to the second floor of the town home in Yokosuka. The young puppeteer gestures towards an aluminum door adjacent to a small tatami room holding a dozen festival organizers. I open the aluminum door, and teeter over a 16 foot drop into a vacant garage. My stomach flips as I survey the drop. Soon enough I realize that this is the doorway to the top of the district’s 6 meter festival dashi; but today’s ornamental float sits in in the front yard, surrounded teenaged boys sipping ice coffee as they greet passersby. 

The puppeteer zips across the 4 x 6 mesh floor with ease, locating two large wooden crates. It's the perfect place to show off the Ota Festival Preservation Society's karakuri ningyo. Crouched inside the suspended platform, my mentor and guide, Ms. Yasuko Senda, and I explore the puppet's mechanisms and movements. The puppeteer sets the three-foot mechanical actor on the ground and gestures for us to take photographs. Yasuko-san translates:

"We used to keep this secret. But not so much anymore," he expresses with a shrug.

I notice a similar sentiment later in the day. While at rehearsal for another district's karakuri ningyo performance, Yasuko-san and I gather in a tiny rehearsal room, as puppeteers nonchalantly illustrate the karakuri ningyo's once-mysterious mechanisms.

Unlike Tahara Matsuri, where the puppets are operated by strings, these characters are manipulated through handcrafted rods, or sashigane, adorned in multi-sized hooks and sleeves. The sashigane moves in and out of the karakuri ningyo during performances, releasing or igniting the puppet's internal mechanisms. The sashigane works together with the dashi's internal framework to create these karakuri ningyo's magical robotic feats.

But knowing the secrets is inconsequential. The amount of precision, practice, and complexity I observe only further fuels my fascination.

You hook that where? And rotate it here? While guiding that? 

If anything, it appears even more impossible. In translation, the sashigane is frequently mixed-up with the English word weapon. It's quickly corrected to “rod." But rod doesn't give the tool justice. Weapon works - the shashigane is wielded with careful deliberation and power.

Back at the garage, the puppeteer's younger brothers, cousins, and friends stand around the towering float, laughing and doing their best American accents. Eight of us practice lifting the 5 ton dashi. Specific positions are called out by the group's director, and the young men move in and out of the dashi arms in synchronized efficiency, balancing the 18th century float atop our shoulders. The act of pulling the dashi is an art in itself. It requires rehearsals, dedication, and superb calf muscles.

"And this is without the musicians and team of puppeteers on board," I think, red-faced and out of breath. My mind travels to Tahara Matsuri, where a cooler of sake and cold beer followed the dashis like a golf caddy through the city streets. I hope this group has the same amenities, but I can't bet on it. It's clear Ota Festival is very different than Tahara Matsuri.

For one, the dashi looks surprisingly distinct. Built in 1826, hand-chiseled dragons in cypress wrap around the float, framing the tiers in ornamental grandeur. On the second tier, a miniature proscenium protrudes like a majestic memorial. The dashi is a temple on wheels.

In the puppeteer's cabin, a large wooden track, or toi, helps guide the karakuri ningyo puppets up and down the dashi stage. The toi can also slide across the width of the dashi, moving the puppet left to right with graceful deliberation.

Unlike Tahara, where a ladder carried me up to the second tier, climbing up Ota's dashi isn't easy. My hips lodge in-between the cypress supports as I hopelessly pull myself through the unforgiving wooden beams. The puppeteers look around nervously, unsure if they made the right decision allowing me join their rehearsal. At the top, I grip the sides tightly and let out a whimper as the float is tilted into the air and the puppeteers next to me try to recall the English phrase "scaredy cat".

The puppeteers carry the tradition in their blood. Their fathers and uncles used to ride the same dashi, skillfully manipulating sashigane from puppet to puppet. Today, the youngest puppeteer is thirteen and the oldest twenty-five. Despite their youth, they take the job seriously. As I clumsily put my shoes back on and fumble with my camera, they cluster around the majestic dashi, shouting, laughing, and calling out to their friends with an envious natural hipness. I walk away from the waving teens in disbelief: in this town, it's cool to be a puppeteer.

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