Monday, April 24, 2017

The Timeless Wonder of Fusuma Karakuri

Five years after the end of World War II, citizens in Osaka gathered at Japan's first America Fair, where visitors explored scaled-down recreations of the Statue of Liberty and Mt. Rushmore. In Tokyo, onlookers gawked as live bikini clad models posed in department store windows while the sounds of Thelonious Monk and Stan Getz made their way across the country's radio waves.
Japan in the 1950s. The Atlantic. Mar. 12, 2014. (link)

Against the sounds of modern jazz and the whirlwind of General MacArthur’s Japanese reconstruction, the country witnessed a decline in traditional performance, specifically those art forms that stemmed from Shinto ritual, such as ningyo joruri. In post-war Japan, many linked Shintoism to Japan's pre-war militarism, and, as a result, puppet shows and traditional festivals, such as Nagoya Matsuri, were discouraged or banned. 

However, in 1951, during this new era of bikinis and home television sets, a small town in the mountains of Shikoku gathered together to rebuild a theater dedicated to a lost form of Japanese entertainment - fusuma karakuri.

Fusuma karakuri, or, as it’s known on Awaji island, dogugaeshi, features hand-painted panels, or fusuma-e, that slide in and out of a proscenium, twist in unison, and glide up and down to create intensifying stage murals that reach deeper and deeper into the playing space.

Similar to Kyogen, it was known as maku-ma, or a “between curtain show,” often performed after a Noh or ningyo joruri performance. After spending hours ensnared in the complex stories of Japanese dynasties and the linguistic cartwheels of the tayu, fusuma karakuri provided a mental recess. With only the strum of the shamisen, it activated a new part of the audience members’ minds where plot was cast aside for the magic of moving images. A mural depicting rabbits bounding across ocean waves glides across the stage to reveal a magnificent dragon while abstract floral patterns gently transform into a bamboo forest.

Transformation, or hayagawari, plays an essential part in noh, kabuki, and ningyo joruri performance. One of the most popular shows on Awaji island was Tamamonomae asahi no tamoto, where the performer is both puppeteer and magician, transforming costumes and characters seven times in one short act. Almost half of karakuri ningyo performances hinge on this moment of transfiguration, from a shinto priest turning into a miniature shrine to a graceful fan dancer morphing into an unruly lion.
When successful, these moments of transformation instantaneously alter the audience, leaving them in a state of awe. Fusuma karakuri is a celebration of this wonderment, a form of entertainment that connects audiences to that realm of surprise over and over again, tugging audiences through time and space.

In the 1930s, fusuma karakuri was a popular past-time in Tokushima, but today only five fusuma karakuri companies remain active in Japan, performing just once a year during fall and spring festivals. The only exception is Awaji Ningyo Za who has daily performances at the end of daily ningyo jouri shows.

This puppet company has modernized the fusuma karakuri technique by creating an aluminum fly-system on wheels. The fusuma-e are controlled by nylon string, carabiners, and puppeteers in the wings who slide the panels from the left and right.

Awaji Ningyo Za has sped up the the timing of a traditional show, and the modern contraption limits the movement witnessed in farm theaters such as Inukai Noson and Ono Sakura no Butai.

It was at Inukai Noson Butai's November festival where I first came across fusuma karakuri. I was immediately captivated and bewildered. As I watched the paper doors slide in and out of the proscenium to the sounds of the shamisen, I was in a state of disequilibrium. “How are they moving the images? Where's the story? What exactly am I looking it?” This chatter soon quieted down into a mollified acceptance, like the moment you give into a dream. I was hooked.

The next annual festival was in Kamiyama, about 30km from Tokushima City. After three months of e-mails, telephone calls, and assistance from my translator and friend Tatsuo Yasuda, I found myself riding a bicycle through the mountains of Kamiyama in total darkness as a river's resonant stride guided me back to the center of the road. As I held up my iPhone for light, I caught the glow of the theater, Ono Sakura no Butai, resting above the town’s Myozai district. Out of breath, Tatsuo and I climbed the stone steps to the rear of Tenno shrine, where the small wooden stage met us underneath a blossoming sakura tree.

It’s here I get to know the director of Sakura no Butai, Ogawa Kazkiyo. Ogawa-san is a generous mentor who is both intimidating and big-hearted. He speaks with deliberate and piercing gestures, commanding attention and thoughtfully answering my endless questions. He perfectly sums up the experience of fusuma karakuri to wave watching: captivating, meditative, and rhythmic. Like other forms of puppetry in Tokushima, I try to find its connection to religious ritual, but Ogawa-san quickly extinguishes this argument. There isn’t one. Fusuma karakuri is entertainment, a type of diversion that thrived in Kamiyama at a time when Japanese identity, specifically shintoism, was disoriented.

Ogawa Kazkiyo

Unlike many forms of traditional Japanese theater, such as Noh and bunraku, fusuma karakuri is easily accessible. It is language-less and doesn’t require prerequisite knowledge to fully appreciate. But it’s also for these reasons I’m surprised fusuma karakuri isn’t more widely celebrated. Even in the Japanese theater community there's a lack of familiarity. As I told Japanese friends I was headed to Tokushima to study "fusuma karakuri,” which translated to "mechanical sliding panel,” most assumed I was learning how to build automated doors. Fusuma karakuri is slighly more recognizable when it's called by its other name, dogugaeshi, especially on Awaji island. Yet, despite its accessibility and uniqueness, it remains a brief footnote in Japanese performance history.

In 2003, puppeteer Basil Twist embarked on a project sponsored by The Japan Foundation that realized a contemporary fusuma karakuri production that captured the essence of the traditional art form. Basil’s production premiered in 2004 and has been performed across the globe since 2014, raising awareness about the medium. However, Basil Twist's production, titled Dogugaeshi, shares the same name of the tradition. Given the lack of documentation and research on traditional dogugaeshi, a Google query only wields results regarding Twist's production, further obscuring fusuma karakuri's role as a valuable traditional Japanese performance.

This year’s performance at Ono Sakura no Butai will feature two scenes from international artists Andrea Dezsö and Adam Avikainen, who were inspired by fusuma karakuri during their time at Kamiyama's Artist in Residency program. As Ogawa-san mentions these artists he beams with excitement. He is proud to have their work in his show, and he spends a lot of time sharing their work with visitors and audiences. He is eager to explain Avikainen's inspiration for his pieces Curry Typhoon and Turkey Earthquake (making curry during a typhoon and cooking turkey during an earthquake respectively).

Adam Avikainen's Curry Typhoon

Photos of Andrea Dezsö line the dressing room wall. Over the last few years, Ogawa-san incorporated Dezsö's pieces as one of the final fusuma-e in the performance. According to Kamiyama's Green Valley Artist Residency, "this may be the first fusuma-e screens used in a performance in Kamiyama since 1930".

Andrea Dezsö's fusuma-e of human emotions ki, do, ai, and raku  (joy, anger, pathos, and humor)
Similar to ningyo joruri, a successful fusuma karakuri performance requires a intuitive connection between puppeteers. To make this a bit more complicated than your typical puppet show, your partner is standing 30 feet away on the opposite side of the stage. These puppeteers must find a shared breath and united rhythm as they pull strings, tie-off rope, grab painted doors, and twist bamboo rods.

During a performance there is a conductor who leads the puppeteers’ movements with the hyoshigi, two pieces of wood that are clapped together. Since fusuma karakuri has no human actors on the stage, mistakes are easily noticeable and can easily disrupt the rhythm. This makes the need for harmony between puppeteers even more critical. To help guide the process, Ogawa-san created a script that organizes all 241 panels, dictating their placement and movement.

The script also illustrates Ogawa-san’s process as a director of fusuma karakuri. He must take in account the way different movement can effect an image’s meaning. Although it makes things more complicated, he insists that the ten panels that compose a resting tiger must all be removed from stage right. “You can’t see a tiger split in the middle,” he insists. Ogawa-san is constantly considering how the movement and order of these images change context and alters the viewer’s experience.

After rehearsal at Sakura no Butai, we sit around a table eating American chocolate I brought from home. I ask about the puppeteers’ day jobs. There are two farmers, a machinist, a councilman, a florist, a house wife, and a metadata specialist. For one of the older puppeteers, this will be his 30th year performing fusuma karakuri.

They share memories from their youth at the theater, where the community gathered to watch outdoor movies, have picnics, and experience the captivating tradition. 

During the 1950s, as a golden age of cinema dawned and the future was broadcasted on television sets across Japan, a small town in the rural mountains of Shikoku came together to rebuild a fusuma karakuri theater. Today, as we're surrounded by smartphone screens and digital media, the wooden theater underneath a blossoming sakura tree, where a metadata specialist and farmer move painted panels in and out of proscenium, feels radically innovative. Fusuma karakuri reminds us that our sense of awe is not always tethered to the future - the past is still filled with wonder.

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Monday, April 10, 2017

Kiryu Karakuri Ningyo Theater & a Miniature Railroad in Pittsburgh

When I moved to Pittsburgh in 2011, I spent two years surrounded by one of the largest handmade miniature railroad displays in the Northeast. The Miniature Railroad and Village at The Carnegie Science Center began in the basement of Brookvsville native Charles Bowdish in the 1920s. Today, the 2500 square foot displays features handcrafted trees, sweeping foam-carved mountains, and tiny buildings illustrating Western Pennsylvania during the early 20th century. The display boasts a miniature model of Fallingwater constructed from limestone excavated from the actual site and a to-scale reconstruction of Forbes Field intact with a crowd fabricated from thousands of painted Q-tips.

From the Miniature Railroad and Village Facebook page.

However, despite the craft and artistry of these hand-built models, the biggest attraction at the miniature railroad are the trains. Kids will spend hours racing the speeding engines through the tiny streets or wait with fevered anticipation for the trains to chug out of the tunnels over and over and over again.

From the Carnegie Science Center Website

During my time at the train display, my duties included assisting in the construction of models, train upkeep, and conducting tours for visitors. However, I spent most of my days in conversation with my co-workers: miniature train enthusiasts. These were life-long Pittsburghers, now in their 70s and 80s, who as young boys were once enamored with the roar of the Pennsylvania Railroad, transistor radios, and rector sets. Now in retirement, they returned to this childhood fascination, spending two days a week at the miniature village, a place where they could live amongst mechanical ingenuity and play.Like the youthful visitors that surrounded them, the volunteers devoted hours to the trains, tinkering with the Pacific Steam or cleaning the wheels on the Sante Fe Diesel.

Don Leech. Miniature Railroad Engineer.
From the Miniature Railroad and Village Facebook page.

Last year, I spent one week in Kiryu City, two hours north of Tokyo, at one of Japan's only brick and mortar karakuri ningyo theaters. The group is made up of local retirees, and upon walking into their workshop filled with repurposed toys, tangled monofilament, and half-finished contraptions, it was if I stepped into a parallel universe. I was back at the railroad.

During the first day of my visit, one of the volunteers, Ishige, showed me around the theater’s fabrication shop. He had been fiddling with a new way of mechanizing a miniature ship so that it crossed the stage with wave-like oscillation. He had repurposed a children's push toy, refitting its mechanical skeleton into a pulley system of monofilament and plywood. Later, he showed off his collection of LEDs, eager to wire the lights inside interiors of miniature dioramas. At Kiryu Karakuri Ningyo Theater, craft wood, 9-volt batteries, and abandoned toys are in high-demand.

I was surprised by the theater’s use of contemporary materials and modifications, a rarity in traditional ningyo. However, Kiryu's practice grew without the strict delineation between puppeteer, builder, and musician that is prevalent in other areas. After World War II, the city's mechanical puppetry ceased for almost half a century due to economic uncertainty. Today, the group views revision as an alternative to being forgotten.

The city’s tradition dates back two hundred years at the city's Tenmangu Shrine. Before establishing a physical theater space, Kiryu's karakuri ningyo was presented outdoors as part of Tenmangu Matsuri. During this festival, six districts performed mechanical puppet shows for thousands of visitors. These spectacles were often miniature reenactments of historic samurai battles and Japanese myths.

Instead of traveling dashi, these puppet shows took place on wooden stages framed by embroidered curtains. The curtains, like the majestic floats of Japan’s matsuri, were ornamental masterpieces that showcased Japan’s finest textiles. Kiryu was once a hub of fashion, and local textile manufacturers sponsored the puppet troupes in exchange for utilizing the curtains to market their finest work. 

These curtains framed detailed miniature landscapes that were just as eye catching as the puppets. Each year puppet companies created new sets, capturing sakura trees, mountains, and Japan’s iconic castles. Kiryu’s Tennmangu Matsuri was a convergence of art, industry, mechanical ingenuity, and, through the magic of Edo Era hydropower, nature.

Unlike other karakuri ningyo performances, where puppets are manipulated from below through a series of strings and rods, many of the performances at Tennmangu shrine were entirely mechanized. Boats set sail, wooden swords were wielded, and samurai committed seppuku through a series of automated springs, gears, and pulleys set in motion by the flowing Kiryu River and waterwheel technology. 

Although it no longer energizes these automated performances, the waterwheel still remains. Today, only one Waterwheel theater still operates, the Chiran Waterwheel Theater in Kyushu. Chiran activates this theater once a year in early July. Luckily, Kiryu Karakuri Ningyo Theater is opened year round. In 1999, it took up new residence at Yano Warehouse, an abandoned soy sauce factory that has reemerged as a hip haven that hosts a craft market, art gallery, and movie premieres.

Inside Kiryu Karakuri Ningyo Theatre there are three waist-high stages about 12 feet long. There are no seats, except for a few folding chairs for the volunteers. The audience stands in the center of the room, rotating between the three stages for each performance.

The house lights are controlled by a volunteer who stands diligently at a light switch. Before the show starts, a puppeteer pokes his head out of the curtain to cue the elderly light operator with a nod. During a few of the performances, he falls asleep, and it often falls on me, or one of the audience members, to politely wake him up to dim the lights.

The week I spent in Kiryu City, the theater did something they’ve never done before - they performed their entire repertoire in one day. This meant they had to strike and remount two of the stages after lunch, and prepare the new shows for the next audience by 1pm. Around bento boxes, pencils, and printed schedules, the volunteers eagerly planed this transition, assigning jobs and discussing possible conflicts.

When the day arrived, the turnout was not what I expected. Only about three people came for the first half of this mechanical puppet marathon. However, despite the lack of crowds, we quickly performed the transitional duties with gusto.

During the second half of the day, some of the mechanisms malfunctioned during a performance. A samurai was supposed to throw a rope over the wall of a castle - however, the rope kept getting tangled on the toss. It’s certainly not a pivotal moment of the show, but the puppeteers stopped the performance, stepped out from the wings, and surrounded the figure. The audience looked a bit bewildered as the performers reset the puppet and attempted the miniature feat once again. The rope didn’t make it over the castle wall. Once again, the show was stopped and the rope toss is re-attempted. When it was finally successful, there was an excited applause - not from the audience, but from the volunteers who looked at each other with joyful victory.

While the audience exited, leaving a few hundred yen in a donation box, the volunteers returned to the puppets, discussing the new ways of activating the rope-toss mechanism in a flurry of excited voices.

Unlike traditional karakuri ningyo that binds communities to deeply rooted traditions, Kiryu illustrates the puppet’s ability to give life to its manipulators. Like the volunteers on the miniature railroad, the puppeteers at Kiryu Karakuri Ningyo Theater growing old while reigniting the curiosity that infused their youth. Keeping this flame fueled is a magic act, one performed by modifying tradition with some wood glue, monofilament, and discarded children's toys.