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.

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