Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Chiryu Karakuri Ningyo Company and an Action-Packed Marvel

Hundreds of strings stretch across the puppet stage, criss-crossing over wooden beams, in and out of eye hooks, and through the anticipatory fingers of the puppeteers. There are fifteen members of Chiryu Karakuri Ningyo Company, ten of which are crammed inside the stage surrounded by puppets, sashigane, and scripts marked with hand-inked illustrations. During their bi-annual performances, the troupe usually performs on the top of an 18 foot festival float; however, for this week’s rehearsals they use the portable stage, a 100 square foot wooden frame that fills the entirety of Chiryu City's cozy community center.

As I move from one side of the room to the other, I push my back against the wall and delicately slide, careful not to disturb the concentration of the performers.  The team of puppeteers are like a crew of rowers, pulling strings, skillfully twisting sashigane, and quick-changing puppet costumes in harmonious collaboration.  

Two long wooden beams, the toiorganize the numerous strings, passing each thread through carefully marked holes. These are the same toi used on the top of the dashi and, along with the puppets, are invaluable components. After every rehearsal the puppeteers wax the internal strings with resin and then carefully pack the tracks for safekeeping.

Although it's considered an amateur troupe, Chiryu Karakuri Company is one of the most skilled and elaborate groups I’ve come across during my fellowship. In 1992, they represented Japan at UNIMA’s World Conference in Slovenia and have performed internationally in Italy and Australia. Led by my mentor and teacher Yasuko Senda, this September they will make their French debut at Festival Mondial Des Theatre de Marionnettes in Charleville-Méziéres. Like other karakuri ningyo companies, such as in Takayama's Hoteitai troupe, the group only performs one program, The Battle of Ichi-no-Tani. In the world of Japanese mechanical puppet theatre, the show is an action-packed blockbuster. The 15 minute spectacle is filled with dramatic Edo era ingenuitypuppets skillfully shooting bow and arrows, a samurai showdown, and a gleeful warrior twirling a skewered corpse on the end of a spear.

With the unique assistance of a tayu, which I have not seen in any other karakuri ningyo performances, it’s one of the few companies that weaves their audience through a narrative, recreating a legend from the 12th century’s Genji and Heike feud. Like joruri ningyo, karakuri ningyo began as a shinto ritual performed during festivals to offer gratitude to the gods. However, during the Edo era, as ningyo joruri diversified into itinerant performance, comical entertainment, and historical dramatization, karakuri ningyo held fast to its shinto roots. Today, the majority of performances are brimming with the same rhythmic movements, symbolic transformations, and spectacular gestures of the original ritualistic shows. The Battle of Ichi-no-Tani, with a cast of historical characters, live narration, and a fifteen minute runtime, offers something totally different.

The development of karakuri ningyo into historical drama might be due to another unique feature of Chiryu's company. On the first floor of the dashi, a platform extends specifically for ningyo joruri performances. These shows, which occur before the robotic puppets take the stage, date back to the matsuri’s Edo era origins.

It’s likely that this integration with local joururi ningyo troupes influenced the karakuri company to try its hand at historical storytelling and incorporate the bunraku trifecta: tayu, shamisen, and puppeteer. The dashi reflects this synthesis, with a center tier that is dedicated to the narrator and shamisen player, forming a towering theater with three different stages.

While Chiryu Karakuri Ningyo Company usually only performs every other spring, this year they are busier than ever as I follow them to indoor shows at cultural centers, rehearsals for Charleville-Méziéres, and celebratory events that mark their introduction into UNESCO's Cultural Heritage list. It’s an exciting and fruitful time for a puppet company that almost didn’t survive the 20th century. 

Like most puppet troupes in Japan during World War II, Chiryu’s karakuri ningyo performances completely ceased. It took some companies decades to recuperate after wartime due to the destruction of puppets, lack of national pride, and economic strain. Luckily, Chiryu City found the funds and spirit to rejuvenate the dormant tradition. In 1950 The Chiryu Karakuri Ningyo Company was founded by Mr. Shinji Sakata. Today, the company is directed by his son, Morohiko Sakata, and has almost twenty members. It’s a diverse group of insurance salesmen, farmers, students, an architect, and a few city officials. 

Some of the men have been performing together for almost 30 years, but there are still plenty of new members. In order to survive, there has to be. While the masters of other Japanese traditional arts, such as noh, bunraku, and kabuki, are often in their 70s and 80s, karakuri ningyo takes a lot of unexpected endurance and dexterity. 

In order to reach the top tier of a dashi, you must pull yourself upwards through tiny compartments, your hands gripping the floor as puppeteers navigate around you. Once at the peak, you balance in-between wooden cross beams as you stretch your neck upward to manipulate the puppets, trying to avoid the glare of the sun.  

My original expectation was karakuri ningyo would be similar to handling a marionette, requiring a sense of elegance and specificity. While the puppet’s movements can be crisp and expressive, there’s nothing graceful about the manipulation. As I jostle rods and tug at string, it feels like operating heavy machinery. I often struggle to garner enough strength. The puppets, fabricated from Hinoki wood, are heavy and difficult to command. Not to mention they’re filled with interior mechanisms, additional costumes, and hidden characters.

For example, the onerous puppet of Okabe includes a collapsed miniature Shinto shrine and an additional puppet head. He also wields a spear that swings another karakuri ningyo around on its end. To manipulate Okabe, it doesn't just take practice, but serious muscle-power. 

Now, I see karakuri ningyo's manipulation more similar to the powerful puppet machines from Walking with Dinosaurs than marionettes or rod puppets. I’m awed by the troupe’s greatest trick of all - they make it look easy. 

After rehearsals, as the group gathers around the small television set with beer and kameda crisps to watch footage of past performances, the youngest members hang by the stage. 


They’re trying to get a grasp on the puppet, Kojiro, a boy warrior who must draw a bow and strike his arrow at the center of a target. There’s no illusion. The puppet must really pull-off the coup. Manipulating only Kojiro’s arms and hands through a series of strings and rods, it’s even more difficult than shooting the real thing. 

The young men practice over and over, most of the time unable to get Kojiro to successfully string the bow. One of the old-timers approaches, beer in hand, and takes a stab at it. He tugs on the strings. Kojiro draws. Bullseye. 

Monday, July 3, 2017

Youkiza Puppet Company, Four Centuries of Breaking Rules & Pulling Strings

Sayoko Yamaguchi in performance of 'Pelléas et Mélisande' at Youkiza, 1992.
via Japan Times, 2015.

Masahiro Matsuda-san takes me backstage at Nose Joruri Theater, one of the largest joruri companies in Japan. The theater sits just north of Osaka City, a few miles from Mt. Nose and the remarkable Myokensan Temple. Matsuda-san, who was recently appointed director of the theater company, is faced with the challenging task of raising attendance during a time when visitor numbers are steadily shrinking. He has tried to modernize the production's promotional ads by featuring puppets in spacesuits or black and white cinematic poses more reminiscent of Casablanca than Chikamatsu with little results. Backstage, he holds up the wooden kashira of a female puppet. With the pull of a string, she transforms into a demon with horns sprouting from her head, her mouth in a dangerously fanged grin.

A few months earlier, Matsuda-san had the puppet-makers change the color of her mouth from black to a vibrant  blue. This seemingly insignificant choice, the interior color of a puppet's mouth, went too far. Patrons were upset and Matsuda-san found more trouble than he expected. Things were changing too fast.

Traditional Japanese performance, from Noh to Bunraku, is often marked by this strict adherence to historical custom. Ritual is pivotal and anything divergent can be interpreted as disrespectful to the ancestors who practiced before. The national arts are not just entertainment, but an expression of what it means to be Japanese. So when I attended a production of Doll's Town, an original show by Japan's oldest puppet company, Youkiza, I was left totally bewildered. The production traveled between decades, activated magic lanterns for illuminated explosive air raids, featured humans and puppets interacting in Andy Kaufman Howdy Doody intimacy, and set fire to one of the leading characters.

via Europe Magazine, 2011. 

Started by Magosaburou Youki in 1635, today the company is led by Magosaburou XII, who generously invites me to his studio to explore. Surrounded by marionettes, magic lanterns, and hot coffee in Youkiza's beautiful West Tokyo studio, I have just one question for Magosaburou-san. How does Tokyo's oldest puppet troupe become one of the city's most ambitious and daring theater companies?

At its conception, Youkiza originally performed Buddhist parables with marionettes, each puppet manipulated by seventeen strings attached to a flat control paddle known as a teita. At its center, the teita had a small see-saw-like bar that operated the puppet's head and feet. The puppet's neck was attached to the body through a knob known as a choi. With the assistance of a skilled puppeteer, the choi string brought the puppet to life, creating realistic breath and head movement that, along with the teita, have become synonymous with the company.    

via http://www.youkiza.jp 

During the heyday of itinerant puppet performances in Edo Japan, about five perecent of companies performed with marionettes. However, Youkiza stood out for other reasons. It was one of the first ningyo companies to adopt the collaborative support of a narrator and shamisen player, and they frequently commissioned original plays from contemporaries, including the Edo Era cult figure Hiraga Gennai, who wrote the satirical essay On Farting. Sure, Youkiza did the quintessential Chikamatsu tragedies, but the puppet theater also produced many unknown works before plays gained wide popularity through kabuki and ningyo joruri houses. A fan of these stringed spectacles, the Tokugawa government supported Youkiza throughout the Edo period. Nonetheless, the company faced serious economic challenges that worsened as the Meiji era dawned and shogun rule collapsed. By 1866, Youkiza almost disappeared.

It was the ninth Magosaburou Youki who brought new life to the troupe by reinvigorating the risk-taking penchant that was at the heart of Youkiza. He radically eliminated the tayu and shamisen, brushed up on his storytelling chops, and manipulated the 17-string marionettes while delivering the puppets' dialogue himself. When speaking about Magosaburou Youki IX, Magosaburou-san grins widely across the table, weaving tales about the puppeteer's rebellious escapades, including the introduction of the Magic Lantern, or Utushi-e, into the company's repertoire. The IX performed these illuminated spectacles across the city, including Tokyo riverbanks, where fishing boats were repurposed as puppet stages, and crowds gathered outdoors to witness the astonishing mystical lanterns illuminating keyholes into colorful new worlds.

via http://www.youkiza.jp 
During Youkiza's 2017 production of Doll's Town, three puppeteers emerged operating magic lanterns projecting slides of fighter jets. Through the lantern's internal mechanisms, the glowing illustrations were transformed into crimson explosions. It's a two-hundred year old technique created by light, lenses, and just a few glass slides - but the moment is surprisingly effective, perhaps even more effective than actual footage.

via http://www.youkiza.jp

It's an odd paradox that this artifice feels more sincere than reality. As I bring up this conundrum to Magosaburou-san, he pushes his coffee to the side and waxes poetic. For Magosaburou-san, the tools of the puppet theater, from marionettes to magic lanterns, activate an audience's dormant curiosity. These limitations of the physical object are metaphysical invitations for a viewer to engage his or her imagination and enter head first into the world of the play.

via http://www.youkiza.jp 
At the end of the 19th century, these techniques were just as effective, as Magosaburou Youki IX's innovative introduction of magic lanterns and new performance methods contributed to the rise of Youkiza's popularity. The company worked feverishly in Japan's yose, a type of Japanese Vaudeville. They performed alongside musical acts, magicians, and comedic storytellers known as rakugo. However, despite this success, the company continued to face obstacles, from internal family conflict between Magosaburou IX and his son, Youki Isse (Magosaburou X), the rise of the film industry, and the devastation of World War II, which left much of Youkiza's Edo era puppets and magic lantern equipment destroyed. 
Via the Tokyo Arts Council
However, for Youki Isse, the 21st century's economic and existential challenges inspired him to question the role of Youkiza in a rapidly changing Japan. Like his father fifty years earlier, Isse wasn't satisfied with the company's work. He wanted to diverge from the world of yose and experiment with large-scale productions, dramatic works, and broadcast television. While Isse's defiance led to serious paternal conflict that lasted decades, he led Youkiza into a fruitful collaboration with NHK, Japan's public broadcasting network. Under industrial lighting, where puppet faces cracked and set piece were set aflame, Youkiza produced one of the first broadcasted puppet shows in Japan. The live televised performances garnered national attention and newfound support for the company, leading to an era of large-scale theatrical productions and new contemporary work. Establishing Youkiza's place in modern Japan, all with the same puppet fabrication and manipulation techniques from the last three and half centuries, Isse was eventually granted the Magosaburou title by his father.

via http://www.youkiza.jp
Two generations later, Magosaburou XII shares so much in common with his ancestors it feels like they are at the table with us. Like his forefathers, Magosaburou-san didn't have any toys. As children, the Youki line was only allowed to play with marionettes. By four, they all made their stage premieres, performing marionettes alongside fathers and grandfathers. But most similarly, he has pushed the company in new directions, producing Japanese kabuki classics, the radical works of Artaud and Jean Genet, international collaborations, and original shows that explore post-war and post-bubble Japan.  As an artist who developed in the 1970s, Magosaburou-san found inspiration in Tokyo's radical underground  theater movement, ultimately incorporating the spirit of Shüji Terayama and Juro Kara into his Edo era company. This has shaped a contemporary Youkiza that offers a rare reflection into both modern and traditional Japan. 

via Blog of Sakate.

Today, the company is designated a "National Selected Intangible Folk Cultural Property" and a "Tokyo Municipal Intangible Cultural Property," however, Youki-san admits he faces pushback from cultural institutions. As one of the oldest surviving theater companies in Japan, officeholders, cultural ambassadors, and bureaucrats want him to stick to tradition. But what if your tradition survived by taking risks and challenging the status quo?

via @ihajiro. https://twitter.com/ihajiro

I ask Magosaburou-san what kind of work he hopes Youkiza will produce in the future. "I can't really know and I don't really care," he responds. "As long as they keep using the same puppet techniques, I'm ok." And how can he care? In order to survive, it's about answering the question that every Magosaburou Youki has asked for the last 375 years. "What Does it mean to be Japanese in this moment... and this moment... and this moment..." It's a question that never gets old. 

For more information about Youkiza, visit their website at: