Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Water Wheel Puppet Theater and Fairy Tale Streets of Chiran

It’s a sweltering summer in Kagoshima, but I endure the heat so I can explore Chiran’s historic samurai village. The thoroughfare of immaculate zen gardens, private estates, and tea houses was once the property of Japanese warriors, or bushi, who provided protection to locals and grew green tea for profits. 

The quiet streets, with their stone fences and Edo-era homes, lack telephone wires, electrical lights, or any fixtures from our modern age. The neighborhood is exquisitely preserved and remains like a doorway into the country's past. 

During World War II, Chiran housed one of Japan's largest airfields, where over 1,000 kamikaze pilots gave their lives to the Imperial Japanese Army. The town recognizes this tragic history with an incredible museum and citywide memorials that champion peace and commemorate the lives lost. Stone obelisks, each dedicated to a kamikaze pilot, line the town's main street where a stream flows alongside laundry mats, suburban homes, and convenience stores. Koi fish peck at the surface as tiny water wheels revolve with quiet perseverance. Reaching above Japanese pines, a watermill grinds wheat flour into udon for hungry locals at a family restaurant. 

With its spellbinding samurai district and magnificent natural landscape, Chiran is like a fairy tale. I'm even more certain of this as I visit Toyotamahime shrine, where an annual puppet show materializes out of the magic of Edo era mechanics and the flow of Chiran's river.

Walking down the narrow steps into Chiran's Water Wheel Karakuri Ningyo Theater, I feel like I am crawling inside the interior of a cuckoo clock. A tiny toy boat glides above my head from a wooden chain as I shimmy through a wall of hand-carved gears and oscillating cloth strings. Through a window I can see the water wheel faithfully spinning outside, setting thousands of pulleys, gears, and ropes into synchronized motion. Underneath the stage, with the creaking sound of do-it-yourself machinery, I have the sense that the entire theater is inching forward across the Pacific. It's like the bilge of a steamboat or a lost contraption in Willy Wonka's factory. 

Above my head, there's a war breaking out. This year's show is a reenactment of The Battle of Ichi-no-Tani, where Kojiro shoots his legendary bow and arrow, samurai clash, and an anthropomorphized octopus happily swings his tentacles to prerecorded music. 

The last time Chiran's Water Wheel Karakuri Ningyo Theater performed this production was in 2005. They have a repertoire of 11 shows and present just one a year during the second week of July. 

Other stories include the tale of Peach Boy, also known as Momotaro, and a fantastical myth about moon-dwelling rabbits. Each production has a script that resembles an engineer's blueprint, filled with notes, diagrams, and pictorial specifications. 

It's not just a matter of taking the puppets off the shelf and following these century-old instructions. Throughout the year the large studio on the shrine's grounds stays busy as volunteers fabricate new set pieces, puppets, and mechanisms for the summer production. 

Modifications are encouraged—as long as electricity isn't involved. Perhaps due to the scarcity of water wheel theaters, the group escapes the rules and customs usually ascribed to festival karakuri ningyo. Instead of a cohesive traditional aesthetic, the design of the show is like patchwork, stitching together 18th-century puppets, paper mâché, plastic tarps, and repurposed gardening supplies.

In 17th-century Japan, these robotic spectacles were more prevalent. Shrines across Japan housed water wheels specifically for operating automated puppet shows. A few hours north of Tokyo, Kiryu City held annual competitive festivals where robotic puppets reenacted famous legendary wartime battles without any human exertion. Today, many of the water wheels stand motionless in shrines across Japan, mementos of a bygone era of hydromechanical ingenuity. As of 2017, only two operational water wheel theaters remain, both of which are in Kagoshima: Takeda Shrine in Kaseda, and here, Toyotamahime Shrine in Chiran. 

A group of about thirty members gather around a long table, or chabudai, and pass around adzuki bean popsicles. It's almost a scorching 40 degrees Celcius, but no one is complaining. The weather forecast predicted rain, but there's not a cloud in sight. 

As a precaution, a tent covers the seating area filled with children, families, and older residents who have attended this annual performance for their entire lives. The two-minute show plays on a rotation for the whole day as townspeople snack on onigiri, pray at the shrine's altar, and catch up on the lives of their neighbors. 

During most karakuri ningyo shows in Japan, the audience waits with rapt attention for the puppet to perform its final transformation or an awe-inspiring feat. However, Chiran's performance is less demanding.  The show's repetition and partnership with the natural world create a performance that blends seamlessly into the landscape. The sound of the rotating water wheel, the squeaking gears, and the pulsating movement of a sword-wielding puppet all mingle with the everyday melody of life. It's impossible for me to tell the difference between the call of the summer's cicadas and the hum of winding springs. 

When leaving Chiran, I feel like I understand the formula behind this town's magic. It's a community that preserves its extraordinary Edo Era history, while it also acknowledges and transforms tragedy into a call for peace. It merges the natural world into everyday life. The puppet performance coordinates with nature, art, and history. Observing the small town gathering at the local shrine to watch their shared mythologies conducted by a river and 300-year-old mechanics is one of the most moving experiences I've had in Japan. Chiran's Water Wheel Theater accomplishes something remarkable. Like the city itself, it reminds us that by finding harmony with our past and the natural world, we can live in the magic of our present. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Rikimaru Touhou and Shimokitazawa's Nightly Manga Communion

I waited for Rikimaru from the second story of a McDonalds across from the bustling Inokashira Line. I sat by the window, where I could get a perfect view of his typical Saturday evening haunt - a teeming street corner at the center of Tokyo’s most famous theater neighborhood. It’s here, in Shimokitazawa, where Rikimaru made a name for himself, setting up a makeshift library of manga and inviting visitors to experience the thrill of his unusual brand of storytelling. 

Since Rikimaru Touhou started performing outside the station over a decade ago, he has gained cult notoriety, appearing on television, in movies, and becoming a notable Setagaya personality. However, despite his success, Rikimaru is still susceptible to the rugged life of street performer, faced with heckling passersby, a less than desirable work environment, and dismissive visitors who mistake the complexity of his shows for the ravings of a madman.

Sure, Rikimaru can get a bit carried away. His voice, alternating between samurai, Japanese school girls, and wicked sound effects, booms through the electric streets of Shimokitazawa, plunging through ramen shops, izakayas, arcades, and the rattling subway platform overhead. It’s impossible not to stop and stare. However, upon spending an evening with the storyteller, I discover someone painfully shy, generous, and polite. Tonight, he continually shifts his makeshift theater, four upside down paint buckets, into the interior of the pedestrian walk so not to disrupt passing vehicles. He greets the local shopkeepers with genuine appreciation, and, as he waits for participants, sits in silent contemplation, his long black hair covering his face like a punk-rock monk.

Two working class men in pinstriped coveralls combine their pocket change and take a seat on Rikimaru’s bucket seats. Tonight, they request a scene from One Piece. Together, they pull their legs into their chests and melt into captivation as they follow Rikimaru’s hands across the pages of their favorite story. 

As foreigners watch Rikimaru, they often laugh or squirm in discomfort. This was my initial reaction, equating him with a sort of Times Square Naked Cowboy-esque figure. But this couldn’t be further from the truth, and, only reflects my own lack of appreciation and connection to manga culture. As I watch Japanese salarymen, teenagers, and public utility workers leaning in with delight under the spell of Rikimaru’s storytelling, I learn to appreciate his power.
In Japan, manga is consumed in convenience stores, on subways, and during lunch breaks. Manga cafes, or manga kissa, are ubiquitous, dedicating half-a-dozen floors to comic book filled hallways and private reading rooms. Yet, something that is so widely consumed is also surprisingly isolating. It is unusual to encounter the thrill of manga with another person. 

Rikimaru offers a rare communal experience, where the characters and stories that fill the imaginations of Tokyoites are suddenly brought to life. In many ways, I see his shows like group therapy - a way of connecting with strangers through shared mythologies in one of the world’s most lonely cities. 

While Rikimaru’s storytelling is often likened to traditional forms of Japanese theater such as kamishibai and rakugo, I think these comparisons don’t give the actor enough credit. They suggest his performances are rooted in pre-bubble Japan, instead of viewing his storytelling as a byproduct of Japan’s complicated post-recession landscape. Rikimaru’s craft is unique to 21st century Tokyo, born in a world of manga obsession, the tedium of the city’s severe workweek grind, and feelings of human disconnection.

Rikimaru has never studied theater. When he started a decade earlier, he had never heard of kamishibai or rakugo. Even though he is stationed in Tokyo’s most famous theater district, he doesn’t cite any cutting-edge directors as inspirations. Instead, it’s all manga, folk music, and hikikomori. Fifteen years earlier, Rikimaru withdrew from society and shut himself into his apartment. He was surrounded only by his guitar and priceless collection of comics. At some point he started to imagine replacing his guitar with his favorite manga. It seemed simple enough. The lyrics were already written.

To me, this leap from extreme social recluse to outdoor performer is astonishing, especially in a city where street theater is rare and widely considered distasteful. Yet, here he is, ten years later, a cult celebrity, still performing on the streets of Shimokitazawa with a few movies under his belt and over 70,000 twitter followers.

While watching Rikimaru up close, performing story after story, I am inspired by how each manga is perfectly rehearsed, from hand motions, sound effects, and page turns. Despite the seemingly frenzied mood, each movement is deliberate and purposeful. Rarely does Rikimaru do anything that’s off the cuff and it’s this consideration that suggests his performances are only a vehicle to serve the manga. 

He’s a master at this balance, often hiding his face behind his long black hair, and carefully manipulating the illustrations across the sightlines of his spectators. Even tonight, as he slaps his cheeks and squeals in ecstasy to compliment a raunchy sex scene, I’m hooked to the pictures. The illustrations flap in front of my eyes as I’m taken through a ride, not with Rikimaru, but into the pages of the book. 

In Japan, as I find myself in bookstores or glancing through the personal libraries of my friends, I always wish I had a better understanding into the world of manga. It’s so pervasive that it feels like another language, a pictorial gateway into one’s personality, desires, and selfhood. And I’m totally out of the loop. But watching Rikimaru has provided insight into manga’s power and importance in Japanese life. In front of rapt onlookers, who all know the characters’ dialogue by heart, Rikimaru is like a modern day super hero, briefly unburdening feelings of isolation, and uniting his audience into the communal power of storytelling.

For Performance Times Follow Rikimaru on Twitter: @touhourikimaru

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: