Monday, February 27, 2017

Puppet Island

After a short bicycle ride from Sanjō Ōmidō Hachiman shrine, I am standing at the entrance of a graveyard. There's no iron gate, stone markers or memorial plaques, only a winding camphor tree caught between the fall and winter season. With overgrown plants and wild daffodils, the cemetery feels a bit neglected - perhaps due to its inhabits. Six feet below are the remains of puppets, with wooden heads carved from cypress and tiny fingers hinged with whale bone, buried by puppeteers searching for a final resting place for their sacred figures beyond repair.

Sanjō Ōmidō Hachiman Shrine in Southern Awaji is the birthplace of the region's puppet traditions, where centuries earlier Shinto priests manipulated puppets to appease the god Ebisu and grant good fortune for the rural island dwellers.

As I mentioned in my previous entry, these puppeteers eventually teamed up with traveling storytellers, morphing their performances from religious ceremony into itinerant entertainment. They were also notoriously grunge, part of a lower class that embraced a bohemian lifestyle. Shunned from society, puppeteers found their home amongst the gamblers, thieves, and prostitutes. 

And here, in the Sanjō neighborhood of Awaji, was the center of it. But today the town is frightfully quiet, caught in an economic slump that has taken a toll on village life.

Like the puppets underfoot, the history of Ōmidō Shrine is concealed - but just 15 kilometers down the idle highway, past a McDonalds and kiddy park, there's a different story still unfolding.

Hovering above Awaji's Fukura Bay, the puppet theater looks like a charcoal-colored Millennium Falcon - a planetary visitor surrounded by abandoned storefronts, a fish market, and a Family Mart.

Awaji Ningyo Za (Awaji Puppet Theater) was previously located a short walk from the Sanjō Ōmidō Hachiman shrine. However, in 2012 it was relocated about ten miles south in the tourist-friendly Fukura Bay.

Inside, the performance hall is an air-conditioned memorial to the original theater. The proscenium is embellished in fragments from the Sanjō theater’s roof, while the rubble is preserved in rocky details along the interior walls. In the rear, glass cases showcase 16th century puppets and original hand-painted panels from fusuma karakuri performances.

Japanese lanterns line the perimeter and audiences sit in professionally-crafted bamboo benches. The design attempts to summon its rural island roots, but with the enormous embroidered curtain, well-crafted aesthetic, and gift shop in the lobby, it can't help but feel wonderfully artificial - like Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room. Instead of a Dole Whip, audience members are encouraged to purchase Awaji cookies branded with the face of everyone's favorite puppet god, Ebisu.

On a typical day, bucket hats fill the audience as many visitors arrive via bus tours geared towards regional retirees. There are typically three to five performances a day, each made up of three acts: a comedic ritual with the god Ebisu, an excerpt from a classical drama, and a performance of Dogugaeshi (fusuma karakuri). 

At first, this mash-up of day trip attraction and Edo Era tradition was difficult to reckon with. Was I actually experiencing traditional Awaji puppet theater? Was the theater's modernization and its condensed production style doing more harm than good? However, after spending a month in Fukura, observing rehearsals, talking to locals, and hanging out backstage, I came to realize that Awaji Ningyo Za is a traditional puppet theater with tourist attraction frills. These modern adjustments are masks worn to survive in the 21st century.

The Awaji troupe operates under a rigid training and rehearsal regime. The lead puppeteers, musicians, and narrators train for over twenty years. In December, the lead shamisen player, Tsuruzawa Tomoj, passed away. She had been performing for over 90 years. She was 103.

One of my favorite performances I’ve seen in Japan is Awaji Ningyo Za’s excerpt from Datemusume koi no higanoko. Confronting her own death to save the life of her lover, a young woman wildly dances across the stage as her long black strands deliriously fly around her face. The performance starts out graceful, but transforms into something more grotesque and chaotic. At the end of the scene, hair unruly, she climbs a bell tour, the puppeteers holding her arms from the inside. After intentional stumbles, she is thrown over the top of the tower, almost haphazardly. The scene is melodramatic and showcases the puppet’s feral qualities. This is one of the main differences between Awaji ningyo and Bunraku - its a bit more untamed. While Bunraku appealed (and appeals) to a more sophisticated crowd, Awaji was a tradition primarily performed for commoners. Even with the hawking of ningyo cookies, Awaji Ningyo Za still manages to preserve this wild quality.

Each show at Awaji Ningyo Za ends with a six minute performance of Dogugaeshi, also known as fusuma karakuri. Dogugaeshi is a form of rural performance where sliding hand-painted panels move in and out of a proscenium, delving deeper and deeper through an illustrative portal. I plan to write much more on Dogugaeshi in April. 

While in Awaji, I spend my nights at rehearsals as the troupe prepares for a performance at Tokyo's National Theater. The show calls for over 30 puppeteers, so members of the community assist and operate secondary characters. Their manipulation is certainly not too cultivated, but this is what makes Awaji Ningyo Za so interesting - it's tightly bound in the Awaji community. It's a city center, a sort of performative town hall, for the people of Fukura. Almost all of the local schools offer shamisen and puppetry classes, and there are a dozen performances every year featuring middle and high school students. Some of the these students even go on to work at the puppet theater after graduation. At the local cafe, the barista is excited to talk about the upcoming puppet shows. At the ice cream shop, the husband and wife owners generously give me an extra scoop since I’m a puppeteer. Awaji puppeteers are everywhere, saying hello at the post office or grabbing udon with their family at the local noodle restaurant. The longer you spend in Awaji, the more you realize that puppetry plays a vital role in the city's success, both culturally and economically. 

Although much smaller, Fukura reminds 
me of Takarazuka, home of the Takarazuka Revue, an entire city centered around one theater. In both Fukura and Takarazuka the puppeteers and performers are like adored athletes. Like a sports team, they offer the city a sense of purpose. While walking around Fukura it's obvious that Awaji Ningyo Za has fostered a sense of community, and might be why you can't help but be met with friendly and inquisitive neighbors throughout the town. 

Returning to the Sanjō neighborhood, there sits a museum dedicated to Awaji puppetry. Inside, you'll find 16th century puppet costumes, mechanized wooden heads, and miniature models of the Edo Era’s outdoor puppet theaters. But it’s every Saturday afternoon when the spirit of Awaji puppetry is on full-display. During my time on the island, I looked forward to these weekend visits, when a group of dedicated puppet hobbyists meet to carve heads, hinge hands, and thread wigs. 

The group has been meeting for over 30 years. They are creating puppets with the same materials and zest of those puppet-makers from centuries before. 

Together, in their 70s and 80s, they still trade notes and make hand-crafted guidebooks filled with photocopied pages and handwritten instructions.

They are generous with these references, sharing them without hesitation. It’s one of the most inspiring experiences I’ve had in Japan, watching how puppetry connects this group of artisans to their ancestors, to the region, and to a history spanning half a century. 

After my days at Awaji Ningyo Za, I often stop by a small coffee shop down the street from the theatre. Here, I take notes and chat with the barista about puppetry, his family, and the best food in Awaji. The barista recounts a time, twenty-five years earlier, when the then-governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, came to Fukura Bay and stayed at the luxurious Royal Hotel, a short drive away. “He enjoyed Awaji beef," the barista recalls. 

But this also speaks to another time, when Japan was experiencing an economic boom, and Awaji’s tourism was more active, attracting the likes of up and coming charismatic American politicians. But today, the town feels like it’s in limbo. It’s either on the verge of becoming a charming tourist destination or falling deeper into the unknown. This is the theme I keep coming across traveling in rural Japan. It feels like the uncertainty of Japan’ post-bubble economy is akin to the unresolved future of rural Japan and its traditional art forms. 

But it’s Awaji Ningyo Za’s mixture of community engagement and tourist appeal that gives Fukura a fighting chance. After a month in Awaji, the Star Trekian building stops looking so out of place, and stands like a celestial beacon for the future. During my last visit at the local cafe, the barista sincerely asks me if I’ve considered buying property in Fukura. “We need more puppeteers around here”. 

To learn more about Awaji Ningyo Za, please visit their website:

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Uncovering the Puppet Rituals of Tokushima

Outside the Tokushima Prefecture Museum, Kazuhide Tsujimoto stands by an ashtray checking his watch. With stylish leather loafers, sunglasses, and an intimidating poker-face stare, Tsujimoto is not what I imagine when I think “hako-maswashi ritual puppeteer.” He abruptly ashes his cigarette and heads to his hatchback. I have trouble keeping up, his pace steadfast, his eyes fixed ahead at something unseen. Tsujimoto is clearly on a mission. 

Hako-mawashi often refers to the nomadic puppet performance performed in rural cities across Japan, specifically on the Shikoku and Awaji islands. These puppeteers, or dokumbo-mawashi, would travel with boxes strapped around their necks that served as both storage and a miniature stage. The earliest puppets were bodiless heads on wooden rods. Eventually, these figures transformed into larger costumed puppets that were transported in crates and carried from bamboo poles. Hako-mawashi certainly speaks to the inherent transient lifestyle of puppeteers, but it’s far more than traditional street theater. Hako-mawashi is a missing link, a part of performance history that uncovers the puppet’s mystic powers. It's a doorway between puppetry and the gods. 

Photograph by Alípio Padilha. (Website / FB

is rooted in religious ceremonies performed in shrines during Japan’s Edo era. One example is Sanbasō-mawashi, where a puppeteer manipulates a Sanbasō puppet through a series of ritual choreography until it enters into a mystical trance. This trance is marked by the puppet’s eyes rotating upward through a mechanized trick head, or gabu. Once the puppet is in this transcendent state, he adorns a black mask, and shakes a suzu bell, performing a purification rite. Other types of hako-mawashi include ebisu-kaki, where a puppet of god Ebisu sings songs, requests a little sake, and grants good fortune. 

Via Awa Deko Hakomawashi Hozonkai, Kazuhide Tsujimoto

One of the most comprehensive English-language books I've found on hako-maswashi is Jane Marie Law's Puppets of Nostalgia. In the text, she writes:

”These wandering puppeteers...performed an essential ritual function. They mediated the boundaries between the distinct but sometimes overlapping worlds of sacred forces and human beings, order and chaos, life and death, fertility and infertility. Their ritual performance served to usher in the new year, purify dwellings for another season, and revitalize sacred forces in the community."

Eventually, these traveling dokumbo-mawashi teamed up with storytellers (tayu) and roaming musicians, giving rise to ningyo joruri and, in the 19th century, Bunraku puppetry.

Working as a puppeteer in Tokushima during the Edo era was like being an actor in Astoria, Queens today. Documents from the early 1800s illustrate a population where over twenty percent of citizens worked as puppeteers.

Photograph by Alípio Padilha. (Website / FB ) 
Puppeteers had a vital role to play in Japanese life. They were ritualistic shamans who could appease the unknown and dispel the impurities of the past. Without them, crops wouldn't harvest and the natural world remained untamable. However, since these puppeteers dealt in a realm of enchantments and pollution, they were considered unclean, and were edged out of towns into their own outcast neighborhoods.

Tokushima and Awaji were filled with these misfit districts until the early 20th century when the hako-mawashi practices almost vanished due to burgeoning entertainment and the strain of World War II. Ultimately, a post-war environment emerged that frowned on ritualistic customs.

This last New Year season, Tsujimoto trudged through miles of snow, visiting hundreds of houses, and performing hako-mawashi’s ebisu-kaki ritual for residents. When areas of Shikoku face a poor harvest or drought, Tsujimoto is called to perform these rites for the distressed towns.

Yet, when you ask him about his occupation, he won't say “puppeteer.” “Scholar,” he responds, silently giving credit to the giants before him. It’s these giants who seem to fill Tsujimoto’s thoughts. I sit in his studio, piled high with countless books and hundreds of puppets by one of Japan’s most famous puppet-makers, Tengu Hisa.

Tengu Hisa carved beautiful wooden heads, or kashira, that are immediately recognizable for their craftsmanship and large size. These puppets, many of which mirror the puppets used in Edo era hako-mawashi performances, are larger than traditional Bunraku puppets. Despite being much heavier than their puppet descendants, they are only manipulated by a single puppeteer. 

The Tengu Hisa name has continued for three generations, and, today, at the foot of Tokushima’s majestic Mt. Bizen, sits Tengusa Hisa’s original studio and home preserved as a museum.

I stand outside the museum snapping photos of the quiet neighborhood. With narrow streets and farmland filling most of the area, it’s hard to imagine this district teeming with hundreds of puppeteers. Even here, standing in one of the centers of hako-mawashi, the art form feels just out of reach.
I turn to ask Tsujimoto a question, but before I say anything I realize he’s already made his way back to the car, lighting a cigarette while eyeing the road in his rear view mirror.

This afternoon, we meet at a primary school in the center of rural Shikoku. Middle school students fill into a recreation room as Tsujimoto and his two assistants, Masako Nakauchi and Kimiyo Minami, unpack the hako-maswashi boxes. For the audience of adolescents, Masako and Kimiyo perform examples of hako-mawashi, such as ebisu-kakiSanbasō rite, and a short ningyo joruri show.

Today’s demonstration ends with Tsujimoto, who looks out at the group of over one hundred middle school students with an unexpected smile. He seems like a different person in front of the group, comfortable and cool, emphatically delivering his closing remarks. Tsujimoto is doing everything he can to pass his passion on to these students, urging them to recognize the importance of Japan’s artistic history before it’s too late. This is far from a lecture, but an act of transference.

My translator paraphrases, “Tsujimoto feels like most Japanese university students who study art know Picasso and Van Gogh, but know nothing about traditional Japanese art. Those who study theater know Shakespeare, but not Noh.”

Tsujimoto grimaces.

“Foreigners care more about Noh than those who study in Japan," he adds.

As Tsujimoto continues, I think about him alone at the wheel, traveling through the roads of Tokushima witnessing a town forget. Today, he does everything he can to help the city remember.

When it seems like Tsujimoto is about to say goodbye, he stops for a moment, his speech growing more serious.

“His grandmother was a puppeteer,” my translator explains. “But she faced, you know, discrimination?"

Discrimination is a word I I hear a lot when it comes to life as a puppeteer during the Edo Period. I nod.

“When her children were born she was afraid they would face the same fate, so she cast her puppets into the river, hoping her children would have a better future.”

Today, with his studio filled with puppets, books, and a career built on preservation of this endangered traditional art, it feels like Tsujimoto is treading in that river, piecing together fragments of those lost puppets. Like the Shinto priests before him, delivering their puppets into other-worlds, Tsujimioto is wading in a realm we can no longer see: the past.

After the lecture, Tsujimoto sits in the school principal’s office chatting over coffee. He looks gleeful, and, for the first time since I’ve been around him, relaxed. He leans back and smiles.

As the children return to their classes, we pack up Tsujimoto’s van, carrying Tupperware containers to the trunk, where Tsujimoto meticulously organizes them. I return to the gymnasium to make sure nothing was left behind. When I return, Tsujimoto has already left. I look across the parking lot to see the rear of his van, traveling down the road, vanishing into the horizon.

For more information about Kazuhide Tsujimoto: 
Website: EN / JP
Facebook Page

For more information about hako-maswashi and ritual puppetry in Tokushima and Awaji, I can't recommend Jane Marie Law's book enough:

Puppets of Nostalgia: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of the Japanese "Awaji Ningyō" Tradition

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Rooms of Desire: Checking In at Kuro Tanino's Avidya: No Lights Inn

This piece, "Rooms of Desire: Checking In at Kuro Tanino's Avidya: No Lights Inn" by Zach Dorn was originally published on HowlRound (, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on Date.

To turn a corner in Nishinari-ku is to be dropped into a maze of carefully orchestrated tableaus of desire. The notorious Osaka neighborhood is home to Tobita Shinchi, Japan’s only legalized red light district. Here, the curated scenes teeter between sexuality and chastity, as outsiders pass open street-side rooms of young women in various poses amid props, furniture, costumes, and elaborate lighting. To the left, a glamorous aristocrat holds a silk gloved hand to her face as she pauses to sniff an elaborate flower bouquet. To the right, a cheerleader prances across a deep red carpet for an audience of wide-eyed Hello Kitty dolls. Each frame offers a portal into another wordless reverie, with a woman that executes the performance of the mythical shy virgin, coyly waving from her porch proscenium. As quickly as it began, however, the fantasy must burst, as the madams approach onlookers with price tags for their seductive dioramas.

Tobiti Shinchi, Japan’s only legalized redlight district.

With her unwelcome entrance, the ornamental wooden awnings, golden embellishments, and glowing lanterns that surround Tobita’s red light stages fade into view. These stages aren’t just fantasies. These are shrines to our own subconscious desires.
Around another corner, in a different city, another tableau awaits. A deep red curtain opens to reveal the interior of a rickety hot spring in the mountains of rural northwest Japan. Upon receiving a mysterious invitation in the mail from the hotel manager, father and son puppeteers, Momohuku, a dwarf, and Ichiro Kurata, arrive at the cluttered lobby of the onsen (hot spring) only to find that the hotel manager does not exist. Instead, there’s Otaki, an elderly and anxious guest, who explains that the onsen is maintained by a group of dedicated patrons attracted to its healing properties. Mesmerized by Momohuku’s unusual stature, Otaki falls into a hypnotic trance of bewilderment and urges them to stay the night. As the Kurata duo heads to their room, the entire hotel lobby lurches forward against the magnificent groan of the set, rotating the scene to reveal the highly-detailed two-story interior of the hotel's tatami bedrooms as a narrator introduces the show. The voice croaks in a devilish whisper: Niwa Gekidan Penino Presents Avidya: No Lights Inn.”
Photo by Shinsuke Sugino.

Avidya: No Lights Inn
 is one of the newest productions by director Kuro Tanino's theatre company, Niwa Gekidan Penino. It premiered in 2015, and earned Tanino one of the most prestigious annual awards for emerging Japanese playwrights, the Kishida Prize for Drama. I saw it at the Kyoto Experiment: Kyoto International Performing Arts Festival where it was remounted in November 2016.
The theatrical auteur has a background in painting and graduated from medical school, working as a psychiatrist as a backup to the precarious career of experimental theatre director. As a way to sharpen his skills as a theatremaker, Kuro Tanino transformed his Tokyo apartment into a twenty-five seat theatre, where audiences crammed inside to witness his frenzied and surreal staged hallucinations.
With obsessive anthropomorphic mammals, fractured sets, and sexually repressed college students populating hyper-detailed fantasy worlds, Kuro's work reflects both his background as a visual artist and experiences as a psychiatrist.
You can also see this in Tanino's approach to playwriting, where he abandons traditional scripts for graphic storyboards and miniature models.
"It begins with the completion of a first picture, and that leads to the idea for the next picture. That process continues one storyboard after another like a row of dominoes knocking down one after the other," Tanino told The Japan Foundation in a 2011 interview.
However, Avidya: No Lights Inn marks a departure. The play was completed before the first rehearsal, and is filled with highly expressive descriptions that feel more like illustrations of a Goya painting than stage directions. 
His ribs can be used as a grater, his legs look like driftwood that have dried for many years. There is no hair on his pale body, but his glossy skin dazzles.
Avidya: No Lights Inn suggests a new approach for Kuro Tanino, one that combines both a textual and visual foundation.
“Avidya” is a Buddhist concept that translates to “ignorance,” or as Tibetologist Alex Wayman translates it “unwisdom.” Avidya: No Lights Inn follows five patrons of the inn as Momohuku and Ichiro coerce them out of their states of “unwisdom” and into a strained confrontation with existence. Matsuo is a fidgety blind man who baths in the hot spring to bring back his sight, but is also optimistic that his blindness will open his third eye and draw him closer to Buddhahood. Momohuku's presence both deeply troubles and entices him. Left alone, Matsuo nervously gropes Momohuku's child-sized jacket with the fascination of a boy sneaking his first glimpse at a Playboy. While they bathe in the hot spring, Matsuo nervously floats around the mystifying little person. Momohuku cackles: “Do you want to touch?” However, this is not just another example of Tanino's reoccurring themes of sexual repression. At the end of their conversation in the bath, Momohuku callously foretells Matsuo, “The soul which you are looking for does not exist anywhere.” Through Momohuku, Matsuo is confronted with the futility of his third eye pursuit and the permanence of his blindness.
Momohuku Kurata is played by the actor Mame Yamada, who wears his hair in a long flowing sweep, and smokes cigarettes with an icy authenticity that fills Kuro Tanino's silence with unbridled tension.
“I feel drawn to people with faces that look like they have been persecuted or discriminated against all their lives,” Kuro told The Japan Foundation. In Mame Yamada, Kuro certainly found a muse.
Takahiko Tsuji plays opposite of Yamada as Momohuku's enigmatic son, Ichiro. In a leather jacket and constant scowl, Ichiro is silently unnerving, intimidating the hotels guests, but tenderly attentive to his father. With every step, you're unsure if he seeks to strangle or feed you.
Restrained and evocative, both Tsuji and Yamada give performances that illuminate their connection to an other-world, especially played against the neurotic uncertainty of Matsuo, acted by Hayato More, who, at twenty-nine, disappears entirely into the role.
Photo by Shinsuke Sugino.

Avidya: No Lights Inn
 avoids the more surrealist elements that parade through Kuro Tanino's previous landscapes. We're in a real city, in Japan’s Hokuriku region, in the year 2013. The stage is meticulously detailed to create a hyper-realistic environment. In the bath house, steam rises from the hot spring as the nude actors bathe in flowing water. Yet, it's this adherence to reality combined with Kuro's illustrious visual language, revolving stage, and use of restrained performance, that creates one of his most strange, uncanny, and stirring productions. It reminds me of one of Duchamp's most disturbing works, Étant Donnés, where viewers peer through a wooden door to view a nude woman lying in a field of grass, a miniature waterfall in the background flows like an electric painting in a Chinese restaurant. It's one of Duchamp's more figurative works, but with its miniature environment and realistic waxed figure framed within the wooden door, it's also his most surreal. Like Kuro's loft turned theatre, Duchamp created the masterwork in his apartment's bathroom, using miniature models and photographs to guide its eventual installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Today, it's one of the museum's most popular works, as thousands of people visit a year, to stand on their tip toes, and gaze into a new and mysterious world. As the audience watches Kuro Tanino's Avidya, it feels like we're all on our tiptoes, peering into the mysterious hot spring that feels all at once familiar and unreal.
In Kuro Tanino and designer Michiko Inada's beast of a set, you are constantly peering through windows and door frames, trying to catch a glimpse into other worlds. As a scene plays in the laundry room, you can see Mame through a doorway climbing into the foggy hot spring. Masayuki Abe's lighting design never overstates Kuro's surreal qualities. It's subtle realistic golden hues capture a dusty haziness that reinforces the production's uncanniness, and recalls the unsettling photographs of Roe Ethridge. While Kuro Tanino may be softening a bit to realism, his hyper-controlled direction and aesthetic inside Inada's teetering dollhouse mirrors a marionette performance. This becomes even more transparent as the guests each find themselves in the Kuratas’ bedroom for the climactic puppet show. Instead of a joyful farce of hand puppet delight, what the audience witnesses is a disturbing dance between Momohuku and a skeleton with swinging genitals. The performance references traditional dokumbo-maswahi, a Japanese puppet ritual performed as a purification rite.
From Jane Marie Law's Puppets of Nostalgia, an insightful look into ritual puppetry, Dokumbo-mawashi led puppeteers into “... overlapping worlds of sacred forces and human beings, order and chaos, life and death, and fertility and infertility.”
As Momohuku dances on a table with the crude primitive paper mache skeleton while giggling and thrusting his tiny legs, the hotel guests look on horrified. The audience does the same.
Avidya: No Lights Inn is our own dokumbo-mawashi ritual, orchestrated by puppeteer Kuro Tanino. For two hours, the lights are turned off, and we are forced to confront the darkness, and, hopefully, come out better for it on the other side. Kuro Tanino has gone from Freudian psychoanalyst to Shinto Priest.
Avidya: No Lights Inn should give theatremakers pause about our approach to the playmaking process. By combining both a textual and highly visual foundation for the development process, Avidya: No Lights Inn's forceful pursuit of a unified visual universe creates a compelling narrative with fully realized characters. But most significantly, it makes theatre mythical, transforming the play into a ritualistic and darkly spiritual experience. Like Osaka's Tobita Shinchi, the show connects our subconscious existential anxieties, repressed desires, and humanity to the nonmaterial world of gods.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Yasuko Senda and Her Goodwill Mission

On August 8th of 2016, the entire island of Japan paused to watch Emperor Akihito address the nation from The Tokyo Imperial Palace and urge parliament to pass legislation that would allow him to abdicate. Fifty years earlier, the world watched on black and white newsreels as Emperor Akihito, then a prince, married Empress Michiko. It was a fairy tale wedding. Emperor Akihito met Michiko Shoda on a tennis court, and now she was the princess of the longest running monarchy in the world. To celebrate the wedding, Japan's prime minister, Shinsuke Kishi, established the first Japanese Youth Goodwill Mission and sent 79 Japanese youth across the Pacific to share Japan's rich culture and offer goodwill onto the world.

Yasuko has just returned from Turin, Italy, where she gave a lecture on Bunraku at the Incanti Puppet Festival. As I watch her sip her cold beer over books on Japanese Kagura and international puppet magazines, it's as though Yasuko is still on the Emperor's trans-pacific mission.

Today, she is a chancellor for UNIMA-Japan, directs an organization, Minerva Group, that hosts cultural events between foreigners and Nagoya residents, and is responsible for assembling the only international tours of karakuri ningyo. Her lifetime of cross-cultural exploration has shaped an insightful, valuable, and global perspective. In conversation, she moves from Edo period parade floats to Poland's experimental theater scene to recalling her time with Swedish theater-maker Michael Meschke.

In 1984, Meschke brought his adaptation of the Ramayana to Japan. The production combined musicians from Thailand, puppeteers from Japan, designers from Europe, and a classic epic from India to create a multicultural tour de force. Meschke's Ramayana illustrated the ability for puppetry to move beyond language, to preserve culture, and to celebrate our collective humanity. It also represented Yasuko Senda's pursuits as a cultural liaison. And in many ways, it was this show that changed Yasuko Senda's trajectory from enthusiast to champion.

Yasuko Senda, then 22, was one of these fortunate citizens. She was selected to visit The United States and spend three months meeting American leaders and fellow young adults. She traveled to dozens of American cities stretching from Los Angeles to New York City. She remembers New Orleans the most vividly, especially because it felt the most exotic and exciting. She recalls this remarkable journey while sitting in her cozy apartment in Imaike, Nagoya, surrounded by books about Italian Opera, Punch and Judy, and Chikamatsu Monzaemon.

(Michael Meschke, Yasuko Senda, Elizabeth
and Daddy D. Pudumjee, 2013) 

While in Japan, Michael Meschke's curiosity led Yasuko Senda down a path that would change her life. The theater director was no stranger to Japanese puppet theater, mounting a Bunraku inspired production of Antigone in 1977. During his 1984 trip to Japan, Meschke's passion for international performance led him to seek out more marginalized forms of traditional Japanese theater. He came to Yasuko Senda for help. With her fiery generosity and passion for cultural exchange, there was no better person to ask. Yasuko recalled a conversation she had with a local TV producer regarding unusual robotic dolls performed at festivals. She decided to investigate further, scouring through the producer's documentary footage. To her amazement, these puppets were still being performed all over Japan. One of the main footholds of the traditions was Aichi Prefecture, her home province. This discovery brought thrills, but also shock and alarm. How had she spent her entire life so close to these mechanical puppets without knowing a thing about them? And why was there such a frightening lack of information about this art form?

The same year Yasuko Senda discovered karakuri ningyo, The Japan Arts Council and Ministry of Education reopened the National Bunraku Theater in Osaka. While Japan's government made a major commitment to sustaining and celebrating Japan's traditional puppet theater, karakuri ningyo was widely overlooked. Similar to the puppet rituals of Awaji island, karakuri ningyo was considered low art and less refined than Bunraku. Yet, as leadership curated its national art forms to include Kabuki, Noh, and Bunraku, Yasuko Senda was impelled to research and document the elusive karakuri ningyo.

For the next six years, Yasuko Senda visited Japanese festivals, compiled research and photographs, and eventually published one of the first books about karakuri ningyo in modern Japan. She also organized the first international tours of karakuri ningyo in 1984, bringing master Tamaya Shobei IX, Chiryu Karakuri Ningyo Theatre, and Hekinan's karakuri ningyo across the globe. Subsequently, she has organized tours to Slovenia (’92), Poland (’98 / ’12), Croatia (’02), Australia (’08), Sweden (’09), and Spain (’16). In 2013, she self-published an English text on karakuri ningyo, contributing to her role in preserving karakuri ningyo for both national and global communities.

Just last month, The United Nation's UNESCO inducted Central Japan's dashi and karakuri ningyo onto the Intangible Cultural Heritage list. It's a remarkable victory for the craft. Today, with growing support and interest, it joins the ranks also inhabited by Japanese Noh, Kabuki, and Bunraku.

When I travel with Yasuko Senda through Japan's matsuri celebrations, I always have trouble keeping up. As I try to follow her swift saunter in and out of the crowds, it's easy to imagine 22 year-old Yasuko fueled by curiosity, criss-crossing the streets of the French Quarter under the spell of a foreign land. Fifty years later, Yasuko Senda's passion and her generosity has cast a spell of her own, turning back history, and preserving a piece of the Japanese spirit.

Yasuko Senda's 2013 English-translated text, Karakuri Ningyo. Japanese Automata, is a fantastic reference for puppet makers, historians, and automata enthusiasts. It includes mechanical drawings, historical background, and descriptions of many karakuri ningyo festivals in Japan. With maps and calendars you won't find online, Karakuri Ningyo. Japanese Automata is also a great reference for travelers seeking festivals off the beaten path.

To order Karakuri Ningyo. Japanese Automata (English / $30 / €28), please contact Ms. Senda directly at:

Yasuko Senda's Japanese texts include:
Treasurehouse of Karakuri Ningyo [ 1991 ]
Karakuri Ningyo Maker Shobei Tamaya IX [ 1998 ]
World of Karakuri Ningyo [ 2005 ]

Friday, November 25, 2016

Takayama Matsuri, A 350 Year Old Puppet Show, and Glover, Vermont

As I head to Kyoto Station from Otsu Matsuri, I have a deep suspicion I'm not going to make it to Takayama Matsuri. I’m certain I'm on the wrong platform, even as I watch the corresponding trains pull into the station. On the bus from Nagoya to Takayama, I convince myself I missed my stop and I'm actually headed to Hokkaido's most northern tip. What if I lose my wallet? Or the train never shows up? This anxiety was anticipated. I am headed to one of Japan's most legendary karakuri ningyo shows, and it's only performed on one day of the year. If I miss this - that's it. But I'm in Japan - where wallets are usually returned and a late train is a mythical legend. Of course, I arrive in Takayama right on time.

As I make my way through the thousands of tourists to my ryokan near Hachiman shrine, the city puts me at ease. Despite the crowds, Takayama's beauty and charm is intoxicating. The city feels wonderfully timeless, combining Edo Period architecture with sprawling glass storefronts that reveal ultra-modern wooden furniture and stainless steel home goods. Glossy Post-War diners with Art Deco signage share the streets with 16th century sake breweries. Despite Takayama's blend of contemporary style and historic buildings, nothing feels out of place. If anything, Takayama reveals the ageless aesthetic of Japan's minimalism and its influence on modern design.

As night falls, the dashi, or yatai as they are called in Takayama, parade down Yasukowa Street. A coalition of fantastical lions leads the dazzling cavalcade. The mouths swing open and snap with electrifying cracks that complement their wiry hair and devious grins. 

The lions' heads and bodies are manipulated by teams of teenage boys, who balance wild energy with perfect harmony. Despite the frenetic energy, the puppeteers are possessively committed. 

Unlike other festivals, where teenage participants are celebratory and carefree, these young puppeteers are focused. In their dedication, you can see their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers who once performed the same custom. They don't just carry the the paulownia carved lion masks, but the weight of Takayama's history.

The eleven yatai stretch across the main street and greet visitors with magnificent grandeur. 

The ohayashi and kajikata gather around the floats to prepare for the evening procession, as awe struck tourists travel from yatai to yatai.

The illuminated floats are hypnotizing. The amount of resources needed to create this timeless wonder is staggering, and set against an international crowd of over 100,000 open-mouthed onlookers, it feels like a World's Fair. 

It's the the pursuit of aesthetic pleasures against the logic of an economist. But it pays off. As the floats journey into Takayama's historic neighborhoods, their beauty grows even more enchanting.

The boroughs of Takayama are magnificently preserved in Edo architecture. Exposed running water straddles the streets, vending machines are obsolete, and hundreds of paper street lamps illuminate the road by flame. You are experiencing the town and festival almost the same way a visitor would have 350 years earlier.


The next morning, on my way to the fall festival's karakuri ningyo performance, I am met with Takayama Matsuri's procession, or keitoraku. In the procession I discover the generations of lion performers.


Takayama's karakuri ningyo performance is over 350 years old. It's performed only one day a year, during this Hachiman Festival. It's also one of Japan's longest karakuri ningyo performances, running about 25 minutes. Like the puppets at Otsu Matsuri, Takayama's karakuri ningyo are operated by strings that run across a narrow overhanging stage, or toi. However, with over three dozen strings and more intricate movement, the manipulation is even more demanding.

Because they're primarily operated by strings, Takayama's mechanical dolls are often translated to marionette, but in Japanese they are called karako. There's an air of secrecy in the rehearsal and set-up process. 

A large embroidery shrouds the yatai's bottom tier and the response to foreigners trying to get an inside look is tepid to say the least. However, a few young boys come and go with the privileges of VIP. These are the future puppeteers, who drink juice boxes, and hang their feet over the edge of the yatai admiring the large audience.

The yatai is docked at Hachiman Shrine, and two hours before the performance, there are already at least three hundred spectators crowded around the 3 story float. I am lucky to receive a seat at the very front of the performance. Despite the enormous audience, people are careful not to stand in front of the sight lines of others. At one dramatic turn of events, the entire audience grows silent as a gentleman walks in front of the crowd and sets up a tripod. A few members start to shout. They've waited an entire year for this performance, they booked their ryokan months in advance, and they arrived three hours early to get a good seat. An irate audience member tosses his tripod, another man shouts, and eventually the photographer is escorted away from the scene by a friendly police officer. It's the first time I've ever witnessed a fight for seats at a puppet show.

The performance is packed full of miniature stunts that culminate in a grand feat of pure puppet glory. The god of good luck, Hotei, greets the crowd from the toi. An acrobat flips his way across a trapeze, and then hops onto the shoulders of the gregarious deity. Another acrobat follows behind. At the end of the show, Hotei dances around the track with the two acrobats on his shoulders. Once you think things couldn't get much more wild, Hotei spins in circles, opens a fan, and releases confetti to the crowd below.

I stick around Takayama for a few more days to explore the city's karakuri ningyo museum. The gallery offers daily karakuri ningyo performances. There is an over-sized calligrapher puppet, two robotic dolls that sword fight while balancing on columns, and an acrobat who swings across the stage. 

But like a "best of album", these shows lack a certain magic. When watching a traditional festival performance, you're in a rambunctious dialogue with history, the city, and performers. Like the young lions dancing through Takayama's historic downtown, context makes these experiences more wondrous.

Is there anything in The United States that comes close to the rich interplay between community, history, and performance? Often, American parades and festivals feel like they run on borrowed time. The institutions remain in control, instead of allowing the festival to roam freely. This prevents festivals from creating a type of celebratory other-worldly escape. In the U.S., a city festival usually means your town’s most notorious realtor is waving from a pick-up truck while a few puppets parade around the local library. But we can’t help it - for the most part, we lack a historical context for festival performance.

There are a few exceptions - Mardi Gras for example.

Perhaps the most notable exception is Bread and Puppet, which I thought of frequently while attending Japanese Matsuri. Like Japan’s festival tradition, Bread and Puppet obscures the lines between community and performance. 

(Tahara Matsuri, Aichi Prefecture, Japan. 2016)

Many of the puppeteers live on the Vermont farm, performing communal duties and engaging in a strict rehearsal regime. Like the matsuri communities, the Bread and Puppet farm and theatrical spectacles work in tandem. The shows feel as organic as the Vermont forest that surrounds you. Bread and Puppet has also been around long enough to draw from a substantial history. The theater group developed its own unique language of iconic characters and physical gesture. It keeps aesthetic guidelines and holds on to its historic traditions while remaining political. This makes it feel timeless, and, like the Japanese matsuri, ritualistic. 


Back in Takayama, I watch as the floats are loaded back into garages throughout the city, and look for a spot to grab a cup of coffee. Many of the restaurants and souvenir shops are closed and have taken a well-deserved holiday. Even though the streets are empty, its the kind of place you don’t want to leave. 

Like the yatai hibernating in their garages, I feel like sticking around till Takayama’s spring matsuri but instead, I’ll just have to take another train. Chances are high I’ll get back on time.

For more information on Bread and Puppet please visit: