Japanese puppets stomp onto local stage
By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer
It's a rare theatrical tradition, steeped in Japanese history, and Honolulu audiences will have an opportunity to witness this cultural treasure when Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo Puppet Theatre takes the Leeward Community College Theatre stage Saturday.
Two sensei (teachers) Koryu Nishikawa V, who now heads the puppet theater founded in the 1800s by the first Koryu Nishikawa; and Wakasanojo Tsuruga XI, the 11th in the line whose shinnai (music) will accompany the puppetry say that the venerable stage form dating to Japan's Edo period continues to thrive because of rigid, ongoing training and perseverance.
Inspired by Bunraku, Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo ("wheeled dolls") utilizes puppets with wheels attached to their feet; black-robed handlers sit on wheeled boxes, with their feet on the stage. As the handlers move, so do their puppet characters.
"The use of a wheeled seat for the puppeteer is unique, not just in Japan, but in the world," said Koryu sensei. "The puppets' feet are fastened to the feet of the puppeteer; as a result, when the puppeteer moves his feet on the ground, the wheeled cart moves and the puppet appears to be walking."
The key difference with Bunraku, said Koryu sensei, is that Bunraku puppets appear to walk when they are merely stepping on air. Traditionally, Bunraku puppeteers work behind a raised false front, with the puppeteer manipulating the feet of the puppets from a hidden position below. Similarly, the feet of marionettes on strings generally float.
"Because Kuruma Ningyo puppets actually step on the stage, their feet can meet the stage forcefully. In one of the numbers, the puppets stamp loudly on the stage. No other puppets in the world can do that," said Koryu sensei.
Most of the puppets are old some have been around 160 years; 80 percent are so old, no one remembers who made them but Koryu's late father, previous head of the troupe, created a handful. Only Koryu sensei creates new puppets now.
It takes a year of training for a puppeteer to master the tradition, said Koryu sensei, who does the training and conducts workshops to attract prospective artists.
Shinnai music started 280 years ago, said Wakasanojo sensei, who composes some of the pieces now.
"In the Japanese traditional arts, the most important part of the performance is considered to be the music and words provided by the singer-narrator. The next most important is the shamisen music," said Wakasanojo sensei, who works with two shamisen players.
Working with the puppeteers, Wakasanojo sensei serves as singer-narrator, delivering spoken lines, utilizing different voices for different characters.
"The musicians and puppeteers work together closely so the audience has the experience of a single form," he said.
In one piece to be performed, "Tokaido Chu Hizakurige," there are four puppets, including three men and a boy, and Wakasanojo sensei has to vary the vocal qualities: higher pitch for the boy, a gruff and lower tone for his father.
The visiting show boasts seven puppets handled by five puppeteers. In addition to the four mentioned, two appear in a celebratory dance, "Sanbaso," and one in a love-poem/dance, "Sadako," according to Stephanie Tomiyasu, show manager.
Koryu sensei said that in classic Japanese theater, 90 percent of the works deal with sad and often tragic themes, including adultery and the conflict between duty and love.
"Double suicides by lovers is one of the main themes of the style of shinnai (music)," he said. "Quite a few of the stories deal with the relationship between parent and child."
Dances and comedies complete the fare.
A minimalist show could feature one puppet on stage, yet require a handful of behind-the-scenes technicians; a larger production could embrace 10 on stage with another two dozen backstage.
Wakasanojo sensei said the audience should approach the darker themes with the knowledge that Kuruma Ningyo also has a happy side in the "Tokaido" piece, in which he hopes audiences will find laughter and joy.