High on my list of places to visit the next time I’m in Japan is the Iida City Kawamoto Kihachirō Puppet Museum (飯田市川本喜八郎人形美術館) in southern Nagano Prefecture.
The ningyō jōruri ( aka bunraku) puppetry has been performed in Iida City for over 300 years. During the Edo period, the town became famous for its two main schools of ningyō jōruri performance: the Kuroda Puppet Troupe (黒田人形座) and the Imada Puppet Troupe (今田人形座).
In honour of the International Year of the Child in 1979, Iida City inaugurated its first Puppetry Carnival Iida which assembled top puppetry performers from all over Japan. Now known as the Iida Puppet Festa, this annual festival attracts performers and audiences from all over the world and boasts up to 250 performances held in the span of just a few days.
In 1990, Kihachirō Kawamoto presented his animation films at the festival and received a very warm reception. This led Kawamoto to donate 200 of his puppets to the Puppet Museum and they now make up the core of the museum’s extensive puppet collection.
Most of the puppets on display are from the two elaborate historical dramas that Kawamoto did for the NHK: Romance of the Three Kingdoms (1982-84) and Historical Doll Spectacular: The Story of Heike (1993-94). Romance of the Three Kingdoms (人形劇三国志/Ningyō-geki Sangokushi) was a co-production with CCTV in China and was an adaptation of the epic Chinese tale of the same name. To get an idea of just how epic this puppet drama is, consider that each episode runs for 45 minutes and there are a total of sixty-eight episodes. The story was written by Luo Guanzhong in the 14th century and takes place during the turbulent final years of the Han Dynasty and the Three Kingdoms era of China (169-230A.D.)
Historical Doll Spectacular: The Story of Heike (人形歴史スペクタル平家物語/Ningyō Rekishi Supekutakuru: Heike Monogatari) was a similarly ambitious project but consists of a more modest forty-eight 20-minute episodes. This is also an adaptation of an epic tale. The Story of Heike centers on the struggle between the Taira and Minamoto clans for control of Japan during the Genpei War (1180-1185).
The collection is dominated by the puppets of these two epics because of the sheer number of puppets needed for the productions. However, the collection also includes the puppets used in his acclaimed short films. International audiences will be more familiar with the puppets from films such as House of Flames (1979), Briar Rose or The Sleeping Beauty (1990), and Dōjōji Temple (1976) and To Shoot Without Shooting (1988). Less familiar to audiences, but of equal interest are the puppets Kawamoto created early in his career making animated commercials and puppet storybooks for Shiba Productions. Unlike the dolls used in his film and television productions, these early puppets were not designed by Kawamoto himself. Shigeru Hijikata designed the puppets, Tadasu Iizawa was responsible for story writing, and Kawamoto crafted and animated them.
For those of us unable to get to this museum in the near future, the next best thing is Heibonsha’s publication, Kawamoto Kihachirō: kono inochi-aru mono (川本喜八郎 この命あるもの / Kawamoto Kihachirō: Puppets full of life, 2007). My copy came in the post yesterday and it is full of simply stunning photographs.
The book gives a complete history of Kawamoto’s career, starting with behind the scenes photographs from the making of The Book of the Dead (Shisha no sho, 2005) and moving backwards to his start as an assistant art director at Tōhō Studios in the late 1940s. The book features a complete filmography including the production credits for all of his films. There is also a photographic index of all the dolls on display at the Iida museum. The book is full of a wealth of information and a must-have for any Kawamoto fan.
Iida City, Nagano Prefecture
Tel: 0265 23 3594
© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010