01 April 2012

Living With Puppets: The World of Kihachirō Kawamoto (1999)

Takashi Namiki (なみきたかし, b. 1952) of Anido has been documenting the world of animation both at home and abroad since the 1970s through his writings, photographs, and by collecting materials for his private archive.  Last fall, I wrote about his book Animated People in Photo, which is a photo essay of his encounters with animators and animation festivals over the years.  His 1999 documentary film Living With Puppets: The World of Kihachirō Kawamoto (人形と生きる〜川本喜八郎の世界) screened on Day 3 of the Kawamoto-Norsteinevent at Forum des Images in Paris.  It was introduced by Ilan Nguyen (Tokyo University of the Arts), who said that he believed that it was the first time for the film to screen outside of Japan.

The subject of the documentary is not Kawamoto the puppet animator, but Kawamoto the puppet maker and puppet theatre director.  Starting in 1972, Kawamoto joined forces with his good friend Tadanari Okamoto to host a number of puppet animation festivals known as the Kawamoto + Okamoto Puppet Anime-Shows.  As they did not produce enough animated shorts to fill a full programme, Kawamoto came up with the idea of including live puppet theatre performances.  Not only would this lengthen the programme, but live shows could also incorporate the humorous aspects of puppet performances.  Apart from his first independent animation The Breaking of Branches is Forbidden (1968), Kawamoto’s animated works tend to be more serious and contemplative.  Yet everyone who knew Kawamoto personally speaks of his warm sense of humour.  The live puppet shows demonstrate this other side to his personality.

The Kawamoto + Okamoto Puppet Anime-Shows ceased in 1980, and with Okamoto passing away in 1990, a revival of the event seemed unlikely.  However, 27 years after the first Kawamoto + Okamoto event, Kawamoto decided to put on the puppet show one more time.  Namiki’s film documents the event from the cramped rehearsals in Kawamoto’s tiny Sendagaya studio to the one night only performance at the Mitsukoshi Theatre in September 1999.  The show featured a parade of the puppets from the NHK drama Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国志/Sangokushi) as well as performances of four original theatrical works written by Kawamoto:

Hito mo Migakite no Chi ni Koso (人も磨き手後にこそ)

This puppet play was performed at the first Kawamoto + Okamoto Puppet Anime-Show in 1972.  It features an old, tattooed man in a sentō (communal bath house).  When bathing in Japan, one first squats with a shower or water in a basin.  One must wash oneself thoroughly before entering the communal hot bath.  The tattooed man sits with the wash basin blocking the view of his penis from the theatre audience.  This is a wordless drama in which the comedy comes from the fact that the man’s movements are in time with the accompanying classical music.  As the tempo increases, so too do his movements with dramatic pauses being made comical by him tipping the wash basin towards his private parts.  At one point, the increase in tempo and volume results in him quite vigorously scrubbing his penis which caused a great deal of laughter.  Another uproarious moment occurs when he stretches out his arm and plays it like a fiddle – in the style of an air guitar performance. 

There is also the humour of familiarity in this piece, as public bathing is an important cultural tradition with etiquette that all of the audience members would recognize.  Thus another funny sequence involves the old man trying to get from the wash basin to the hot bath in a dignified manner by trying to hold the small white towel over his private parts.   He then sticks his toe into the bath and jumps back in shock at how hot the water is, before easing himself in.

If I had seen this puppet play before hearing Ilan Nguyen and Serge Éric Ségura’s lecture on the life and career of Kawamoto, I would have presumed that the old man was a yakuza because of his ornately tattooed body.  Nguyen and Ségura revealed that Kawamoto himself had elaborate tattoos on his back and upper arms that he acquired in the late 1950s / early 1960s in order to mark himself as an individual.  With this in mind, it is likely that there is an element of autobiography to this amusing piece.

Kurui toki no Kami da no mi (くるしいときのカミだのみ)

This puppet play was performed at the first Kawamoto + Okamoto Puppet Anime-Show in 1972.  Like
Hito mo Migakite no Chi ni Koso, this puppet play is a wordless physical comedy set to music.  It features a salaryman going to the toilet – quite literally “toilet humour”!  The title suggests that the struggle that one sometimes has on the toilet can be a religious experience.
Good Night, I said!  (おやすみなさいったら!/Oyasumi-nasaittara!)

This comic puppet play was performed at the first Kawamoto + Okamoto Puppet Anime-Show in 1972.  It is also set to music.  All parents struggle with getting their kids to bed at night.  In this puppet drama the struggle is multiplied as a mother tries to convince four babies to go to sleep.  The piece is performed to the German lullaby “Schlafe, mein Prinzchen, schlaf’ ein” by Mozart.  The mother dozes off herself while waiting for her little ones to sleep and the babies crawl around under the blankets.  The large bed is vertical on the stage and leaning slightly backward so as to accommodate both the spectators watching the action and the puppeteers.

Scheming World from Inside and Out (世間胸算用近頃腹裏表/ Seken Munazanyou Chikagoro to Tatemae)

This puppet play was performed at the fifth Kawamoto + Okamoto Puppet Anime-Show in 1976 and was also a part of the reprise event in 1979.  In an  introductory interview Kawamoto explains that audiences found the subject matter of this play quite shocking when it was first performed.  Times have changed in the ensuing quarter century and he thinks that the audience in 1999 will find it fairly tame.

This puppet play does have dialogue and concerns the inner workings of a Japanese home.  Traditionally in a Japanese family, when the eldest son marries he becomes the head of the family.  This usually means that three generations of a family will live together under one roof.  Unsurprisingly, this often results in the new wife and her mother-in-law butting heads on the way in which the household is run.  Mother-in-laws tend to have very fixed ideas about how to manage the home having been in charge of their own homes for at least two decades.  The young wife may bring modern ways or even different ways of doing things learned from her own mother into the home.  No matter what one's cultural background, we can all recognize that this is a recipe for trouble.

This puppet play reenacts the strife that results from his scenario with the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law being sweet to each other’s faces but saying things to each other that are either sarcastic or have a double-meaning.  Behind each other’s backs they complain about each other and take out their frustrations with having to live together on the chores.  The mother-in-law takes out her frustration on the laundry.  She even goes so far as to spit on her daughter-in-law’s shirt before ironing it.  Her main complaint is that she things her daughter-in-law is lazy and unskilled in housework. 

The daughter-in-law is mainly upset at the restrictions her mother-in-law imposes on her life.  On this day,  her mother-in-law has chosen not to go out, and this means that the daughter-in-law must also stay at home at do chores when she would rather be gossiping with her friends.  She cannot allow the mother-in-law does not do all the chores and take all the credit for the housekeeping.  The daughter-in-law takes out her frustration on preparing supper.  She attacks the fish with all her pent up rage.  At the end of the play, the mother-in-law pretends to enjoy the food her daughter-in-law has prepared and the daughter-in-law feigns delight with her neatly shirt.  The masks of domestic harmony are back up again and the women continue in their struggle to live together for the sake of the family.

One only gets a taste of these puppet plays for the original theatrical performance lasted 3 hours and the documentary is a comfortable 40 minutes.  The puppeteers, in the tradition of Bunraku, perform entirely in black with the faces also masked in black.  It was hard to tell if they were also using 3 puppeteers for each puppet as I was so wrapped up in the performance that I forgot to pay attention.  The puppets were large and did have a minimum of 2 puppeteers – as you can see in the screencaps of the performances. 

Kawamoto wrote, directed, produced, and performed in the puppet dramas.  He talks at some length about the craft of the puppet theatre and the challenge of preparing the puppeteers for the performance – they were quite young and many were new to puppeteering.  Most of Kawamoto’s original collaborators had either passed away or had moved on to other things in their lives since the 1970s.  He mentioned one puppet master in particular named Koga who had passed away and whom he greatly missed.  They spent two months rehearsing for the performance.  In order to bring the puppet convincing to life, Kawamoto explained that the performers need to have mutual respect for each other and work towards being in harmony with one another.  Although they made a few errors during the live show, Kawamoto seemed content with the final result.

The documentary is a very low resolution video with amateur English subtitles.  However, the singularity of the subject matter makes the film must-see viewing for fans of Kawamoto and scholars of Japanese puppet theatre.  It reveals a very different side of Kawamoto as not only a puppet designer and creator, but also a comic writer, theatrical director, and media personality.  It is impossible to recreate the Kawamoto + Okamoto Puppet Anime-Shows of the 70s now that the key figures have passed away, but this documentary gives us a glimpse of what the theatrical portion of these shows must have been like.  There is also footage from a TV talk show that shows Kawamoto having a comical exchange with his good friend the actress and TV personality Tetsuko Kuroyanagi.  She teases him about how tiny his studio is and wonders how he could possibly work in such a cramped space.  Kuroyanagi did voice acting for several Kawamoto puppet animations: The Breaking of Branches is Forbidden (1968), Rennyo and his Mother (1981), and The Book of the Dead (2005).

Living With Puppets: The World of Kihachirō Kawamoto is available for loan from AnidoClick here for more information.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012