Puppet Akutagawa

This year, the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival claims that the city will become ‘the puppetry capital of the world’. This is not a reference to hedge fund managers and Mayor Lori Lightfoot, but to the genuine wood or paper article. The city faces still competition with venerable international puppet fests such as Charleville-Mézières (France), Opole in Poland, and the Skupova Plzeň in the Czech Republic. There is also the PIF in Zagreb (Croatia, notably featuring puppet works in Esperanto), the Hungarian festivals of Pécs and Békéscsaba, the Bulgarian puppet play festival of Varna, and the great Italian fete of Cervia in Emilia-Romagna. And beyond Europe, there is the Lida Festival in Japan, and other global puppet meets in Jakarta and Bali, New Delhi, Tehran, Lahore, Mexico, Niger and Togo, and Australia. The United States itself can boast of several major annual puppetry events in the Midwest, Atlanta, New York (Coney Island), and California.

But if Chicago does not yet lead the world, it is certainly on the right track. This was proven last week by the festival’s staging of the Koryū Nishikawa Troupe’s beautiful puppet play on the works of the great Japanese modernist writer, Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927). Akutagawa is probably best known as the author of “Rashōmon”, filmed by Kurosawa’s in 1950. Like Baudelaire or Poe, he remains an archetypal poet maudit, wending his unsure way through the crises of the Taishō era, garnering respect and feuding with his contemporaries, dying young. Traditional Japanese puppet master Koryū Nishikawa V has joined forces with Chicago’s own Tom Lee to create a multimedia piece depicting scenes from the master’s work and life. It is a stunning show.

The play opens with Akutagawa at his writing desk, stage left. Then we see Nishikawa constructing the other main puppet, working slowly, joining limb to limb. Our wooden performers are the product of human hands, which is the first paradox of puppetry (seeing the construction of the puppet also suggests autopsy and resurrection). Now there is a new presence on stage which is neither flesh actor nor set, related to puppeteer and staging but also totally unique: the motion-bearing puppet.

The play is divided into vignettes from five of Akutagawa’s most powerful works. These are performed as if they were playing out in the author’s mind while the future or the past—that is, the audience in present time—watches the extraordinary events. A transparent silken dragon on sticks glides through fog, flames are projected on rocks, the ‘Hell Screen’ of one of Akutagawa’s greatest tales flashes up in blazing color, a concert of shadow creature-musicians turns into a delirious riot… These glittering visions are certainly arresting, but the quieter moments remain the most profound: puppet Akutagawa embraces another puppet (who is perhaps also himself, so alone in life, now comforting his double); a white sheet turns into a great snow queen demon (the author’s mother? His wife? He was surrounded by women), who finally carries him off up into the sky. From above, written pages fall like red spider lilies.

The greatest paradox of this and every puppet play is an extraordinary feat which only puppets can perform. Puppets manage somehow to convey the whole gamut of human expressions using carved, perpetually graven features; they articulate the most subtle of movements, far beyond the ability of the greatest actor or dancer, using only wood and metal pins, stiff paper and castoff junk, solid elements that should by rights remain rigid and wrought. This collaboration between the discipline of the puppeteers and the duende of the puppets works on the tension between the human and the fashioned, and it must operate with a certain caution on the part of the former. This working relationship is always a temporal deal, a moment of essentially inexplicable purposes held in common for a spell, and a nervous apprehension of remote control and magical powers is never far away. There is also violence, for violence is inherent in the creation of puppets from natural and alloyed materials, a creation by cutting and shaping and pounding, until “through the empty archway a wind of the spirit enters, blowing insistently over the heads of the dead” (Lorca). In this instance, the dead one is Akutagawa, who is present in puppet-form and also via that most haunted of media: cinema. He appeared in a little publicity film, shot just before he died in 1927, climbing a tree in his garden while his children play around him. His ascension of the tree in the projected film is repeated by his double on stage. From the top, what remains of life can be surveyed. Depth and height were ultimately at a similar distance from Akutagawa. This insecure gravity can be expressed only by puppets.

It is hard not to see an almost scientific passion running through the play. A preoccupation with detached investigation also marked Akutagawa’s life. He worked as reporter in Shanghai in 1921, and for his books he dug around in his own disordered skull for evidence of the self and for what we might call autonomous creations (or other selves, if you like). The revolutionary point of “Rashōmon” was to valorize all versions of a story, each version as true as the others at the same time, and it is significant that this story is the story of a terrible crime. His novel Kappa satirized the complete fetishization of modern society into empty rituals and pointless public spectacles. The Kappa of the title is a legendary Japanese monster, a reptilian spirit or gnome, and he appears in the play as a sly commentor and sometime companion of the author. He is also yet another Akutagawa, who considered himself monstrous purely because he had been born. It is often said that Akutagawa was a man between worlds, and that he recognized this displacement not just historically but also quite acutely in everyday life. The accidental and the grotesque held him between their poles like the strings hold a marionette.

If you have the chance, Akutagawa should not be missed.


Filmed trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DNVtz0hJGhI

Program PDF with notes: https://chicagopuppetfest.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/ToPrint_2023-Program-AKUTAGAWA_4.pdf





Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.