The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
A look into the world of performer Noriyuki Sawa With the new form of puppetry known as figure theatre
King Lear
(2004 at Aoyama Round Theatre)
The World premier in The International Scenography exhibition in Prague 2003 (PQ-03)
Directed, designed and performed by Noriyuki SAWA
Music by Hirotoshi Nakanishi
Photo: Katsumi Takahashi
King Lear
King Lear
King Lear
How many plays are there in the repertoire of puppet theater plays you have created?
    Of my solo plays alone there are 25 to 30. They range in length from long works like Macbeth that are 40 minutes or so in length to short one of just one to three minutes. Of these five or six are long works. The number grows when you include the works that I have done the directing and stage art for. In terms of type, there is also a variety, such as ones using an overhead projector to create a shadow play affect. My latest work, Kaguya Hime doesn’t use an OHP but I consider it a video oriented work.

It seems that you often use Japanese folktales and Shakespeare for your subjects?
    Not really. I use a variety of sources. For my longer works I make a point of using traditional stories, but I choose my sources more freely for shorter works. My subject may be a crab or a fish and there are times when I am struggling near a deadline and wondering if it really looks like a crab. Since I started out in design I may get my ideas visually first. For example, the visuals move and transform and the story develops out of these changes.

I feel in your works like Macbeth that your use of color is very Japanese.
    I like beautiful colors. And although I haven’t been particularly conscious of it in the past, I find that my choices in colors and materials have unconsciously been Japanese in flavor.

While continuing your activities in puppet theater in the Czech Republic have you found sensibilities that feel to be uniquely Japanese?
    I have. It is hard to explain but the spaces, but I feel that the distances maintained between people and things are different in Europe and Japan. For example, when Czech people greet each other they hug and kiss, but there is no involvement between these people. Japanese only bow to each other, but I feel that there is greater involvement. I would summarize as a difference between solids and liquids. In Europe people say “It was fun” and hug and kiss each other, but there is an underlying acknowledgement that your fun is different from mine. Japanese mix like currents of water flowing together, but in Europe there is the definite division of individual and individual, stone and stone; they may work jointly, but there is no complete mixing.
    That difference in the way people interact also reveals itself in the distance with things (puppets). In Europe a puppet never becomes more than a thing, but in Japan it is perceived as something mystical that can harbor a life of its own. I don’t necessarily have that sense, I think that kind of Japanese puppet theater will be highly regarded if it is performed overseas.

How is Japanese puppet theater actually viewed in Europe?
    It is viewed as a wonderful art. The interest in traditional Japanese puppet theater is especially strong and there is much research is being done. When I did Romeo and Juliet with Krofta he said something interesting. “When I saw Japanese Bunraku I wondered if the three people behind the puppet couldn’t be put to better use? (laughs). I said, “But they are masters.” He answered, “I am a university professor. I can see that they are masters, but even though they are trying to make themselves “invisible” their visible presence there on stage is undeniable.” He went on to say that he wanted to give a name to the theatrical meaning of those three puppeteers and give them clear meaning. When I asked him if he wanted to make them characters in the play, he said, “Yes.”
    That led him to make a play in which the three puppeteers behind Romeo became members of the Montague clan and the three behind Juliet became members of the Capulet clan. The family tries to manipulate their children (puppets) at will but the children (puppets) dislike being manipulated and eventually leave their handlers and end up as heaps in the floor committing suicide. It is a simple concept, isn’t it? That made me realize something important and convincing.
    In his text describing Romeo and Juliet, Krofta used the expression “the empire of movement.” What he meant was that the three puppeteers behind the Bunraku puppet have status and a clear hierarchy, as if an empire were moving the puppets. He went on to say that he found boundless appeal in this tradition, like new land that has never been put to the plow. To them, I think Japanese traditional puppet theater represents a treasure chest of new themes and ideas. As with the Theatre du Soleil’s production Tambours sur la Digue, people really want to try things with it, but there are few cases where it has been done successfully.

What do you think is it about Japanese puppet theater that they feel attracted to?
    I think it is probably a keen sense of articulation. There is something very clean and unconfused about the theater Japanese create. I would describe it as a keen sharpness in English. What we call a pure and gallant “cleanness” (isagiyosa) in Japanese is something that they cannot express. I think it is the appeal of that cleanness that attracts them.

What do you yourself think of the state of Japanese puppet theater? Speaking frankly.
    Japan has produced a unique manga and anime culture, but in each country there is a unique culture that cannot be expressed in any other medium. For example, in the Czech Republic there are many small theaters and young people go there in the evening to watch puppet theater or plays and then stop by a pub to drink beer before they go home. In Spain everyone dances. In elementary schools there are “Theater” classes that are taught by instructors who might be the directors of small local theaters. They come to the schools and teach the children dance and drama. Unfortunately, Japan has not taught that kind of culture.
    I may be dreaming but I think what Japan needs is an educational institution where people could study all the world’s new puppet theater methods. It wouldn’t have to have its own facility. It could just be done on an intensive summer seminar basis, where artists are trained and financially viable plays are created so that performers and designers could make a living from puppetry. Even if you raise good artists, it is meaningless if there is no market for them to make a living in, but that is something that takes a long time to create. So, we have to start from things that can be done now.

Are there any types of new puppet theater you want to create?
    I have started an effort with Kaguya Hime and what I want to do is a kind of figure theater that is based primarily on [stage] art. Krofta’s method is very intense and powerful, and throughout Eastern and Central Europe, theater is generally under the firm control of powerful dramaturges, which over the past 30 years has created a situation where the puppeteer/actor has a more prominent position than the puppet. I think the puppets should be given a little more respect and freedom.
    At the Academy in Prague we are beginning to see a bit of rebellion against the Krofta method, and we are seeing a new trend toward a more serious approach to the puppets themselves and their manipulation. This kind of change occurs in every generation. When Krofta was young, the mainstream was puppeteers who dedicated their lives to the handling of marionette puppets, and he was criticized as a villain who was destroying the important illusion of puppet theater. Now that everyone has experienced the Krofta method, the new generation seems to be returning to a love of puppets.
    I am seeing this in the works of the students I teach at the Academy in Prague. For example, in a story like Warashibe Choja where a boy who manages to get a cow and then goes on to get one thing after another, the cow is made of tin and as the play progress people and things fitted with magnets become attached to the cow one after another. When the scene calls for a wall in the background, the puppeteer (actor) uses his/her own body to express the wall. If the scene calls for a slope, the puppeteer uses his/her arm to create the slope. Since they have been trained as actors as well, they do these things naturally and almost unconsciously. When the scene calls for water to be brought in, they puppeteer tucks the puppet under his/her arm and becomes an actor who then runs off to get water. Today’s new generation has been brought up to do these kinds of things naturally.
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