The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Akinori Sawa
Noriyuki Sawa
Born in 1961 in Sapporo, Hokkaido. Noriyuki Sawa was part of the puppet theater Hitomiza and an art teacher before going to France in 1991 to study puppetry. In 1992 he enrolled at DAMU (Academy of Performing Arts) in Prague, Czech Republic, to study puppetry and now works as an instructor in the same school and as a puppet artist, director, and performer based in Prague and active mainly in Europe. In 2001 Sawa co-produced the international project MOR NA TY VASE RODY!!! A Plague O’Both Your Houses!!! – Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with The Japan Foundation and the Czech puppet theater, Theatre DRAK. Among his representative works are his Macbeth solo silent drama using masks and puppets and King Lear using shadow play techniques. He has won the Franz Kafka Medal, the Prague Children’s Theater Festival Grand Prix, the prize for Best Performance for Children in the International Puppet Festival in Ostrava, Czech Republic.
Noriyuki Sawa meets Hirotoshi Nakanishi “KOUSKY IV”
(March 2007 at Aoyama Round Theatre)
Photo: Shozo Kajiwara, STARKA
Artist Interviewアーティストインタビュー
A look into the world of performer Noriyuki Sawa With the new form of puppetry known as figure theatre  
The new form of theater known today in Europe as “figure theatre” is one in which people and puppets perform together on stage with the same presence. In Japan it has been introduced under the name “object theater.” Noriyuki Sawa is a contemporary puppet theatre performer who studied figure theater at the Czech national Academy of Performing Arts in Prague and has continued to perform in collaboration with numerous leading theaters such as DRAK from his base in the Czech Republic. Today Sawa tours the world with performances from his large repertoire of works such as a solo silent drama Macbeth using masks and puppets, and richly colored shadow play theater works, as well as smaller works based on Japanese folktales. We spoke with him about his style with its fusion of Czech puppetry craft and Japanese aesthetics, and about today’s puppet theater scene.
(Interviewer: Chiemi Tsukada)

Could we begin by asking what originally got you involved in puppet theater?
    I was born in 1961 and as a child I loved watching the children’s shows on TV that used puppets, like “Hyokkori Hyotanjima” and “Thunderbird,” and also the “Ultraman” series using rubber-suit superheroes. There was great vitality in the television industry in those early years and I think its influence was especially great. My mother was a kimono seamstress and there was always a lot of kimono material in our house. From about the age of three I was making puppets with my mother using scraps of material and wood spools, or stick puppets that imitated the Hyokkori Hyotanjima characters. In nursery school I said I wanted to do a puppet play and did a puppet version of the story The Gigantic Turnip based on the Russian folktale about a family who work together to pull a giant turnip out of the ground. In elementary school I got my friends together to do a puppet play for our culture festival.

Did you make your own puppets back then?
    Yes I did. I made them with my friends. I guess I was what you might call an otaku today. At the performances I was recognized as the leader, so I worked hard with everyone. But at other times I tended to stay home making puppets (laughs).

Another puppet theater artist active today from the next generation younger than you, Jo Taira, is also from Sapporo, Hokkaido. He also says that he was doing puppetry when he was a child. Is there some special tradition of puppetry in Sapporo?
    Sapporo has the first public puppetry theaters for children ever established in Japan. They are the Kogumaza (Little Bear Theater) established in 1973 and the Yamabikoza (Echo Theater) established in 1988. Kogumaza is exclusively for puppet theater and the Yamabikoza is a children’s theater where children’s plays and puppet theater are performed. Both theaters were established by the former mayor of Sapporo, Takeshi Itagaki. When Sapporo and Munich became sister cities he went to Europe and one of the things he saw in Munich was the national puppet theater. He thought it was a great thing for the children in a society recovering from the devastation of World War II. That is what prompted him to establish the Kogumaza.
    The administrative director of the Kogumaza was a Sapporo city official by the name of Hiroshi Kato who happened to be a close friend of the director of the Puppet Theater Company PUK, Yasushi Kawajiri. Both of these men have passed away now, but they were of the generation that started puppet theater in Japan from virtually from scratch in the poor years just after World War II. When my generation came up, the Kogumaza they started was mainly used by students and adult groups, but lately amateur housewife groups are very active. There are about 40 puppet theater companies in the area and these performances being given almost every week.
    That is the kind of very widespread puppet theater culture Sapporo has, and it has given birth to very talented people like Jo [Taira] whom you just mentioned. I saw Jo perform at Kogumaza when he was just a sixth grader in elementary school and I remember thinking that he must be a genius. There have been other extremely talented young people as well, but the problem is that even if they continue puppetry through middle school and high school there is no system for people to become professional puppeteers in Japan. Many people give up their dream of becoming puppeteers when they realize this and turn to actor other professions, and that is a shame and a waste of talent.

What kind of puppet plays did you create as a young student?
    When I was a student it was a time when the national TV station NHK was running broadcasts of one of Japan’s representative puppet-acted TV shows “Shin Hakkenden” produced by Jusaburo Tsujimura, and at the time puppet theater in Japan was mostly a medium for children’s stories, with nothing geared for college students. So, I wanted to make puppet plays that college students would want to see, thinks that I would want to see. What I wrote were puppet plays influenced by the plays of playwrights of Japan’s small-theater movement I liked, such as Juro Kara, Minoru Betsuyaku and Yoshiyuki Fukuda. I particularly liked Fukuda’s Sanada Fuunroku and I must have read it 100 times as I was writing my puppet plays.
    I also wrote a silent theater version of Macbeth. I got about 20 friends together so three were lots of puppets in it, and it also included a student band playing live with three synthesizers, three electric guitars, drums and folk instruments. It was on a scale that I could never work on today, but at the time everyone pitched in and helped me out. I was in the Education department of university at the time and there were still some remnants of student activism. Even though I had joined the puppetry club, but it was an era when everyone was more interested in going to the student demonstrations than making puppet plays. Ours was the last generation involved in student demonstrations like that.

After graduating from Sapporo University, you entered the Hitomiza company in Tokyo in 1985. How did that come about?
    It happened because Shiro Ito of the Hitomiza had seen one of my plays at a Sapporo festival or someplace and he invited me to come. I think it was a play where I directed an amateur adult theater group. It was around the end of the student activist movement when students and working adults were full of energy and there were puppet theater groups in all the universities and junior colleges in Hokkaido. The students and working adults in the puppet groups would get together once a year to do a play. I think it was one of those plays that Ito saw.

I believe that at the time Hitomiza was mainly giving performances for young children at elementary and nursery schools. Was it a different environment from what you had imagined and what you wanted to be doing?
    It naturally was different from what I wanted to be doing but I believed that I shouldn’t let myself be disappointed by that fact. At first I was assigned to the nursery school brigade and I would have to get up at a little after 5:00 in the morning and go around to the nursery schools of Yokohama, Kawasaki and Tokyo giving puppet performances. After those rounds I would return to Hitomiza and work at making puppets and stage art for the school performances, then at night some of the senior members would say, “Sawa, now were going to make a puppet play for adult audiences.” So I would work on that too and then when we were finished we would go out drinking. After burning the candle at both ends like that for about a year I got a high fever that put me in the hospital.
    I should interject here that when I was in college I spent some time traveling around Europe and I met a priest in Paris and ended up being baptized a Christian by him. Then later when I was at Hitomiza and feeling lost about where I was headed, at the suggestion of one of the people in the company I started going to a church in Tokyo. And, while I was lying in bed in the hospital after collapsing the minister from that church appeared in one of my dreams.
    In that dream the minister was leading me down a corridor with white nameplates sticking out from the wall at each door. Then he turned to me and said, “Look behind you. Who do you see?” “What?” I said, and turned around to look. What I saw was a black hole that I somehow knew intuitively to be my illness. “I can’t left myself be sucked into that hole,” I told myself. When I woke up from that dream my fever had gone down. After that I went back to Sapporo to rest and recuperate for about a month, and it just happened to be a time when they were interviewing for someone to fill an opening for an art teacher at the Hokusei Gakuen girls middle school. I thought it must be fate, so I applied for the job and got it. And when I went to the school, the corridor in front of the art room looked just like the corridor in that dream. Before that I was a rather nonchalant Christian, but since then I have become more serious (laughs).

Why did you quit your job as an art teacher and go to Europe to begin puppet theater again. ?
    Mr. Kato of the Kogumaza told me that he had heard there was a graduate school for puppet theater studies at Charleville Mezieres in France and why didn’t I go study there. I couldn’t speak French and besides I was responsible for a senior class at the high school I was working at, so I thought it would be impossible. But a lot of people were behind cheering me on with support and when I applied for a public grant thinking that I didn’t have a chance, it was accepted! After that I felt that I had to go. And as I was debating in my mind what to do, one of my fellow teachers told be, “When a child is born there are more than a thousand career choices open to it. But when that child enters a Japanese elementary school that number suddenly drops to 500, and when the child enters middle school the number drops again to two- or three-hundred. When the child enters high school, only about 100 choices are left, and if the child goes on to college there are then only a few dozen career choices that college will prepare the child for. In that way, the education we are conducting here in Japan gradually narrows the paths open to a child. But even an old man who has been told that he might die tomorrow may still have some hidden talent that may blossom. So you should definitely go [to France],” he said. That helped me make up my mind.

That was in 1991, wasn’t it?
    Yes. I went to participate in a 5-week summer workshop called Babel Tower at the Charleville Mezieres graduate school. I was then supposed to enter the graduate school for the autumn semester, but there was a misunderstanding that prevented it. And, as I was at ends and not knowing what to do next, the instructor of the summer workshop, Josef Krofta invited me to come to the Czech Republic. I went there in 1992.
| 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |