Giant Puppets of Echigo-Tsumari

Working with residents of Urada, a regional farming community, we created a giant puppet show based on local traditions and Obon festival customs. The puppets performed at Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale and Setouchi Triennale, bringing artists and audiences to remote areas to revitalise ageing and disappearing communities and featured participants performing in giant puppets on the banks of rice paddies and inside a 250-year-old traditional Kabuki Theatre.

“Nobody who witnessed the group’s major performance could see it as anything but a raging success.” John Mcdonald, The Sydney Morning Herald

This is an Asialink Arts Residency Project supported by the Australia-Japan Foundation and the Australian Embassy, Tokyo.

Nick’s Diary, Part 1

We are now at the half-way mark of our People’s Puppet Project in Urada and our residency at Australia House, Echigo-Tsumari. One week into the workshop and we have the makings of six giant puppets, a wealth of narrative ideas and imagery, a unique and beautiful mix of sounds and musical ideas, and a diverse and talented team of residents who are getting really excited about their performance next week.

Through discussions with the community we decided on six puppet characters to begin work on: Jisa and Basa (Urada grandparents), Magomusume (their granddaughter, a fashionable Tokyo student), a Kamoshka (the amazing-looking Japanese serow), an Akashobin (the iconic Ruddy Kingfisher), and a Kappa (a troublesome mythical water sprite).

We’ve explored the local environment with our imaginations captured by this climate of such extreme seasons, intrigued by the details of small-town culture in an ageing and dwindling population and moved by the warmth and generosity of residents as we dove head-first into folk-tales and old family homes. Some local stories have been put on as annual school plays here since the old folks were students themselves. The Kappa is shadowing us in silence, our sixth member.

It was clear instantly that this would be a two-way creative exchange: we’ve been treated to intimate Taiko, Chindon and loungeroom Karaoke performances, been invited to share in local mythologies and artforms, brought home-grown fruit and veggies, been shown how to make costumes out of last season’s rice straw, and even taught some shoe-weaving skills by Urada women, making our own beautiful braided slippers from disused old bed-sheets.

On the surface the Urada narrative is one of departures, and its location is the past. We learned for instance that the population has dropped from 2000 in the 1960’s to 300 today, with an average age pushing on 70. The 2011 earthquake was the last straw for many households: a small exodus, we are told, of families desperate but unable to say. Our workspace is not only the gymnasium of an abandoned school, but also the emergency camp where the earthquake victims gathered on that early Spring night and slept like one big family on the floorboards.

But the personal stories from our workshop group paint a different image, one more human than statistics and more colourful than disaster: one participant, 30, told us how he came back here from the city after the earthquake to help rebuild, and was so inspired by the strength and cooperation of the community that he found here that he repatriated. Our amazing young translator and her boyfriend are recent tree-changers from Tokyo who are learning to farm rice, choosing the serenity and community of Urada over the noise and convenience of the city. Our abandoned gymnasium is the home of a nine-strong children’s Taiko drumming group. For all we’ve seen they could be the only nine children here: what they lack in numbers they make up for in community spirit, creative passion and musical timing. Their rehearsals in the gym have been dynamic, and their performance this week at Noh Bu Tai was a real treat to watch. The elderly residents have told us they take pride in all these things, and also see in them a very real hope for the future of Urada.

So these are the ideas inspiring our work as we enter our second and final week of development. The landscape, the building we work in and the people who come; the folktales, but more importantly the folks who are telling us the tales. They are Urada’s present. The adults returned, the children grown up, the dormant classrooms erupting with noise.

We can’t wait to see where they take it. We’ll find out next weekend.

Bye for now,

Nick, Rosalind, Andy, Stéphane and Ignatz.

Nick’s Diary, Part 2

Wow, what an unbelievable couple of weeks! It’s hard to explain to people who haven’t experienced a People’s Puppet Project what it is that we actually do out here: how much we ask of ourselves and our collaborators, the dense networks of amazing people that form around us, and of course the seemingly miraculous end-product; a world-class giant visual theatre spectacle made from conception to presentation, including puppets, story and soundtrack, by and about a community that has never done or even seen anything like it before. All of this in just ten days.

We arrived in the beautiful, dwindling mountain town of Urada, population 300, with little knowledge about it, and sunk in deep, quickly seeking out a sense of the culture and environment, its quirks and points of difference, the experiences and stories people seem to have in common.

On our first workshop day we met the residents, played some games, had some discussions and decided on which puppet characters to make. Two weeks later they were on stage performing their own fully realised Snuff Puppets show at an international arts festival in the neighbouring village of Matsudai.

That was at Noh Bu Tai theatre last weekend, and it was every bit as powerful, chaotic, ambitious, serene, touching, hilarious and beautiful as we could ever hope a show like this could be. The venue staff were beyond professional, Echigo-Tsumari management, staff and volunteers all went out to get us over the line, and our Urada cast completely blew us away. Surviving a heavy puppet for 45 minutes is a big undertaking even for professional performers, and these guys weren’t just surviving they were excelling. The energy of the crowd was bordering on euphoric. Urada’s elderly rubbed shoulders with Tokyo art crowds and local politicians, getting pushed and ushered around the space together in delighted awe.

The rain held off long enough for us to use the terraced rice-fields across the river, behind the venue, as a multi-levelled natural stage, through which the Kamoshika weaved and the marching band played, looking amazing in their woven rice-straw costumes. Jisa and Basa crossed this idyllic scene by foot and truck, before Magomusume’s big frenzied Tokyo fashion scene entered from behind, circling the audience in promenade style, inviting everybody to dance.

The show featured a boisterous all-singing giant Akashobin, a rural train journey, an eight-metre cucumber being dropped from a great height and paraded overhead, a cheeky cucumber-loving Kappa, his dismemberment by wild animals, his bowl-shaped head spilling out water and irrigating the fields, and some gorgeous sit-down storytelling moments with elderly residents voicing the Grandparent puppets.

The basic story was of Magomusume returning to Urada to see her grandparents. The idea of return was partly a composite of stories from young people we’ve been working with, and also topical because the show dates fell on Obon Festival weekend, traditionally a time for family reunion and remembrance all over Japan.

In another sense though, it’s also dealing with the deeper theme of the survival of the town, the region, and many others like it, a theme at the heart of these Art Triennali, which bring artists and audiences into remote areas to stimulate and revitalise stagnant and disappearing communities.

We’ve seen for ourselves the hope of youth in a rapidly ageing region: our show beamed with the warmth, excitement and talent of the children living there. We’ve seen artworks fill abandoned village schools with adult audiences, and our show at Noh Bu Tai drew the biggest crowd the venue has ever hosted: a full theatre in a town of empty homes.

At the heart of the whole thing is the paradox of preserving and revitalising a way of life by modernising and adapting it. Both of these festivals are immense, sprawling, ambitious, and potentially game-changing, growing in community support and involvement with every event. Seen in that context this project has been a very real opportunity for our participants to take centre stage in that transformation, and to use their creative talents to seize ownership of the future of their area.

It’s one thing to transplant art and import crowds, and a very different thing to facilitate community-based work of a professional standard. In these projects we bring materials, a style and a methodology. We’re not writing the story, we are helping people to tell it. Arming them. With puppets. That’s what the PPP process is about, and it’s one I find deeply rewarding every time. “Isseichidai” (“Once in a lifetime”) one boy said. I couldn’t agree more and say it right back to all of them.

So that was last week. More has happened, more is happening, watch this space. We’ve been joined by filmmaker Amiel Coutin-Wilson who is documenting our work here and also experimenting with the puppets, people and landscapes. So for the first time you’ll be able to meet some of these characters and share in the moments that are so hard to describe. We’re excited. The footage is stunning.

Now we’re settling into Honjima Island, where we’ve brought the puppets on a whole second leg in collaboration with Setouchi Art Triennale. It’s another unique landscape and community, quite a contrast. We have new people to meet and new challenges to deal with. We’re loving our disused 1862 Kabuki Theatre facing the beach. The midnight swims sparkle with bioluminescent plankton. Two typhoons are brewing to the South, and one of them is on track to hit us on show day.

Wish us luck & talk again soon.

From Nick & the Snuff Puppets Japan team:

Andy, Stephane, Rosalind, Ignatz, Amiel & Sheah.

Nick’s Diary, Part 3

The final stage of our Japan trip was a week-long visit to Honjima Island, to exhibit puppets, meet the community, run some workshops, make some guest appearances on the mainland, and to present a feature performance in the island’s disused Kabuki theatre.

While statistically the communities of Urada and Honjima might look similar in some ways, we all felt a definite shift in the atmosphere on moving from Urada’s endless green mountains and rice-fields to this small-island fishing village on the Seto Inland Sea. During the ferry trip across, Japan’s longest bridge appeared to neither start nor end, but to bypass the island and disappear in ocean mist on its way somewhere else. Parts of the island are quite visibly abandoned, neglected and overgrown: weeds grow through cracked concrete, and the salty air turns metal fixtures into flaky brown rust before their time. Honjima’s population has fallen from 4000 in the 1960’s to 400 today, of which only 20 are school-aged children. It is one of 12 islands that are host to the region’s Setouchi Art Triennale, another ambitious and immense project by Fram Kitagawa to revitalise dwindling regions through the arts.

Our venue was Chito Tse-za, a beachside Kabuki theatre dated to 1862, and barely opened in the last thirty years. A fine example of the smart simplicity of traditional Japanese construction, the front panels slide open to either side of the building, and the waist-high rails fold outward to form an extension of the stage, which the audience views from outside in a public courtyard. We were instantly charmed by its elegant design, skilful construction and dilapidated ambience. It seemed an ideal gateway into that parallel, slightly surreal world that our puppets often inhabit: where the impossible and the dreamlike can invade mundane streets; where the fictional ‘puppet world’ shares an open boundary with the lives of our audience.

We displayed our puppets in the open theatre for three days, meeting with residents, visitors and the press, and working out a story that would resonate in this new context. As we loaded in to our new space, the Chito Tse-za theatre straight away provided us with an impressive image: the upturned cucumber, the full width of the stage up against a towering backdrop of classic painted waves, their curves almost perfectly matched. We straddled Kappa over it, and instantly he was riding the cucumber across the ocean like it’s a giant bucking sea-mule.

The islands suffer not just from departing families and too few children but also from shortage of fresh water. So in the Honjima version of our show the Kappa was a greedy water-thief, riding his cucumber between the islands and stealing their fresh water to continue to feed it. Magomusume catches the ferry home for a visit and sees him making his way over to Honjima. She is the catalyst for change, mobilising the animals and villagers into creating an equitable bargain.

We squeezed quite a bit into our week. We found ourselves performing at a massive group-dance festival in Marugame, with hundreds of 20-piece ensembles each powering through colourful-costumed routines to unrelenting pop over five stages. Our puppets were definitely the odd ones out at that event. Then Honjima’s 10 primary-aged kids came to our workshop to devise a couple of scenes using sound and movement, to be performed in the rice-straw costumes. It was a totally new experience for them, and I wished I could understand what they were saying afterwards when being interviewed by a television crew about the experience.

We were treated to a very rare and beautiful group chanting-circle by some local old ladies, which Rosalind and Amiel carefully documented. We were floored by the power and energy of the young Taiko group at their weekly practice, and after instructing us how to play through a few rhythms (a very satisfying feeling on those massive instruments) a couple of talented teenagers agreed to add live drumming to the show. We had some chances to film the puppets in interesting settings, and were visited by a number of TV crews, with puppets and interviews featured on four different television programs.

We cast two new people in the Jisa and Kamoshka puppets, and trained up our crew of super-keen cucumber wranglers. All the while we’re checking the satellite images of two nearby Typhoons, one due to hit us on show day and threatening to jeopardize everything. It was heartbreaking to have to think about a contingency venue for wet weather.

Luckily the whole thing was quite anti-climactic, and a last minute date-change paid off, avoiding the rain, wind and ferry closures. We got to use Chito Tse-za, and the show attracted over one hundred people to the theatre. Reactions and feedback were excellent, and luckily for us, the villagers seemed very keen to host us again.

This whole project was pretty ambitious as always, and we’ve achieved a lot together with our many collaborators, but our feeling is that we’ve just begun out here. There are so many elements at play, so much deeper to dig. Obon Festival allowed us to see our Urada group in a different light, with amazing performances from local singers and musicians, including a 12-piece incarnation of the Seppuchu Pistols, who totally blew us away with their immense rhythmic energy. There are so many stories that we’ve only touched on, so many more voices to hear: we’d love to get inside Urada’s nursing home, spend more time talking to the children of Honjima, get to the bottom of the Kappa story, find the mythic Shirikodama. It’s also our first time properly working with film, not just as documentation but as a performance medium, and there are some moments of magic in these rushes that need some space and thought to flower into something. There is so much more of Chito Tse-za to play with and to show the world. It can’t be beyond us to get that rotating stage spinning again!

Besides all that, we already have phase one of a great show sitting, waiting for us in Japan, so the temptation is also there to pick up our Urada crew and take them on tour. We couldn’t mentally switch off during our transit through Tokyo; we kept visualising this or that scene in different parts of the city; Magomusume in her element, dancing in the streetlights of Shibuya; the animals juxtaposed like a call to the wild, a distant dream from childhood. This time, maybe the country Grandparents visit her. It’s nice to see them, but there is not enough room in her apartment. It’s too crowded, they get anxiety crashing into pedestrians. The Kyurie drives around on the back of a truck, or appears on a rooftop, or is paraded by white-shirted commuters or swung from a great height. Kappa makes the most of the anonymity of crowds, and gets up to all kinds of mischief.

The whole idea so far has been to get people into these remote areas, to stimulate communities and revitalise entire regions; it has been amazing to be a part of and to see for ourselves. But we can’t help but feel that bringing a community-made work like this to the city would also be amazing on so many levels, as an experience for the participants, as a surprise for unsuspecting new audiences, as unprecedented publicity for the entire event: its purpose, and its achievements.

We owe a massive thanks to Asialink Arts, Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, Setouchi Triennale, and the Australian Embassy, Tokyo for their support and vision, and of course to all our helpers, participants, staff, volunteers and collaborators along the way.

And thanks to you all for reading, please stay tuned for updates and some amazing footage.

Until next time,

from Nick & the SP Japan team.

This is an Asialink Arts Residency Project supported by the Australia-Japan Foundation and the Australian Embassy, Tokyo.

Aus_Japan_Logo_Long_transparent   Asialink university melbourne   Australian_Embassy tokyo_E_and_J   Australia-Council