FESTIVAL ARCHIVE  —  2023

2023 Festival Archive: The Koryū Nishikawa Troupe/Tom Lee

The Koryū Nishikawa Troupe/Tom Lee: AKUTAGAWA

January 28-29, 2023

Chopin Theatre Mainstage

Presented by Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival

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The Writer Meets His Work in Tom Lee & Koryū Nishikawa V’s Akutagawa

An Essay by Ana Díaz Barriga

Akutagawa, a semi-biographical piece showcasing the life and works of Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, is told with the stage divided into three sections. To the right, musician Yukio Tsuji accompanies the performance with a variety of instruments. To the left, cocreator and director Tom Lee performs a double role as a narrator and puppeteer, playing Akutagawa—the writer and protagonist of the piece. Framed by the musician and the narrator, Japanese puppet master Koryū Nishikawa V performs alongside puppeteer Josh Rice in the center stage. Audiences who are familiar with Japanese Bunraku might be reminded of it by the tripartite setup of this production, but Akutagawa is a kuruma ningyō performance. In kuruma ningyō, a single puppeteer operates each puppet by sitting on a wheeled cart.¹ The form was developed by past generations of the family of Nishikawa, cocreator of the performance. He and Rice play various characters as they, literally, bring Akutagawa’s works to life. 

Akutagawa, a prolific writer who died of suicide at the age of 35, is a key figure of modern Japanese literature. Akutagawa portrays the writer as a troubled artist, tormented by his attempts to master his medium and unable to find a balance between his work and his life. As the Akutagawa puppet writes at his desk on stage right, the center stage is populated by the characters in the stories. The artist’s concerns seep through his stories, often portraying characters who are forced to make extreme decisions as they search for their life’s purpose. For example, the first story portrayed onstage, “Rashōmon,” depicts a masterless samurai driven to a life of crime by his desperation to survive.

Reflecting how the writer’s obsession with his work bled into his life, the characters soon breach the boundaries into the writer’s space. At the end of “Hell Screen,” the second story, a traumatized Lord Horikawa leaves the fictional world to confront the author with a painted screen that cost a young woman’s life. In the story, painter Yoshihide is so obsessed with his work that he allows his daughter to be burned alive so that he can accurately portray a maiden burning in hell. Confronted with the painting, Akutagawa comes face-to-face with the horror of the story he has created: TFhe horror of the painter’s actions mirrors the horror of the writer’s creations. In its staging, Akutagawa also muddles the distinction between its stage spaces to establish its thematic core: mixing up fiction and reality, the world of the artist and his work.

The play implicitly teaches the audience how to engage with traditional Japanese puppet theater, even as Akutagawa subverts its conventions by integrating projections and varying forms of puppet manipulation that blur the lines between Japanese puppetry traditions.² One way the performance does this is by exposing all the performers’ faces. This allows the audience to learn to identify the various voices Lee uses for each character by matching the movement and emotional expression of the puppeteers to the text and Lee’s vocal expression. Such is the case in “Toshishun,” where the title character faces multiple monsters and demons in his quest to become a powerful wizard. After breaking his vow of silence to speak up for his parents who are being tortured in hell, Toshishun realizes he’d rather live a simple life. Nishikawa manipulates Toshishun and, although the text is spoken by Lee, Nishikawa’s facial expressions complement the puppet’s performance. We learn to see Nishikawa as a bridge between the inanimate figure and the narrator, letting the audience grasp the emotion of the character. 

The continuous presence of Lee’s voice allows the performers to take over the manipulation of Akutagawa at different times. Towards the end of the performance, Akutagawa himself steps into one of his stories in “Kappa.” Kappas are fantastical beings resembling turtles that live underwater in a society that follows radically different rules than humans. When Akutagawa pays a visit to Tokk, a kappa friend, the writer’s desk disappears and gets absorbed, expanding the playing space of the performance as the writer travels to the underwater world and erases the distinctions between what exists in the real and fictional realms. After some moments of pleasant chat, Tokk hides behind a curtain, and a gunshot is heard. Fully immersed in the fictional reality he has created, Akutagawa is in despair at the death of his friend. Nishikawa manipulates the artist in this deeply tragic moment, meticulously expressing his emotions. Nishikawa modulates his own presence, making us aware of the two masters who, at that moment, perform side by side: Akutagawa, the renowned Japanese writer, and Nishikawa, fifth-generation kuruma ningyō expert puppeteer.

The blurring of convention that is prevalent throughout the performance allows for a display of Nishikawa’s full mastery. Akutagawa reappears after Tokk’s death, now operated by Nishikawa, Lee, and Rice in the manner of sannin zukai—three-person manipulation. Through sannin zukai, the puppeteers re-create the intricate image of Akutagawa climbing a tree. We are taken back to the opening of the performance where a video projection showed the real-life Akutagawa doing this same action. The writer is covered in sheets of paper, falling like the leaves of the tree would. Alongside his tragic end, we see the humanity his stories hold. The three puppeteers who have skillfully brought Akutagawa to life, accompany him as he leaves, taking him beyond the confines of the stage, transcending into reality as they drench us with the magic of his fiction. 

1   For more information about the origins of this form, see Orenstein (2018). 

2  The performance features projection design by Chris Carcione, with animations by Linda Wingerter.

Works Cited

Orenstein, Claudia. “Shank’s Mare: A Transcultural Journey of Puppetry Creation and Performance.” Asian Theatre Journal, vol. 35, no. 1, 2018, pp. 1-26.

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