The Untold Story of the Awaji Puppet Master

by Richard Krause

            The dolls take on a life of their own no matter how crudely carved.  He saw them as members of his extended family. He could only relieve himself of their care by visiting his neighbors’ houses to distribute their upkeep, extending their lives, telling their stories, especially when his own house became so cluttered that his family started to leave him after the increase of so many dolls.  You could call them puppets, for in Japanese they meant the same thing.  They are thought to be invested with a soul and most are made with human hair.  You couldn’t criticize the dolls in front of Kenji even though their lives only took shape with a script.  He couldn’t help carving them in that frenzied period of creativity where he produced dozens upon dozens of dolls so they soon surpassed a hundred.  Though there wasn’t room in his own house, he made room at the expense of everyone else, his wife, children, and grandparents who had to double up because of the crowded conditions.

            Princesses defending lovelorn samurai, woodcutters, farmers, orphaned children looking for better homes, women bearing a grudge over a doting lover, corrupt policemen, bitter nannies, jealous brothers and sisters, bent, broken old men, young women stuffed full of romantic notions, even one shogun and surrounding daimyo were represented.  Kenji didn’t know what to do with them all, so he traveled from house to house telling stories about them, amusing neighbors who grew to expect his visits.  The dolls stood mute, their faces stolid despite intricate moveable parts that waited to be worked.  It was understood that they were no different than real people worked on by complex emotions.  The doll was left in its new home where the household waited for Kenji’s return visit to extend the narrative of its life.  Soon dolls were distributed all over the countryside.  Finally one day to broaden his audience Kenji traveled to town, and later to surrounding towns, to give performances that relieved people’s daily lives for the endless possibilities on stage.  They became like members of the household waiting for the next chapters of their lives when Kenji visited and they were taken off the shelves or out of their glass cabinets.

            Compulsively he told their stories to the greedy ears of his neighbors and the surrounding towns.  Each doll had a real life, and tales of which they had to be relieved. Kenji was burdened at night gathering story lines compulsively spun like so much silk. During the day he’d carve new dolls and at first his family helped with the costumes and painting, but soon the dolls accumulated so that the household was overwhelmed and the crowded conditions made everyone uncomfortable and irritable.  His family shrank before the enlarged roles of each new doll taking its place like a person.  Kenji stopped his work on the farm to produce the dolls that he felt obliged to show to the world.  Stories crowded in his mind, an overproduction of ideas not unlike mental patients who cannot stem the tide of their thoughts, that soon Kenji barely had time to attend to his daily needs.  His hygiene suffered, he lost his appetite and sleep.  Outside the narratives he produced, his own life seemed to dwindle. He was convinced the dolls all had souls that he was responsible for having brought to life, releasing them from the wood and putting words into their mouths.  Each wood curl brought a hip, a nose, an elbow to life, and a story to justify the existence of the emerging character, whose roughness was sanded away, ever smoother, and with every doll Kenji’s skills improved.  That they truly became his family, he knew each time he touched their hair. The hairdos multiplied as their garb billowed with evermore intricate designs for the obi as they entered different strata of society.  Those lucky enough to go to court, rise above their station, were the envy of all, until it was found that even their private lives resembled in many ways those of the lowliest farmers.

            Still Kenji felt bound to make each doll distinctive and that kept him busy looking for new turns to their personality.  Like in every family there were pickpockets, liars, women of ill-repute, damaged intelligence hidden away, spiteful black sheep, broken athletes, characters too smart for their own good, but all mixed up for each performance.  Kenji discovered an originality he never knew he possessed, constantly probing inside himself to bring together what he also drew from real life. He got little rest, bound to use every hour of each day until it cut into his sleep.  He felt solely responsible for giving birth, for the life lived afterwards even when his doll’s actions were criticized by local residents and in distant villages.  Despite a certain belief in each doll’s autonomy, in the free will they exhibited, he himself didn’t always know where their stories came from and felt sometimes they were imposed on him.  In his most private hours he suspected something demonic was at work directing his labors.  Though he saw clearly the aspirations, disappointments, pettiness, food squabbles, the obvious favoritism, and sweepingly profound jealousies, the envy everywhere, the urgency of reprisals, there was something infernal driving all this social entanglement that in the end he knew was not for the good no matter how compelled he was to reveal it. Everyone was drowned in this stunning soup of emotion starting with his own family, even the critical relatives that he saw infrequently, then the neighbors, as if on stage they were all performing underwater motions that would one day do them in. In fact everyone around him provided examples of a naked human nature with which he quickly clothed his dolls.  It often made audiences squirm seeing themselves represented, barely looking to see if others noticed the same thing.  Perhaps Kenji never entirely admitted where his ideas came from and never admitted that he himself was uncomfortable with the characters he created on stage. He like his audience groped to determine exactly their origin and to figure out what they would do next.  Maybe he didn’t want to see what he saw, except through his dolls.  They protected him against real life that so troubled him that he needed this representation on stage.

            His performances extended from nearby villages to towns to eventually reaching the prefectural capital. His stories were simple, crude at first, but he quickly learned what made people laugh, the narrative twists between a nervous laugh, or a powerful guffaw, to a helpless cachinnation that infected the whole theater.  He knew about the dead silences when he had touched a nerve, or when a long silence was called for, or those moments when the audience was sometimes as puzzled about his intent as he was, or when everyone held their breath. Early on he left the theater satisfied that the dolls had indeed come alive, that he started to make beds for some of them, elaborate chests, stuffed colorful futons so they could rest at night, and for the women he provided vanity tables with double mirrors that reflected the trouble they took over their own beauty.  He sometimes rose in the middle of the night worried about the debut of a new doll, about her match, or a costume he had not properly visualized, groping for a missing twist in a story.  He sought details that would bring startled astonishment, audiences to their feet, for Kenji now regularly played in theaters to standing ovations, the makeshift country theaters with crude curtains in Awaji had become ornate tasseled varieties of rich brocade at the larger theaters. As audiences grew the pressure correspondingly weighed on Kenji to leave everyone helpless with laughter, or frightfully receding into their private lives with tears in their eyes, drawing a solitary line down their cheeks.  The housewives could see so vividly the romance absent in their own lives..  This challenged Kenji’s talents as the venues enlarged.  He felt the pressure to keep everyone dreaming with his love stories, reaching for their handkerchiefs, daring them to cross boundaries that would have been unthinkable before.  He didn’t avoid the betrayals and the heartache.

            Gradually Kenji’s own household grew so cluttered with his creations and his nights now became so full of carvings and storytelling that no one could keep up with the costumes that he drew as he left the house at first light to hunt for new ideas, to give life to dolls that were already draining from him any semblance of vitality.  The life he created in his own image became one he didn’t live.  He was often seen wandering in town at the earliest of hours.           

            People always knew that their life stories were being told.  Even the dolls they adopted after each performance became like family members, and were treated with extraordinary respect and protected under elaborate glass cabinets that looked ornamental.  They were dolls for children, it was said, but they were not to be taken out of their case and played with.  Years later few knew their derivation went back to Kenji Watahari, the puppet master.  Of course the respect came from the fact that all Japanese thought dolls had souls.  That everybody went in disguise was almost a principle in this honor bound culture, but from time to time there erupted an unspeakable violence showing to what extent the society concealed what lay beneath that extraordinary politeness.  The dolls in fact were an embodiment of that veneer, revealing only in glimpses a society stripped to its bare bones, with everyone for a brief moment naked.  Life couldn’t function without the infinite honorifics that masked the real motives keeping everything civil, and so the bare wood was clothed with elaborate costumes and scripts that reinvented themselves.  Despite the occasional disturbing story, or gesture, or downright evil character that made everyone glimpse themselves. The tension from this was the nucleus of Kenji’s art, the trembling honesty in all the stories he told, of art in general that exposes motives so we see into ourselves what’s hidden the next moment. Nevertheless the glimpses remain through half-smiles, feints, frowns, or partial

gestures, the almost raised hand to the bold salute, the signaling of horror or exultation, or that brief moment when chills race down the spine at the total estrangement, or the contagiously radiant brotherhood on everyone’s face, or finally the outright betrayal leading to a stupefying violence. 

            Kenji had created a world from a population of simple farmers that branched out to greedy merchants, hidebound bureaucrats, snooping newspapermen, lonely samurai, their ever loyal retainers, members of the floating world, geisha and women of easy virtue, lonely housewives, and even blind masseurs.  Yes, Kenji worked his helpers relentlessly night and day as his family members dropped away.  The dolls multiplied, their bright green and orange kimonos, the stunning blacks embroidered with gold for funerals were so strikingly color coordinated to bring out the utmost solemnity.  Or the exception sticking up, the one nail, that was invariably hammered down.

            Kenji’s entourage grew when he began to yell at them, scold them for the smallest infraction, for what was out of place and didn’t meet his exacting specifications.  A kimono color that wasn’t deep enough, a complexion insufficiently pale, the sash too low or high, the coiffure that didn’t meet the classical expectations, a gesture that lacked crispness or wasn’t phlegmatic enough. Kenji indeed became the Little Emperor, an epithet whispered in hushed voices and despite the help he had bringing his characters to life, still they all came from him.  Characters absolutely danced around his head.  He drew too from his frustrations with everyone around him, secretly alienating them when they saw themselves so clearly on stage.

            “Just look at them!”  It was as if nothing ever happened, Kenji reviled one night in a drunken stupor, experiencing himself a period of creative drought attacking everyone around him.  “They are my creation,” he said, “You are all my creations,” as he waved his arm feebly while his head drooped towards his small sake cup.  “Mine, all mine,” he mumbled as he passed out. 

            And there was no one who dared argue with him.  He knew it. The intrigues, the hatred, the jealousies, the craving for power, the silent usurpations, all the hidden life in the briefest gesture, or the shallow optimism that kept everyone in the troupe going.  You’d think nothing happened in daily life until unexpectedly there was a full-blown violence from a clash of wills, or an inflamed corruption surfaced, like a carbuncle that rallied everyone, that required the quick attention of a lance, a word, a witticism. All the bowing and self-belittlement in the culture told a history of heads cut off, lost limbs, digits shortened a joint at a time, lives snuffed out at the least sign of displeasure.  Society inherited all that without fully realizing it until Kenji brought it on stage.

            All this Kenji caught and placed smack between people’s eyes so they were dazzled, so spouses trembled at what they saw; employers were exposed right before everyone’s eyes, the secret betrayal of a brother or sister revealed, and the children mystified by a world they didn’t understand, full of intrigue and violence.  They learned how to bow with such art and so low, ever lower until their foreheads touched the tatami mat.   The performances captured everything so that audiences consolidated, completely captivated on those evenings.

            Kenji saw how art influenced lives, how they anticipated his monthly visits, saw the control he had, and the power of the performances over them that it was frightening.  It showed too how the Awaji farmer got so irremediably absorbed by his puppeteering that he almost lost his mind to what he had developed.  Who imagined that a rural farmer from Awaji left to his own devices could create such a world?  Much less be the goal of even the most meager talent.  Kenji didn’t himself realize this transformation, or the resentments that build up along the way, the hidden angers.  The silences he rarely interpreted, the quailing before his direction he never saw as a threat to him. His itinerary was always set weeks in advance so he remained up all hours of the night now carving new performers, adding to his troupe dolls that came alive under his direction as his helpers faded the better they did their job bringing the puppets more alive. Kenji’s bullying commands made his helpers grow stiff, wooden, so they lacked the initiative working the moveable parts of dolls that spoke up and seemed animated with a spirit their handlers lacked.  They kept their disgruntled silence to themselves the more remarkable were the words out of the dolls’ mouths.  Kenji’s commands too grew louder, more shrill, with his celebrity, as he treated his workers, even his admirers from the capital, more and more harshly, as dispensable blocks of wood themselves fired only by his imagination. Their own mouths slack except in admiration rarely worked like the moveable parts of the puppets, for they never contradicted anything Kenji said, while his wooden creations came to life.   Kenji’s dismissal of so many of them alienated an army of people, even though there were always novices waiting for the chance to take their place.  Kenji truly lived up to his Little Emperor title for his authoritarian ways, for the increasing cruelty towards his helpers. 

            No one could match his direction, fit the perfection of his ideas, the way he moved the puppets or taught others to.  Even when he ceded control to the three puppeteers masked in black who worked just one puppet, it was as if the minds of the three shrank under his direction to one harmonious whole.  The characters grew real right before the audience’s eyes, despite his tongue lashings midperformance, replacing the handlers with characters whose emotions outsized them.  Chikamatsu’s creations too filled their meager lives, given up to the theater, leaving them with the feeling that they were little more than props in a grand scheme.  The violence on stage, the cruelty, love, jealousy, pettiness, bitterness, the small acts of kindness, the outright tenderness, the gratitude, the rages and hatred, overshadowed their own lives that faded into insignificance. They never could match what transpired on stage, from those first performances in their homes, then at neighboring villages, to larger towns, finally in the prefectural capital.  It was even said as Kenji’s reputation spread that the troupe would one day travel all the way to Kyoto.




            Kenji had created a world, so wide, rising like each morning sun, intimate as the twilight and the first stars, before being replaced by pale moonlight that I want to say was so spectacular that one night Kenji as we knew him disappeared.  Some say he so occupied the spirit of his dolls that he had nothing left over.  He so informed the movements of every puppet, and those of each puppet master. The crews worked the one doll, though he knew every feint and dodge, the sets, the dress, the motions of each moveable part, the words out of their mouths, stylized to an art form that now surpassed itself to represent life so that all his creations as everyone claimed were indeed in his own image.  He gave them their stories, their gestures, their costumes, their faces.  The eerie spell of lives other than their own worked on people. Some even whispered that he was much more than an Emperor.  For every emotion, every gesture, the least honorific, or bow, was managed by him, so his handlers knew what string was pulled tight, loosened, exactly how much slack to allow the jaw, the reach that hid a limp, or curtailed a sneer, the suddenly stiffened defiance, it was all his.

            All but the most immediate family he had frightened away, for the air around him had become unbreatheably thick, that most left and didn’t know that he had stopped eating and was growing thinner, became a specter of his former self.  His assistants had to bend down to hear him talk. Still it seemed that he knew the power of a whisper, the lower his voice the greater the deference, the deeper the bow to hear it, that finally they had to imagine what he said.  They started to follow commands he never gave.  While his scripts had been as sacred texts before, now they were embellished, words changed and so did the costumes until they felt they had a free hand.

            The morning audiences by admirers stopped altogether, the need to recheck an already established itinerary, or to make sure of a gesture or correction in the script, the more removed was Kenji who had taken to bed.  His youngest daughter Yoko of all his four daughters stayed with him. Yoko was now managing productions.  But without

the firm hand of Kenji.  Even she could not stop his pulling his hair in bunches over the least thought, viewing long strands stretched before the bulging, upturned whites of his eyes, then suddenly his champing down on the hair.

            “Here, put this on a doll,” he said.

            Perhaps he suffered too many lives that were now overtaking his own that he recoiled with a vengeance into himself, too many story lines continued wrapping around him, tightening every day, chocking off the last of his contact with the world. 

            Yoko couldn’t discourage his trips to the stream running through the bamboo behind their house, his dropping on all fours and crawling on the pebbles of the bank, digging into the stream’s bottom, clutching handfuls of tiny stones and soil, sifting it through his fingers mumbling to himself, “Hourglass, hourglass, tell me the time, Before my body disintegrates in lime.” 

            The pebbles streaming towards the water glistened, dull and shiny by turns

like the characters he had created.  It was as if this was the end of the entertainment, the world he had given everyone, one he could no longer support.  There would be no more carvings, freeing characters from the wood, no more scripts or costume designs, no detailed drawings for each scene, nothing that gave life as his own ebbed away into the stream behind his house.  He was alone now, so chockfull of all he had created that all he could do was sit in water every day.  He could barely feed himself, but drifted away from all he had done, from his fellow man, the villagers, his family, from each character he had enlarged on the stage, firing up whole towns with their thriving theaters. He was a bag of skin and bones crawling on the banks of a shallow stream where occasionally a ray of sunlight poked through the dappled leaves exposing the bare silhouette of his body crawling in the spotlight.  He was watched over by his daughter loath to interrupt this last performance of her father.  Every last scrap of dignity was now gone from him crawling and sifting tiny stones until he’d stop and observe something so methodically.  He was a creator who had disappeared into his own body now indistinguishable from the landscape, his arms thin as the surrounding bamboo.




            One night there was a revolt at one of his performances without his presence.  It seemed that something depicted onstage struck too close to home, mirrored an actual event in the life of the village, and brought back bad memories.  We don’t know who started it but there was a collective uprising after an interminably long groan, then vicious heckling that got out of control and then an attack on the dolls themselves. The audience rose up to a person, rushed and grabbed the dolls from the handlers and proceeded to tear apart the mechanical pieces responsible for their gestures, dislodging the moveable jaw, the separate pieces what worked the mouth and the things it said, wedging their fingers into the eyebrows so they would never convey a suggested assignation, all the nuances of meeting, tore ears off that heard the whispering, and ripped away the strings that the dolls were worked with, right out of the hands of the three handlers and wrapped them around their necks as they pushed the handlers dressed in black to the floor.  One got his hands on the fine clothes of the princess and proceeded to pull off her dress to expose her sex that ended almost undefined.  There was no deep crescent between the legs but only a faintly drawn pencil mark and unlike the rich heads of hair from Kenji’s family their sex was bare.  The rags of dress soon lay torn on the stage and the wooden skeletons that only suggested bones underneath were thrown down partially splintered.  

            “So much for uncovering our secrets,” one audience member scowled.

            “Yes, look at theirs!” another chimed in.

            “Let’s burn them all, and the whole theater!” another said. 

            “Sticks of wood is all they are.  It doesn’t matter what they say.”

            “They don’t reveal us.  They don’t speak for us.”

            “No. We’re alive, and they’re mere matchsticks.” 

            “Matchsticks!  Let’s set them on fire!” 

            “Gather all of them.” 

            “There are more in the back room.” 

            “Yes, let’s go,” as another male had his trousers torn off and someone it seems had drawn the outline of his sex but failed to give it three dimensions.”

            “It’s flat,” one man said and laughed to himself in ridicule.

            “How could he court the princess?” another said.

            “He’s a fraud, we’ve all been tricked by this show long enough.  Let’s have a bonfire!”

            “But what of their souls?”

            “Souls, ha, they have no souls!” 

            The three handlers in black were beaten to a pulp like limp pieces of material.  They barely moved, as if they couldn’t get over their torn, exposed dolls, master puppeteers no longer.  The rest of the troupe had fled.

            The tiny makeshift theaters where the performances were given the countryside over were set fire to one by one that spring, reduced to charred rubble as if

the realization of what happened on stage spread to audiences everywhere who now wrote their own script.  It was the people’s reprisal for what they considered years of

misrepresentation, even if they were seduced by Kenji’s craft, they resented that, and now their naked emotions rebelled for being on display throughout the island of Awaji for so many years.  Even the idea that Kenji was the Little Emperor faded.  In village after village they extinguished their main source of entertainment, cutting off their noses to spite their faces.  Erasing what had been a meeting place for amusement for generations.  Burnt to the ground was theater after theater.  Not always did the handlers die, but many received serious burns when they were not discovered in the rubble. The dolls were irrecoverable.  Since it was a communal uprising the authorities felt disempowered by what they considered a moral outrage for having the worst of themselves depicted daily on stage.   So they did nothing to intervene, and never prosecuted the wrongdoers. 

            In fact the fires were said to resemble a spontaneous combustion among the village folk that so few understood and to which their wooden structures were always

so vulnerable, even vast temples and one that housed the giant wooden Buddha had burnt to the ground.  It gave an eerie presentiment to the night, the burning of each theater. Few outsiders knew that the patrons had turned on their entertainers. The people seemed possessed, like the demons that everyone still believed lurked in the countryside after hours when through the darkness a fire would suddenly start.  People were stunned when this happened the first time, but after the second, third, and multiple times it surprised no one that they thought it was inevitable, fate, part of Kenji’s narrative and the cultural bias of shoganai that accepts the inevitability of human nature depicted on stage that finally had caught up with real life like a meteor observed in the night sky.  The collective power took over and the buildings were torched, the dolls ripped apart and burned like a pile of sticks, their individual narratives incinerated before everyone’s eyes.  Some saw the wood catch fire and the billowing garb exaggerating the flames and imagined they could hear screams from the dolls that compared with high pitched imitations of the most unearthly suffering, with a lover throwing himself off a cliff, a young man finding his woman mutilated, or dogs having torn a grandfather to pieces, even the horrid secrets of incest buried for years ending in a horrid cry, or the unnatural enamorment towards animals, then the unspeakable cruelty with the appearance of ghosts or demons that represent human beings at their worst. It was as if with the fires the narratives continued an apocalyptic extension of the scripts, that the burning and destruction was meant to happen.  Some thought of the creative certainty of such theatrics and trembled at what had come to pass.  They knew the gaps that Kenji’s creations had filled. It was only natural that they’d turn on what depicted the underlying horror to restore their dignity and stop this probing into their dark secrets, restore their society to the unparalleled politeness that erased anything untoward, hid the violence and all those ugly emotions just below the surface. 

            They just got tired of seeing themselves depicted year after year.  The whole arrogant parade of characters that thought they could capture their human emotions.  Who did Kenji Watahari think he was?  The Little Emperor, yes.  Well, we’ll show him a thing or two! 

            Meanwhile Kenji’s house standing before the bamboo remained unmolested while theaters all over Awaji went up in flames.  The handlers, the promoters of Kenji’s vision who had contracted with him, were tracked down one by one and beaten, even those who felt they had been mistreated for their work not coming up to standards.  People from the audience who had wanted to participate but were turned away for lack of talent, who never survived auditions, now turned on the troupe and helped to identify the handlers and crew.  Like a secret police they ferreted out every participant. No one who had ever been associated with a production was spared, for people remember every slight so when the mob takes over the communal indignation gathers, like birds rising all at once, grabbing what is within reach, attacking at the least provocation.  Their grievances were in the end relieved.  Sitting in the audience for years, being the pawns of puppets, the butt of jokes, of an inventive mind that saw too clearly into them, who wouldn’t get fatigued by that?

            “Puppets, can you imagine that?” 

            “How degrading!” 

            “It’s not even us, but claims to represent us!” 

            “Not ever real people, but wooden representations in all their showy garb, their gaudy finery, and scripts that weren’t really us now that we think about it, but they duped us into thinking these exaggerations showed something, duped us into laughing or crying or leaving with sorrow, pity, or anger.  They showed nothing when you come to think about it but inflated parodies, yes, that’s all they were, parodies of us!”        

            “They were making fun of us all along!  Puppets! now really, how could they ever be who we are?”

            “We want our lives back!” one person shouted during one of the first fires. 

            “Yes, we want to be who we were, peaceful, loving, kind, courteous, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent, harmonious, not the opposites that form the substance of all this drivel.” 

            “That’s all it is, stagecraft, that should be wiped out and not allowed in the city limits.”

            “Nor on the countryside to contaminate us!”

            They sensed that acting robbed them of something and left pale imitations the next morning for what happened on stage the night before.  Yet they had gone back time and again. They knew they could never live up to how a fertile mind depicts them, no matter how much he drew from their daily lives, their dreams and desires, no matter how he tooled into their dark underside.  His angling into their souls, making them better and worse than they really were, they had had enough of it. 

            “I can’t take it any longer,” and the community agreed in shouts of collective assent before they stormed the stage. 

            “All we see is naked examples of ourselves.”

            “Yes, it’s obscene!” 

            “They’re only sticks of wood who have no sex themselves. Traipsing like they are god’s gift across the stage!”

            “Naked still,” someone said, “they should be ashamed!”

            “Yes, but with less privacy than our daily lives.  It compensates for what’s hidden by our politeness and bowing.  Otherwise we’ll never be found out except for what’s so rudely exposed on stage.”

            The crowd hardly paid attention to this analysis. 

            “We show no one what we are thinking most of time,” he continued.

            “Get him!” someone quickly yelled.  “He’s one of them!”

            “We don’t want to see ourselves,” he argued.

            “Muzzle him,” someone screamed and they descended on the young man beating him black and blue. 

            There were periodic revolts, even in twentieth century literature that ended in burning buildings, never so overt but just as startling.

            The Temple of the Golden Pavilion was burnt to the ground by that monk, he even with his stuttering spoke for the rest.  Mishima didn’t make his stutter universal, but

knew he had tapped into the destructive impulses of the common man haunted by beauty, but not able to do anything about it.

            Most of us can’t get the words out, so the jealousy of that permanent stage festers, the temple reflected so calmly in water that we are reduced like those who left the theaters in Awaji, swept away by each performance just like the monk, Mizoguchi, Ditch Mouth, who at first quietly swept the grounds around the temple.  No wonder he hatched a plan to burn the temple to the ground, spite everyone for his own impotence, for not being able to reconcile the beauty with the ugliness in his own mind, unlike the clubfooted Kashiwagi who embraced his ugliness.  Both had antecedents to the earliest puppet theaters and the villagers on Awaji who one night almost changed the course of history.  But people are stubborn, they need their entertainment.  They can pass all the laws they want keeping the theaters outside the precincts of the town, on the other side of the river, but the theater comes back, people return out of the burning rubble, through the mist, through the charred past to start building anew.  They pick up the pieces of burnt puppets resolved to reconstruct them.

            Still, the monk spoke for all of us, who want, despite art, no actual temple, even if  it is stubbornly reflected in our mind, in the pond, the beauty lodged there that Mizoguchi had to eliminate by burning the real one to the ground, but still it stayed, didn’t go away, came back, just like the idea of the theater.  Mizoguchi was not unlike Kenji crawling in the stream behind his house.  But he sat calmly on the mountain side watching the pavilion burn then took out a cigarette and had a smoke while Kenji crawled away from his productions.

            Mizoguchi rose above his act like life always does art, while Kenji descended into the stream behind his house. Both fires were not unlike the remarkable Snow Country when the projector room at the local cinema caught fire and Yoko throws herself off the balcony and the main character Shimamura, an aesthete, can’t help himself but mourns not her death but the beauty of the line of her body disrupted by a misaligned limb.  The Milky Way goes into him with a roar as he looks up.  So too art disappears in a rush as on Awaji Island theater after theater is burned to the ground so that almost no dolls survive today from the hundreds made, except those crude reproductions hidden in those houses that were unmolested. 

            Kenji’s vision is almost lost in the vague annals of Japanese history on what was once a resistant population that turned on their own entertainment and burned theaters and homes to the ground so that Awaji Island today is only a faint replica of where a population glimpsed their naked selves and revolted.

            Kenji wasted away to nothing, and today no one knows even where his original house stood, or whether it was later burnt to the ground.



A real puppet madness occasionally seizes the Awaji farmer.  He wanders from house to house with little one-handed marionettes, going through a favorite passage, himself both singer and puppeteer, when someone asks him in; he may even bring his house to ruin with his puppets, and he has been known in an extreme case to go quite insane. 

                                                                        –Junichiro Tanizaki Some Prefer Nettles


The Untold Story of the Awaji Puppet Master

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