Miguel Romero
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Kihachiro Kawamoto, Puppet Designer

Kihachiro portrait Shortly before leaving for Japan, I had attended in New York a Chinese-Japanese co-production, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms that featured beautiful puppets by Kihachiro Kawamoto. I contacted him on my arrival in Tokyo, and he invited me to his studio for what turned out to be an educational and awe-inspiring experience. At 75, Mr. Kawamoto’s English is pretty good, and so I was able to get enough information to form the basis of an article about him that I eventually hope to publish. In enthusiastic and upbeat manner, he generously shared his techniques and personal history as we toured his studio and personal collection. I documented the visit on video.

Mr. Kawamoto creates puppets primarily for extravagant Chinese historical epics (comparable to American westerns) on film and television. The most distinguishing feature of his puppets is the heads. Although smaller than his fist, the heads convey an amazing degree of psychological subtlety and depth. In demonstrating how he makes the heads, he revealed his secret. He covers the papier maché heads with kidskin. This gives the puppet’s skin an exceptional smoothness and translucent quality. Since most of his puppets feature articulated eyes and mouths, the total effect, while not necessarily realistic, is very "lifelike" in its total effect. The screenplays for these epic productions could in fact be played by actors, the lifelike essence of Mr. Kawamoto’s puppets adds to the experience.

Two kidskin covered  heads

In addition, Mr. Kawamoto works closely with costume designers to ensure that these traditional rod puppets (augmented with mechanisms that move the eyes and mouth) are extravagantly well dressed in opulent silk brocades that he purchases in China. He and his costume designer build all the costumes and accessories in his workshop.

Eye/ mouth movement

Elaborately costumed puppetsAfter lunch, Mr. Kawamoto took me to a museum where he gave me a personal guided tour of an elegant exhibition devoted to his work for several television series. Two university students, one Japanese and one Chinese, both fans of the shows in which Mr. Kawamoto’s puppets had appeared, approached him. Once the exhibition closed for the day, we continued our discussion over coffee joined by the students who were eager to practice their English.

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