Miguel Romero
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   Two Puppet Collections
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Hoichi Okamoto

Hoichi portraitI left Tokyo on a journey that would take me across the ages of Japanese puppetry, from the origins of Bunraku to the avant-garde. My first stop was in the Japanese Alps near Nagano, the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics, to meet the contemporary puppeteer, Hoichi Okamoto, whose stunning work had been featured in New York at the Henson Festival of International Puppetry. I had been deeply moved by his performance of Kiyohime Mandara, a solo piece utilizing masks and life-size puppets in which Mr. Okamoto demonstrated an amazing command of puppetry, mask, mime, and dance technique. Since he was the first puppet artist I was interested in meeting in Japan, I had approached him from the States, and he invited me to come and visit him. His English was sufficient for us to communicate via e-mail. Once I arrived, I interviewed him about his life and work as a puppeteer.

Kiyohime scenes

Mr. Okamoto, in his early 50s, has been an itinerant puppeteer since he left a clerical job in his 20s. He was originally part of a small group that would arrive in a village on bicycles with only their puppets. The company would build a theatre from poles stored in local temples and used on special occasions as the framework for ceremonial pavilions. They would improvise plays peppered with local references.

Hoichi rehearsingFor the last 15 years, Mr. Okamoto, who builds his own puppets, has been a solo performer incorporating elements of butoh, and puppetry. He leads a Bohemian life in the mountains above Nagano, at his home/studio, a former barn that he converted himself from an assortment of materials - sheets of plywood, corrugated metal and stone. The high point of my visit was watching him rehearse for an upcoming performance of Kiyohime Mandara, the work I had seen in New York. I will never forget observing this private showing of a masterpiece where I had the opportunity to see how Mr. Okamoto achieved every marvelous effect. The work is a classic tale of a woman wreaking vengeance after being betrayed by her lover. Mr. Okamoto plays several characters, many of them at once, with spectacular transformations. The puppet removes a mask that looks like Mr. Okamoto, and he, in turn, removes his hood to reveal his mask that makes him look like the female puppet, reversing roles between himself as the heartless lover and the puppet. The illusion is so successful that the audience often can’t tell who’s who at times. The next day I accompanied Mr. Okamoto to his performance. Having seen it both in New York and so close in the studio, I was impressed to find that the performance still retained all of its magic.

Another highlight of my stay with Mr. Okamoto was a visit to a friend of his who is a puppet maker and master prop craftsman for the theatre, whose specialty is mask work for TV. Happy to have a fresh audience, he demonstrated all sorts of special effects and accomplishments, most impressively a mask depicting a young girl which the performer can remove and throw off, revealing a second mask behind revealing her to be a cat.

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