Puppeteers of the World: Hoichi Okamoto

Pierwodruk: Lalkarze świata / Puppeteers of the World: Hoichi Okamoto, TEATR LALEK 2021, nr 2-3 (144-145), ss. 46-51 (wersja polska), ss. 52-57 (English version)


            Many people – wrote Hôichi Okamoto – perceive my art as deeply enrooted in Japanese theatre tradition and, generally speaking, I understand their approach. Nonetheless, such a statement may result in misunderstandings. The traditional Japanese theatre is extremely rigorous, very difficult to master, and truly possible only for those who became acquainted with it and pursued it from their youngest years. Mere emulation and reproduction of forms do not bring us closer even to their essence. I am far from possessing those assorted forms of the artistic tradition of yore, and if I were to say that I would like to create a new spectacle upon their foundation I would expose myself to the vehement criticism of the authors of the traditional theatre. Even though I move the puppet in a manner similar to that of the bunraku technique, the relations I build are totally different. When I move very slowly, probably producing among the audience a certain sense of the absence of the theatre,  the reason lies in the fact that all this is indispensable for my puppetry. And when – in the manner of the butō dancer – I paint my body white, I do so in order to change myself into a puppet.   

Each of those forms, which I use, is the outcome of my vision of relations between man and the puppet held by him. (…)  This is why it is not so much form as the philosophy at the basis of my work that can be described as Japanese. When I animate a puppet I am interested, for example, in its rigidity and not mobility. Moreover, I would hazard the statement that movement, paradoxically, creates an opportunity for showing the puppet within its absolute silence. Naturally, puppets do not move, and I am convinced that they are also devoid of souls. I think that this is the reason for their mysterious allure. They are counterparts of human beings, and notwithstanding grant them their appearance.  

The relation between man and puppet can be changed into: “life and death” or ”being and non-being”. These pairs of conceits behave in contrary ways, so that none can exist without the other.  The simultaneous nature of their basic difference and the blurring of the boundary between them created various philosophical tendencies. The concepts of the duality of “life and death” and “being and non-being” thus became significant pillars of the traditional Japanese theatre.   

As for me, my enthusiasm for puppets originally led towards such conceptions; only later did I rediscover them in the world outlook of women and the Kabuki theatre. From that time my interest in the traditional Japanese theatre continues to grow. In other words, I found also my subconscious and aesthetics under the strong impact of Japanese tradition. [1]

This artistic creed formulated by Hôichi Okamoto at the turn of the twentieth century makes it possible to slightly better understand both his way of thinking and puppetry style, which assumed shape during the 1980s and essentially influenced contemporary global puppetry.  

Hôichi Okamoto (1947-2011) was born and grew up in the Hiroshima Prefecture, at the time still engrossed in eliminating the outcome of the atomic bombings carried out by the Americans more than ten months earlier. His real name was Yoshikazu. Hôichi, a sui generis pseudonym, was borrowed from a local Japanese legend about a blind minstrel whom evil spirits lured at night to a cemetery where they frolicked with him. One evening, in order to protect the musician against demons, his body was covered with magic words rendering him invisible to the spectres. Legend claims that the envoy of the evil forces, who set off to find the musician, discovered only his ears, overlooked and undisguised – he ripped them off and seized them. In this way Hôichi saved his life and became Hôichi-no or the Earless. [2]

As is often the case with great artists Hôichi Okamoto made acquaintance with puppetry by sheer chance – he wanted to become a painter. However, having moved to Tokyo the twenty-year-old youth predominantly sought employment: he made assorted offers, submitted requests wherever possible and, as fortune would have it,  received a reply from a certain theatre company creating puppet shows for children’s TV programmes. Subsequently, Hôichi Okamoto became a stage designer and puppet maker living in the theatre workshop amidst puppets, although at the time he was still uninterested in becoming a puppeteer.

One day – he recalled to Roman Paska – when I was eating super alone, I lifted a puppet and placed it next to me. It kept me company during the meal. The feeling that engulfed me was very curious. The puppet is not a person and yet it felt as if it was. Its presence was human and, simultaneously, different. It was located precisely along the borderline between the inanimate world and that of man. I wished to explain to myself and intensify this strange feeling. Hence I made four human-sized puppets and… took my meals together with them. [3]

In 1974 Hôichi Okamoto registered in Tokyo a form of artistic activity known as the Ningyo Kobo Dondoro Theatre. The word: Dondoro was borrowed from the name of a shop (Don Doro) in the Copacabana district of Rio de Janeiro, whose metal sign held central place on the wall of his studio. This was also the time when he came up with the idea to appear together with a puppet in the street. I placed it at the corner and stood behind it, motionless. Then I ordered it to perform slight motions. This was my first experience of animation.[4]

From that time Hôichi Okamoto performed with puppets in small theatre halls, or especially in the streets, without the accompaniment of music replaced by the noise of the city, and relying on simple animation and elementary motions of his body, as if derived from the spirit of the butō dance. He was interested predominantly in the motionlessness of the puppet, moments of stillness, and pauses, so characteristic for all genres of the traditional Japanese theatre. The puppet must once again become an inanimate object – he declared. It was precisely in this motionlessness that Okamoto sensed the Japanese quality. At that time, thanks to assorted masters, he became familiar with the foundations of the traditional art of the theatre. This period was much too brief, but he was not interested in the traditional theatre and wished to learn solely its basic techniques. The same holds true for butō – although Hôichi Okamoto practised it he sought answers mainly in long conversations with dancers whose years-long quests confirmed his own premonition: the body of the dancer, similarly to that of the puppeteer, must become an inanimate object so as to subsequently – within the artistic process – become subjected to creative animation. 

In 1980 Hôichi Okamoto changed the name of his one-man theatre company (which became known as Ningyo Shiba Dondoro) and accepted the presence of numerous partners together with whom he embarked upon a several-years long existence of an itinerant theatre troupe. He travelled on foot, pulling through Japanese towns and villages a two-wheel bicycle cart full of puppets and props, and together with his company held spectacles and shows in makeshift conditions. Hôichi Okamoto wrote spectacle scenarios and texts intended for the puppets, built sets, and created small stage puppets. He performed solo or with his colleagues in improvised space, streets, and cafés, altering the type of the spectacle upon numerous occasions until the mid-1980s, when he once again subjected his life to transformation.

Having left Tokyo Hôichi Okamoto moved to the mountains: Ina Valley (Nagano Prefecture). To an existing old barn-shed, which became his home, he added successive facilities by using reclaimed building material: a workshop and a puppetry studio, a small theatre hall, accommodation for rehearsals, and a puppetry and costume storeroom. He returned to solo work, now pursued sporadically, and in particular to laboratory research. In doing so he focused on spirituality, the attainment of total inner peace, and the solidification of his personal language of theatrical statements. Since there was no one with me with whom I could talk, I began to talk to my puppets; I lived with them. I wished to create a new puppet that would become my friend, but also my wife, my son … A substitute family. I asked my puppets: how do you want to move? They taught me that, which they expected of me. And I came to like it. This might sound strange, but it is absolutely true.[5]

These solitary conditions witnessed the emergence of the Hôichi Okamoto known to us from his later appearances all over the world and his first solo spectacle: Kiyohime Mandara (Mandala of Kiyohime) – an extraordinary interpretation of a popular ballade (known also from the repertoire of all traditional Japanese theatres) about the tragic love between the comely Kiyohime and the monk Anchin. After a night of love and promises of marriage, the abandoned girl takes her revenge by changing into a serpent and killing her beloved. Okamoto’s solo spectacle was one of the most exquisite of the period. Characters created by the actor’s motion resembling a dance, the use of masks covering both his face and that of the puppet, as well as the astounding transformation of the dramatis personae (sometime the puppet is a monk, in other scenes – a woman, while the actor is the masked  animator or one of the protagonists with a face painted white) – all this made it difficult to separate the puppeteer from the puppet and the story told without resorting to words. The precise, intimate, slow-motion, and virtuoso animation merging Anchin and Kiyohime and linking their mutually permeating bodies produced a hypnotic effect. The sophisticated costumes-fabrics worn by the actor and the puppet unexpectedly changed into something else. By tugging several strings the sandy coat worn by the monk, whose head was covered by a flat straw Buddhist hat, turned into the red kimono belonging to Kiyohime, with thick black hair encircling the puppet’s head. In the course of the spectacle Hôichi Okamoto executed several such astounding metamorphoses right in front of the audience, at the same time demonstrating the ecstasy of the lovers’ entangled bodies. Upon occasions it became difficult to guess whether the bare legs of the actor belonged to the female character, the monk, or perhaps both figures engrossed in the act of love.  

The audience in Ljubljana, where Okamoto showed his spectacle for the first time in Europe in the course of an UNIMA Congress and the accompanying festival (1992) (previously he attended a solo performers’ festival in South Korea and appeared in Taiwan), experienced a veritable shock. Members of the public stayed on for long after candles arranged in the four corners of a square – the site of the performance – were extinguished. This was not solely a magnificent theatrical experience, but a sui generis mystery, a spiritual encounter with the world of Japanese sensitivity created by the artist. A sterile world, perfectly presented, murky and multi-hued, real but, at the same time, sensual and largely contemporary. A world revealing a new puppetry style, in which the actor enters into complex relations with a man-sized puppet and combines a masked performance with that involving a puppet by making use primarily of the language of motion and dance.

Prior to Ljubljana Hôichi Okamoto showed Kiyohime Mandara only less than twenty times from the premiere held in 1987. The Japanese public, chiefly rural, for whom he appeared upon occasions, found him outright shocking. He was unaccepted, did not play for a children’s audience or use a text. Fortuitously, one of his spectacles was watched by Sennosuke Takeda, the great Japanese marionettist, whose recommendation opened the way for Hôichi Okamoto to appear in Slovenia and subsequently all over the world.   

The success enjoyed by the Dondoro Theatre in the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty first century was indubitably exceptional. It also inaugurated numerous workshops conducted by Hôichi Okamoto, which two-three decades ago were not as large-scale, regular, and universal as is the case today. In 1998 Kiyohime Mandara was staged at the International Festival “Theatre Confrontations” in Lublin, and a year later as part of a master class programme, with Okamoto appearing at the International Festival of Solo Puppeteers in Łódź. The Kiyohime Mandara monodrama, derived both from Japanese literature and the traditional mask and dance theatre, is a virtuoso performance given by an actor, a puppet, and a mask, a performance involving two masks overwhelmed by love and ablaze in the dance. The actor’s equilibristics, skill of creating assorted characters, sensual exploitation of the costume and own body making it possible to follow the fate of the lovers, the mutual permeation of the protagonists – all renders the Dondoro monodrama an extraordinary emotional-aesthetic experience. In addition, it takes place almost in a single spot, in extremely limited and totally empty space, which intensifies the impression and stirs the spectators’ imagination.[6]

In consecutive years Hôichi Okamoto perfected his style while preparing successive spectacles or returning to earlier themes and motifs: Keshin-Metamorfozy (Keshin-Metamorphosis), Iluzja ciemności (Illusion of the Darkness), Płomienne kobiety (Flame Women), Manji (Swastika), Komachi (Lady Komachi), and Miroku Densho (Legend of Miroku). His spectacles oscillated around his dreams and the dreams of the characters he described, wandering in a labyrinth submerged in darkness, where they collided with objects and creatures, dead and alive.[7]

In all his spectacles Hôichi Okamoto made use of old tales, legends, fairy tales, and Japanese mythology. Keshin evoked a theme popular in Japanese folklore – the disappearance of a person without a trace. A young woman goes off into a forest and vanishes. Supposedly this was the work of a woodland spirit, which assumes the form of a vixen. Her ritual dance performed amidst an imaginary wedding cortege composed of foxes to the accompaniment of shintō sacral music expressed the sadness and passion of women deprived of fulfilment and a chance to flourish in the real world. Hôichi Okamoto staged the spectacle in natural conditions, also during the festival held in Bielsko-Biała in 2004. Nonetheless, as was often his habit he left the task of deciphering the performance to each spectator. Helpless in the face of the hermetic nature of Japanese tradition, members of the audience referred to their personal experiences, knowledge and, in particular, emotions. This associative manner of reacting to theatrical reality appeared in the Hôichi Okamoto theatre already in the 1980s. Today, many of us treat it as the fundamental dimension of deciphering a theatrical performance. In the case of the Dondoro Theatre even if we got lost in assorted meanings and senses, the power of theatrical activity, motion, animation, and metamorphoses of the characters created by the artist proved to be a sufficiently great and unforgettable experience.  

This was true also in the case of Komachi, a spectacle referring to legends about a ninth-century Japanese poet Ono no Komachi, celebrated for her talent and loveliness – in contemporary Japan her name became a synonym of feminine beauty. Just as in the case of Manji – a sign associated in Europe exclusively with the Nazi swastika, but in Buddhism a symbol of prosperity, virtue, and good luck, used in Japan on maps to indicate the site of Buddhist temples, but also a metaphor of stormy romances – according to the interpretation to which Hôichi Okamoto referred in his spectacle. Once again man-sized puppets, masks, the artist’s virtuoso dance and motion evoke among some of the members of the audience associations with intricate forms of the Japanese traditional theatre, and among others – with forms moulding the vision of contemporary puppetry.     

Zuzanna Głowacka proposed a thorough presentation of Miroku Densho, a spectacle about successive incarnations of the Buddha, shown at the International Festival of Solo Puppeteers in Łódź in 2001: Although it begins in an atmosphere of contemplation (the orange shield of the setting Sun, the music performed by Buddhist monks – drums and chants) Miroku Densho is a spectacle full of greatly variegated rhythms, dynamics and intensity of motion. The three dominating colours are black, red and white. Upon this occasion, the dance and the animation are deprived of fluidity, the puppet appears to evade the intentions of the partner, and by means of a violent dance demonstrates the new elements arising within itself and the changing emotions to which it succumbs (as in the scene when the woman dances holding her arms sideways, kneels on the shoulder of the animator, or tries to make him lose his balance by clutching onto his back). A powerful element is introduced by the erotically charged tension created between the three figures: a female mannequin, a head with a wreath of silver hair, which sometimes attaches itself to the body of the mannequin, and a dancer, who comes to life during the second part of the spectacle (in the first part the actor, completely swathed in a black costume, remains symbolically concealed). The scene of the birth is extraordinarily beautiful and moving, and the act of conception in a tangle of red fabric is crowned with a slow-motion appearance of the actor on the stage; immobile, he freezes with his arms and legs stretched upwards, and then stirs and comes alive in a languid movement reminiscent of a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. Many of the scenes brim with violent eroticism, expressed when the woman fondles the hair of the decapitated head, kisses it, bites the neck and finally swallows it; mild eroticism is reflected in the tenderness with which the actor pushes back the tumbling hair of the woman, or the scene in which the female mannequin caresses the head of the animator resting on her knees. It is impossible to observe closely all the transformations, embodiments and masks, and we may only surmise some of the meanings, while the dance-sculpted arrangements speak loudest to the emotions. At the end of the spectacle the figures of the woman, the actor and the grey-haired head compose a trinity which, freezing in a characteristic pose, appears to blend into a single whole.[8]

In many of his spectacles (Komachi, Miroku Densho) Hôichi Okamoto used diverse forms of theatrical expression: his face, painted white, immobile, lifeless and, in accordance with the artist’s intention, the face of a puppet (an object); he also resorted to puppets proper, always self-made, whose faces sometimes resembled masks typical for the theatre, and, finally, to masks, which were casts of his face. This triple nature of presented forms (and, in addition, the actor’s body, sometimes becoming that of the puppet) allowed him to incessantly move between the animate and the inanimate, between life and death. The latter two constantly changed places. Just as did the presented characters: man changed into woman, woman into man, puppet into actor, and actor into puppet. Hannah Meloh described this conception as Buddhist realism: being in the same time. 

From the moment when Hôichi Okamoto devised his individual stylistic of the spectacles he devoted more time to young artists. Playing the part of a master he taught, consulted, and increasingly often directed the first attempts made by young followers of puppetry. Some of them, such as Miyako Kurotani or Michika Iida, became independent quite some time ago and established their own theatres; today, Michika Iida is the official heiress of the Dondoro Theatre and continuator of the stylistic conceived by Okamoto. The idea of the annual “Inochi” – alternative and puppet theatre with animated objects – festival held in Chofu emerged already during Hôichi Okamoto’s lifetime. The festival attracts young enthusiasts of puppetry, not always traversing the paths outlined by him, but often inspired by them.   

In his last years Hôichi Okamoto planned a film about his theatre. He met Seiko Watanabe, a young filmmaker, who in 2008 made the documentary: Landscape with Puppets; a year later they jointly prepared Vein: Youmyaku, a film based on Okamoto’s last spectacle. [9] Vein resembles a farewell spectacle; I am not certain whether it had ever been shown to the public. It lives on thanks to the film record, whose dramaturgy the puppeteer created together with Watanabe. Here, the theme of life and death assumed special significance. At the time Hôichi Okamoto was already battling an incurable illness, which defeated him in 2011. Vein is an artistic transformation of the artist’s strife, his theatrical last will and testament.

 The screen shows interchangeable takes from Hôichi Okamoto’s studio, we hear a clock ticking, the sound of water boiling in a kettle, a dripping tap, and at certain moments see through a window images of snow, watch preparations for a spectacle, and look at the actor’s bandaged face. This is his world, in which he created his theatrical, mystical reality. But above all, we are watching a spectacle, a recorded version of the extraordinary co-existence of Hôichi Okamoto and puppet. The camera moves extremely slowly while he, with his head swathed in bandages and wearing a physician’s white gown, is the man, the father, and the medical doctor, who in his relations with the puppet playing the part of a woman, a daughter, a patient, also with bandaged head and arms, enacts a shocking scene of bringing the puppet-inanimate object to life. For a moment the camera transports us into a tunnel whose one end vanishes in the glaring white light of non-being, from which there emerges the actor carrying on his back the lifeless figure of the puppet-woman. We see a long strip of white bandage trailing on the ground. And then, already in the theatre hall, we observe masterly scenes of freeing the puppet from the constricting bandages and restoring it to life, and closely watch the minutest gestures accompanying those acts. Once the puppet regains its vital forces it embarks upon liberating the actor from the bandages. Roles become reversed. Each sequence leaves us breathless and it becomes difficult to look away. Hôichi Okamoto’s lifeless, white-painted face contrasts with that of the puppet, whose empty eye sockets, enlivened with delicate red rims, render it alive. Sometimes assorted recollections return; or perhaps these are images evoking our cultural memory, as in the scene in which the bloodstained bedsheet that earlier covered the puppet becomes a costume enveloping the protagonists and brings to mind the Pietà: Okamoto, wearing a female mask, cradles in his arms a mask-cast of his face. Here, pain and suffering assume a universal dimension. The spectacle is accompanied by a number of music motifs, including poignant vocal compositions, fragments of Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E minor, and a brilliant composition for the violin by Neko Saito.

In the finale the plot takes place outside the hall. Hôichi Okamoto departs, walking barefoot on snow and holding the puppet in his arms. This is when he reveals its construction: the head, shoulders, hips, calves, and feet are made of plastic and connected by means of red plastic tubes. These are the titular veins – lifeless and objectified but, if the author wills it, becoming alive and, at certain moments, even bleeding (excellent film cut-ins appearing several times). The last image in Vein once again transfers us to the artist’s studio. Masks occurring in the spectacle are scattered on the desk; the female puppet sitting at the table assumes a casual pose, while Hôichi Okamoto contemplates her. And this is the image that we shall remember: a puppeteer who became one with his puppets.



[1]  Hôichi Okamoto, A lét és a nem-lét. A bábok csendje [To Be and Not to Be. The Silence of Puppets], “Art Limes”, Báb-Tár XXXVI, 2020.3, Tatabánya, p. 135. [2] This legend was recalled by Hôichi Okamoto in the film: Anima, l’esprit des marionnettes, realised for ARTE France/Cinétévé/INA (2005) by Marc Huraux according to the original concept by Sylvie Martin-Lahmani. See also: S. Martin-Lahmani, Hôichi-sans-oreilles, “MANIP” 2011, no. 25 (I would like to thank Fabrice Guilliot for pointing out this publication). [3] Jouer sur la frontière entre l’animé et l’inanimé. Entretien avec Hôichi Okamoto réalisé par Roman Paska et Hannah Meloh, “Alternatives Théâtrales”, Novembre 2000, no. 65-66, p. 38. [4] Ibidem. [5] Ibidem. [6] Marek Waszkiel, Soliści, “Teatr Lalek” 1999, no. 1. [7] S. Martin-Lahmani, Hôichi-sans-oreilles, op. cit. [8] Zuzanna Głowacka, Deszczowy festiwal, “Teatr Lalek” 2001, no. 2. [9] [The film was shown at the International Festival of Puppetry Art in Bielsko-Biała in 2014  – Editor]

Photos by Takaharu Karaki

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