PUK’s children’s puppet shows suspend disbelief for all ages

by Lindsay Nelson

Special To The Japan Times

Parents around the capital seeking entertainment options for young children over the next several weeks could do a lot worse than check out Puppet Theater PUK, where old and new stories will come to life in the hands of seasoned puppeteers.

For this season, PUK — which rhymes with “spook” — will feature two short puppet plays from April to June: “Tora no Komoriuta” (“The Tiger’s Lullaby”) and “Nezumi-kun no Chokki” (“Little Mouse’s Red Vest”). Though the program is in Japanese, this needn’t be an issue as the stories are simple and colorful enough for anyone to enjoy. And with each performance running about 15 minutes, the length is just right for a child audience.

Directed by Yoshihiko Shibasaki, “The Tiger’s Lullaby,” whose first production was in 1964, is the story of an aging tiger who has spent his life playing piano in the circus. Now retired, he wants nothing more than a quiet life in the forest with his animal friends and an old piano — but his peaceful existence is interrupted by ghosts living there.

Meanwhile, “Little Mouse’s Red Vest,” directed here by Kazuhiko Okamoto, who has been with PUK since 1970, is based on a popular bestseller by Yoshio Nakae which won its author the coveted Kodansha Award for Picture Books in 1975 and launched a series of stories starring the Little Mouse character. In the story, Little Mouse is given a bright red vest knitted by his mother, and when Little Duck asks to try it on, the mouse obliges. But then as larger and larger animal characters — including Monkey, Sea Lion, Lion and finally Elephant — want to try on the vest, it gets stretched to the point of being unrecognizable.

The story is repetitive in a way that children will love, with delightfully comic animals repeating one after another the ritual of struggling into a too-small vest. When a dismayed Little Mouse gets the super-stretched vest back, it seems like the story is going to end on a sad note — but its unexpected resolution is magical.

In addition, the performances make use of brightly colored sets, lively music and performers with excellent character-voice skills.

On a recent visit to the PUK rehearsal space, I walked in to see a seal and a lion dancing and singing together. PUK uses a variety of puppet styles, and those in “Little Mouse’s Red Vest” are an interesting mix of dolls (with no mouths or moving mouth parts), simple hand puppets and larger ones with detachable heads and strings to move their arms and legs. Through a small number of very specific movements and carefully chosen voices, though, performers Sachiko Harayama and Misa Obara were amazingly transforming inanimate objects into vibrant characters.

And though PUK’s performers do not hide their faces — as is the case in bunraku (traditional Japanese puppetry) and most other forms of puppetry — after only a few minutes I ceased to see the puppeteers and focused only on their animal creations.

Puppet Theater PUK has existed in one form or another for more than 80 years, with its PUK suffix used in deference to the Esperanto name La Pupa Klubo by which it was once known. By any name, though, what began as an artistic group “based on free expression and antiwar ideals” has a long and varied history of producing work for both children and adults.

Beginning with a focus on marionette-style puppetry, performances later started to embrace shadow puppets, rod puppets and other traditional hand-held styles (such as bunraku) from Japan and around the world — before mixing them all together and giving them a modern twist.

These days, PUK’s puppet plays can be seen on NHK, at various theater spaces in Tokyo and at theater festivals around the world. The company specializes in folk tales and fairy stories for children — but also stages adult works that are creative and quirky. “What Happened to ET After” featured puppets cobbled together out of teapots and mattress springs, while “Modern Aesop’s Fables” brought the Aesop oeuvre to life with wise-cracking sheep and wolves using cellphones.

When I sat down for a chat with Tamiko Onagi, PUK’s international liaison, and asked about the appeal of live puppetry in a world dominated by digital entertainment, she explained, “With our performances, there’s a give and take between audience and performer that children can’t get from a film or video game. There’s the knowledge that no matter how many times you do it, each performance will be different.”

However, another important aspect of performing for children is making sure to define the line between reality and fantasy. As to how PUK approaches this, Onagi said, “With adults, there’s no need to explain that once the show’s over, it’s over. But with children, you need to show them that the monsters aren’t real, allow them to touch the puppets and shake hands with the performers. We don’t want them to leave the theater confused or frightened.”

Apparently, though, it’s easier to tell when an audience of children is enjoying a play than one made up of adults. “If they’re bored, they’re easily distracted and will make a lot of noise,” Onagi said. “But when they’re concentrating on the play … when they’re silent, that’s when you know they’re really into it.”

I predict there’ll be plenty of silence at PUK’s upcoming performances of “The Tiger’s Lullaby” and “Little Mouse’s Red Vest.” Just watching a rehearsal of the shows, with the completely immersive worlds they conjure up, and their lovely attention to detail, could make anyone long to be a child experiencing theater like this for the first time.

PUK’s double bill of “The Tiger’s Lullaby” and “Little Mouse’s Red Vest” runs April 27-June 22 at Puppet Theater PUK near JR Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. For details, visit www.puk.jp. For reservations in English, call 03-3370-3371 and ask for Haru.