When I lived in Indonesia, I purchased and devoured every Japanese classic that I could get my hands on. From Kawabata and Oe to Mishima and Tanizaki, these novels invariably featured some very odd and different themes from the books I typically read. Spring Snow by Mishima remains my favorite of that lot, which I left in trust at Universitas Gadjah Mada for a wing of the library to be called “The Douglas MacArthur Memorial Library for Peace, Tolerance, and Justice.” Eventually, I encountered a work that I had much less trouble instantly understanding and appreciating: Chiyo Uno’s The Puppet Maker.
Chiyo, herself, was a celebrity. She lived fully up until the end of her very colorful 98 year life. She penned several interesting works, most notably Ohan, according to scholars. I learned of her works through Rebecca L. Copeland’s excellent The Sound of the Wind: The Life and Works of Uno Chiyo. Copeland compiled and translated (I think) three of Chiyo’s short works and added an original biography of her. And so, it is in this book that one may find The Puppet Maker. A final note about the publication: it comes from the University of Hawai’i Press. This university press is one of my favorites, as I visited the school bookstore in February and no amount of time was enough for me to enjoy A Dictionary of Cantonese Slang, Fundamentals of Japanese Grammar, Manchu: A Textbook for Reading Documents, Modern Tagalog, and The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy amongst many, many others. They specialize in works with niche Asian subject matter that really appeal to specialists and really dorky amateurs like myself. Browse the UH Press titles some time.
The Puppet Maker itself is essentially journalistic, told from the first person perspective of Chiyo as she travels to meet Tengu Kyukichi, perhaps the last great puppetmaker. She, a young woman, and he, an 85 year old, witness and discuss the puppetmaking art form at the precipice. As the puppetmaker sees it, “If this story were a play, then I suppose you could say we’ve come to the third act. If we do the third act today, the rest of the play won’t last another week.”
Later, he continues:
“You know what I think?” he said. “I think the puppet theater has seen its last days.” Indeed, the old man believes that it is now only a matter of time before the puppet theater perishes completely. And yet he continues to devote himself all the more to this dying art. If those in my line of work ever heard that the alphabet we use—that is, the alphabet I am using now—was shortly to go out of existence, I doubt they would continue to write, hoping against hope that by doing so they could perpetuate their art. No, we would give up immediately, and that is why I sense in the old man an extraordinary depth of passion.
And so, the work is communicating on several levels. The author has something to say about the man, the art, and tradition. We are inclined to sympathize with the puppetmaker, but not pedantically so. Unlike in a movie, there is no musical score to make us dance to whatever feelings the director wishes to evoke. Chiyo lets Kyukichi’s words speak for themselves. For a modern Westerner, they are difficult to assess, but I suspect they represent a time and a way of life very different from today. Indeed, Kyukichi spares few words for the wife who has accompanied him for six decades, and fewer still for children, some of whom he can barely remember anymore. Of his wife, he says this:
“What was it she’d do for me that I appreciated most of all? Sometimes I’d work late into the night, you see, and when I did she’d always wait up so she could lay my bed out for me. Well now I suppose just about anyone would have done the same. Laying out bedding is no great task. But once I’d crawled into bed and started off to sleep, I’d sometimes feel my old wife go around behind me and pat the quilt down soft around my shoulders. That’s all. But no one else would have done it.”
From the few words he uses, it seems he has a core tenderness, just one that is hardly practiced and little noticed. It didn’t matter as much then, when there was so much less opportunity. Still, the truly compelling parts of the narrative concern art and our relationship with it. For this, puppet-making is truly a wonderful foil and Kyukichi’s words come alive. Kyukichi describes the state of puppet-making thus:
“You see, art is tradition. It’s the same for carving puppets, too. If you’re going to carve Lord Hangan, you carve him the way tradition tells you he’s got to look. And, if you’re going to carve the hero Yuranosuke, you carve him in keeping with the Yuranosuke tradition, the way he’s been carved for centuries. But what happens to art when it’s done the same way over and over for hundreds of years? Back in the old days folks did things a certain way because it seemed natural to them. But now we’ve reached the point where we’re just copying the way things were done long ago without really understanding why, and so long as we’re just copying, it doesn’t have much meaning for us. Years ago folks lived with one goal in mind, and once they reached that goal, well, they were ready to die. But now, if you don’t set your sights higher and higher and aim to get beyond whatever goal’s been set, you might as well go ahead and die, and you sure don’t have any business talking about art. But, you see, I didn’t come to figure this out till four or five years ago—and it dawned on me when I finally noticed folks weren’t coming to the puppet plays much anymore. They were turning up their noses at it. How I wish I’d realized this sooner!”
There’s always a sense that the old days were different than today. For example, people often say that politics was kinder and gentler in the United States. In some respects, yes. In some respects, no. Yes, in that there was less overall competition and fewer interests bound up with the results. A good ‘ol boys network might ably control local politics for decades with most living their lives well. But no, in that you were much more likely to end up dead, run out of town, or ruined as a result of them. Slander? Try 1800. Things were no better in the 1940s or 60s. And so, in this respect, Kyukichi may be overreaching about his conclusion that in the old days artists merely replicated the old ways. It is possible, but I am skeptical. Even by seamlessly duplicating another’s style, there may be slight, but important differences of technique. Perhaps one carves faster. Perhaps one artist develops a change seemingly as slight as the puppetmaker equivalent of the damp fold in sculpture, but it has not been consciously appreciated yet.
But it is true that without something more, an art form might become static and uninteresting to the consumer. I really like Kyukichi’s sensibility regarding the intrinsic need for growth in the arts. Certain forms may have held special meaning in the past, but if they fail to in the present, then artists ought to consider change. In this case, we see a titanic struggle between modernity and tradition, because what Kyukichi is alluding to is not the necessity for mere changes of style. Given the improvements in technology and the changes in attention span, the art form itself is obsolete as pure entertainment for anyone born after 1930. Rather, Kyukichi may be unconsciously be pushing at the reality that puppetmaking needs some kind of fusion with other art forms, lest it be relegated to museums and ceremonial performances. His lament, “How I wish I had realized this sooner!” gives us a window straight into Kyukichi’s heart. This is his fondest wish.
The narrator herself struggled with the character of the puppetmaker:
I had never thought anyone could actually sit in the same place for sixty or seventy years doing the same thing day in and day out. If the person were performing a religious austerity, like those who practice zazen, perhaps I could understand it. And yet here was this old man, doing just what I had thought impossible. “I don’t know how it looks to others,” he told me, “but I’ve a reason for sitting right here all day long, never going out. You see, if someone came on business while I was away—well, wouldn’t be anybody else here who’d know what to do. No, I decided it was for the best if I stayed in as much as possible. Look, I’ve got my tools and things all laid out around me so I can sit right where I am with everything at hand’s reach. The sort of life the old man has led may not seem all that strange in a country town like this. No, he has lived just as a tree or flower might live, completely natural.
The power of a metaphor isn’t only that it helps us to see data in a new but analogous fashion. It’s also that it amplifies selected fundamental qualities or characteristics of a thing or situation in our perception. Chiyo’s description reflects a common perception in the modern day that a man who found his way early and did that the rest of his life grew like a tree or flower — sitting in the same spot, but still full of life, untarnished by the blemishes of modernity, unconcerned. And yet, it would be just as true to take the metaphor in a negative sense. We can lament his lack of opportunity, to be stuck no matter his true desires or talent, to in effect be condemned to the same lot generation after generation as the vast majority of the world were for thousands of years. Only in the mid-20th century did social mobility take off. Kyukichi, after a certain age, and maybe even before it, would still probably have it no other way, though. By the time of the interview, he has a solid sense of what his role is in the art, and more importantly, art’s role in him:
“…but let me tell you a thing or two about art. There’re folks who set their sights on one level in art—and once they’ve reached that level, they figure they’re finished for life. Then we’ve got craftsmen like Hidari Jingoro who keep right on perfecting their skills until the day they die. You see, there are those who always push for better, who are always struggling and trying so long as they’ve got breath in their bodies. And, I wonder if this isn’t where art is said to live. Once you’ve decided that you’ve gone far enough—you can’t do better—well, then that’ll be the end for you. I don’t know how much longer I’ll live. Maybe two more years, maybe three, but this that I’m telling you is what is closest to my heart.”
Some artists are not possessed by achievement in their field. In these days, I suspect a higher portion were, though. I’m fascinated by his comment that he wonders “if this isn’t where art is said to live.” Is he saying that it’s in the focused struggle to create ever better art? We do know that by then, Tengu Kyukichi had ceased being someone much associated with the past, and as we know, this partly includes even insuperable ties to family. They remain, incidental, to his story, but they are far from the chunk of the iceberg. What lies below is the passion binding him to his passion: the art of puppet-making, its limits, its transcending moments. It is indeed of art that he wishes to speak:
“…as I’m making my puppets, I feel as if I’m praying to the gods. Don’t you see, where my skill stops—when it doesn’t go any further—that’s where you’ll find the gods. Yes, they’re there just beyond human understanding. […] But let me just say that if you don’t reach out to the gods first—make some kind of effort—then they sure aren’t going to go out of their way to help you. […] Before I start to carve a puppet I have it all clear in my mind how that puppet ought to look. But there’s always one part I just can’t get no matter how I try—yes, there’s always something missing, and it’s in that part, that missing part, where the gods reside.”
Humans do not possess perfect information. They act in a world replete with risk and full of uncertainty– yes, these are two different things. And despite Kyukichi’s mastery, he is humbled by the reality that there is something beyond his precise calculation that goes into the art. It’s not just chance, but perhaps the occasion when he initiates some carving only to see something he missed in his mental conception that he now wishes to execute — or something that might be a flaw. Kyukichi recognizes in the flaw of his imperfect conception the idea of gods. Gods are unfathomable, but generally considered to be, if not all-knowing, certainly more knowing than we and arguably non-linear in temporal perspective. This reminds me of the literary theorist Kermode who argued “the concords of past, present, and future towards which the soul extends itself are out of time… To close that great gap, we use fictions of complementarity. They may now be novels or philosophical poems, as they once were tragedies, and before that, angels.”
These angels very much resemble Kyukichi’s gods. And so there is something in the human make-up that acknowledges its own imperfection, yet stubbornly refuses to attribute individualistic, virtuoso creations (art) to pure chance. Instead, we seek out any semblance of knowing will. Perhaps there’s some beauty in Kyukichi’s gods, who do not exist independent of humanity’s imperfection, though they ably light the way for humanity’s endless drive to overcome it.