Watch the presentation on video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ySGjfYKe_hw&feature=youtu.be
On Monday, Dec. 5, 2016, the two worlds of stop-motion animation and Japanese puppetry converged in Los Angeles for a one-of-a-kind experience. Shikô Yoshida, a puppeteer of the Awaji Puppet Theatre Company (known in Japan as “Awaji Ningyô-za”), visited Southern California to learn about stop-motion animation from the creative team of Dan Harmon’s Starburns Industries, Inc. at their studios in Burbank and also showcase his ningyô jôruri techniques to a select audience at a special event hosted by the Consulate General of Japan in Los Angeles held at the Japanese American National Museum.
Ningyô jôruri, made up of the elements of “ningyô” (literally meaning “puppet”) and “jôruri” (a style of storytelling consisting of a narrator and a shamisen musician), finds its roots on the island of Awaji in Hyogo Prefecture, Japan where the Awaji Puppet Theatre Company continues the centuries-old performing art now recognized as a National Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Yoshida, who has been with the company for nearly thirty years, began as a puppeteer at his junior high school’s folk entertainment club in southern Awaji. He has performed worldwide in Spain, Germany, Poland, the United States, Taiwan, Canada, France, and Italy. On his recent trip, the veteran puppeteer had the opportunity to once again become a student of the arts when he paid a visit to Starburns Industries’ animation studios in Burbank.
Duke Johnson, director of the Academy Award-nominated film “Anomalisa,” personally guided Yoshida through the ins and outs of the animation process, accompanied by executive producers Joe Russo and James Fino. From concept to fabrication, and from set design to production, Yoshida was able to get a rare, comprehensive hands-on inside look at stop-motion filmmaking with Starburns’s own lead animators and fabricators showing him the ropes. After only an hour and a half on set, which included a close-up peek at one of the remaining, fully operational stages of the “Anomalisa” film, Yoshida commented that his mind had become quite full of every new thing he had already learned in that time.
In exchange for his unique experience with Starburns Industries, later that evening Yoshida demonstrated several techniques behind the use of Awaji Puppet Theatre’s equally unique puppets for an intimate crowd consisting of local puppeteers and filmmakers at the Japanese American National Museum. The two intricately and elegantly adorned puppets accompanying Yoshida on his trip were not only for display but for use during daily performances by the troupe. Each handmade puppet, which could be compared to the size of a grown child—the largest of their kind in the world of Japanese puppetry—requires a team of three puppeteers to operate; one puppeteer controls the head (“kashira”) and right arm, one puppeteer controls the left arm (with their right hand), and one puppeteer controls the feet. Of the several kashira brought by Yoshida, that of the samurai character was the oldest at a hundred years old and is still in use to this day.
To the audience’s delight, Yoshida showed off a number of basic and advanced puppetry techniques, from creating a sense of lifelike realism by simply matching the movements of the hand with the direction of the puppet’s gaze, to mimicking an elegant woman’s cry by subtly shaking the kashira and wiping imaginary tears with the puppet’s sleeves. Members of the audience were then invited to try their own hand at Japanese puppetry by taking control of the puppets in groups of three. After several attempts, Yoshida successfully guided volunteers through difficult maneuvers, such as beckoning someone from a distance and walking with all limbs in natural unison.
Yoshida’s visit to Los Angeles opened the door for more potential collaborations between the worlds of stop-motion and Japanese puppetry. Yoshida and the Starburns team expressed much appreciation for the joint sessions made possible by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, with both parties excited for more opportunities to work together in the future.
For more on the Awaji Puppet Theatre Company, visit http://awajiningyoza.com/.
For more on Starburns Industries, Inc., visit http://www.starburnsindustries.com/.