For puppeteer, all the stage is a role
BY CHIHIRO OZAKI STAFF WRITER
Jo Taira among his puppets Sept. 24 in Tokyo's Nishi-Shinjuku district (Masaki Hayashi)
For nearly three hours, every performance that Jo Taira gives is more than just a one-man show.
In his unique puppet theater, Taira, 29, is constantly moving about on stage, manipulating the hollow actors that stand taller than him, singing, dancing and talking nonstop.
If the play is "The Wizard of Oz," Taira is Dorothy, the scarecrow, the lion, the witch--even the tornado. Once in a while, things get mixed up and he'll give the heroine a throaty voice, where he ad-libs lines like, "Hey, my voice is weird."
Not only does Taira create the puppets, he also works on the scripts, staging and scenic art.
"There are a lot of inconveniences, but I want people to see how I give my best on my own. Every part is so dear to me," he said.
Taira's fascination began as child watching traditional bunraku theater on television. He marveled at the ability to make the puppets seem alive, and even a bit magical.
Before long, he was inventing his own plays with stuffed animals, such as one about a bear that blows his nose endlessly. Another one he based on the folktale "Kachi-kachi yama" (fire-crackle mountain), but featuring a rabbit and a koala (instead of a "tanuki" raccoon dog).
The young Taira, who shied from group activities, discovered that he could express his feelings and mind freely through puppets. By second grade in elementary school, he had already decided on a career: a "kurogo" stagehand dressed in black.
At age 19, Taira made a move from Sapporo to Tokyo. Four years later, he received a silver medal from the Japan Puppet Theater Conference for his adaptation of "Kegawa no Mari," a love-hate drama centering around a male prostitute. It was a play in which no one under 15 was admitted.
Although Taira's plays once drew as few as three people, today, after 10 years, the seats for the 80 performances he gives each year are nearly sold out.
Taira also gives puppeteering exhibitions at elementary schools. After manipulating a puppet, one girl commented, "My heart raced because I felt as if I could return to my true self."
Just like Taira, there are kids who are heartened by the puppets. On Nov. 3, hoping to inspire many more children, he opened a 30-seat theater for his plays in Tokyo's Nishi-Shinjuku district.