Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
The Master Puppeteer is at once a fascinating introduction to the complex artistry of the Japanese puppet theater, a gripping historical novel, a mystery, and a study of friendship and loyalty. The novel follows the adventures of thirteen-year-old Jiro, who finds himself caught up in the political events of late eighteenth century Osaka, Japan. When Jiro accompanies his father, Hanji, to deliver a puppet to the Hanaza theater, Yoshida, the owner and master puppeteer, offers to take the boy on as an apprentice. To Jiro’s chagrin, his mother, Isako, does not take Yoshida’s offer seriously. Determined not to be a burden on his family during the current famine, Jiro runs away to the theater, where he becomes an apprentice; he begins his career by opening curtains and memorizing scripts and eventually graduates to a role as a “foot operator.” Along the way, he is helped by an older boy, Yoshida’s son, Kinshi, who does not seem able to please his father.
Worried about his father, who is said to be ill, Jiro briefly returns home to discover that Isako has taken his father to recuperate at a relative’s farm in Kyoto. When Jiro again returns home on New Year’s Day, he discovers that his mother is near starvation. One evening, Saburo, the mysterious bandit who steals from the rich to help the poor, leaves a notice on the door of the theater demanding a special performance of the current play, “The Thief of the Tokaido.” The lights go out...
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The story is set in Osaka, Japan, during the famine of 1783-1787. Because the effects of the famine have been so severe, the citizens of Osaka have grown desperate and seem dehumanized. They loot and burn buildings in the city as they struggle to survive.
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Katherine Paterson has said that she gives little thought to her writing style, allowing the demands of the story to determine her style. In The Master Puppeteer, Paterson's writing is simple, clear, and direct. The first scenes of the novel introduce the central character and setting, and propel the narrative forward with film-like efficiency. The novel begins with a close-up of Jiro trying to paint a puppet. A traveling shot follows him into the family cooking area, where his mother scolds him for being an annoyance. A second traveling shot follows him out into the street, where a larger establishing shot reveals the starvation- threatened world of Osaka.
Paterson employs terse, ironic statements about life's moral complexities. Perhaps this is part of the Japanese influence on The Master Puppeteer, which abounds with little "truths" or proverbs: "Ah—manners—they can be taught, but spirit—that is the gift of the gods"; "We all learn here by the honorable path of horrible mistakes"; "There is no way to help people once they've turned the corner toward beastliness." The inclusion of these adages encourages the reader to evaluate their truthfulness in the context of both the story and real life.
Paterson's greatest strength as a stylist in The Master Puppeteer lies in the way she fills her plot with parallels. For example, Yoshida rejects one of Hanji's puppets because it looks too cynical shortly after a conversation...
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The Master Puppeteer takes place in relatively violent times. Jiro stumbles over dead bodies on the street; poverty and hunger break families apart; masters kick and whip apprentices. But Paterson handles all such grim realities with intelligence and taste. She does not shy away from the truth of the world she depicts, nor does she gratuitously include violence. There are few women in the book because the story is set in a male-dominated environment, but the importance of women in several of the puppet plays helps redress the balance. The Master Puppeteer is a particularly fine piece of work in that it opens up a world unfamiliar to most readers and raises moral issues that remain relevant.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Discuss the various customs that are part of Jiro's world but not ours, such as the customs involved in the offering and declining of food in chapter 2. Customs develop to serve certain social needs. What needs do the customs and social conventions of Jiro's world serve?
2. Yoshida says, "Ah—manners—they can be taught, but spirit—that is a gift of the gods." How is the balance between spiritedness and subservience to "manners" different in Jiro's world and ours? Are we better off as a result of the relative absence of manners and ceremonies in our lives? Or do we have just as many manners and ceremonies in our lives as do the Japanese of Jiro's world?
3. What do Jiro's parents think about the events of the story? How do they feel about one another? How would the story have been different if told from their points of view?
4. What words of wisdom from the novel appeal to you? Does your experience show that these "truths" are indeed true?
5. Paterson raises the issue of dealing with the hungry, homeless, and destitute in The Master Puppeteer. Of the various solutions proposed by the characters in the novel, which do you think would be most effective?
6. There is a lot of teaching in The Master Puppeteer, although it is not of the classroom sort. List as many sorts of teaching, such as teaching through art, as you can. Do you feel Jiro's education is in any way preferable to education as...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Study Japanese culture and life in the late eighteenth century. Look for maps of eighteenth-century Japan and Osaka. Describe the government, family life, customs, and other aspects of life in Japan at this time.
2. Research the Japanese puppet theater, known as bunraku Describe how puppets were made and handled, and what life in the theaters was like.
3. Research and report on samurai life and the samurai code.
4. Research the making of Katherine Paterson's novel. Paterson derived much of her information about the Japanese puppet theater from the book Bunraku: The Art of the Japanese Puppet Theatre, by Donald Keene. She even seems to have used some of the names in this book as sources for names of her characters. Read Keene's book and see if you can figure out exactly what Paterson took from it in creating The Master Puppeteer.
5. Study the condition of the homeless and the poor in a modern American city and compare it to the conditions of the homeless and poor as described in The Master Puppeteer.
6. Compare the world of The Master Puppeteer—with its emphasis on professionalism, self-sacrifice in the face of danger, the relationship between fathers and sons, controlling emotion, training novices—with one of the films of Howard Hawks, an American film director concerned with such issues. Good films for comparison include Only Angels Have Wings (1930), Red...
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For Further Reference
Bell, Anthea. "A Case of Commitment." Signal 38 (May 1982): 73-81. Although this article offers little information on The Master Puppeteer, it gives an interesting overview of Paterson's work from a Christian perspective.
Jones, Linda T. "Profile: Katherine Paterson." Language Arts 58 (February 1981): 189-196. Jones includes lengthy comments from Paterson about the inspiration for and writing of The Master Puppeteer.
Paterson, Katherine. Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Children's Books. New York: Elsevier/ Nelson, 1981. Several reviews by Paterson reprinted from the Washington Post, as well as essays about children's books and their authors' methods. In 1988 Paterson followed Gates of Excellence with a related volume, The Spying Heart: More Thoughts on Reading and Writing Books for Children.
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