Themes and Characters
Jiro, the son of the puppet maker Hanji, is the novel's central character. Forced by hard times to desert his starving parents and set out on his own, Jiro becomes an apprentice at the Hananza, a position that will pay him nothing but will at least feed him. There he becomes fast friends with the natural leader of the apprentices, Yoshida Kinshi, the master puppeteer's son.
Kinshi is a most attractive character, at once bull-headed, rebellious, idealistic, and ready to take risks. Like Jiro, who is at first no more than a mediocre painter of puppets, Kinshi turns out to be a far less able puppeteer than his father might wish him to be. Nevertheless, Kinshi endures his father's sarcastic criticism and physical abuse with a stoic fortitude that reflects both his own samurai blood and a deep, albeit hidden, respect for his father.
Jiro's parents are somewhat shadowy figures, and the relationship between them is curious. At times his father, Hanji, seems to be his defender and friend, while his mother, Isako, seems to spend too much time criticizing what she takes to be Jiro's inept and irresponsible behavior. Little is seen of Jiro's parents throughout much of the novel, although both reappear in somewhat surprising ways toward the end.
The Master Puppeteers two other major characters are Yoshida, the present master puppeteer, and his predecessor and teacher, the now blind story-chanter and playwright, Okada. Yoshida dominates the novel and the lives of everyone in it. He is brusque, arrogant, domineering, and, at the same time, surprisingly sensitive to the needs and education of his apprentices, the people in his audiences, and the Osaka poor. He berates his son Kinshi for performing poorly and yet seems secretly to admire the boy's strength and resourcefulness in the face of his own withering criticism. He forbids the apprentices the scripts they need in order to memorize the puppet movements and other stage directions, and yet turns a blind eye when they steal these same scripts—like a Zen Buddhist teacher, he deliberately sets up restrictions in order to encourage and develop the young men's resourcefulness.
Okada seems at first a minor character, a kind of Japanese sage like the wise old men in Paterson's The Great Gilly Hopkins and Jacob Have I Loved. But, as the novel progresses, Okada's importance as the power behind the scenes, the author and singer of the stories the puppeteers perform, grows to the point that one wonders if it is not he who is the "master puppeteer" of the title. Behind the whole novel lurks the mysterious Robin Hood-like bandit, Saburo, who continues his daring raids against the merchants and authorities despite the increasingly high price on his head. Jiro often wonders who Saburo is, whether he can be found, whether he should be betrayed, and whether he will kill anyone who learns his identity. These questions haunt Jiro and create a sense of intrigue.
Several themes recur in Paterson's works. The first of these is the relationship of fathers and sons—a particularly strong theme in the cases of Jiro and Kinshi and their fathers. Both boys have good...
(The entire section is 800 words.)