Katherine Paterson has said that The Master Puppeteer grew out of her children’s suggestion that she write a mystery story. On the surface, the novel provides a good mystery, one that revolves around the secret identity of the bandit Saburo. Jiro stumbles upon clues to Saburo’s identity but learns that, like those who visit the puppet theater, he is focusing on the puppet and not the puppeteer. The Master Puppeteer is also a gripping historical novel that introduces young readers to the plagues, famines, and civil disorder of eighteenth century Japan and, at the same time, the beauty, intricacy, and artistry of Bunraku, classical Japanese puppet theater. Various details about creating and manipulating puppets and about the content of the plays are woven into the novel naturally.
Yet, the book is much more than a mystery or history lesson. The novel carefully considers the nature of art, the value of friendship and family, and the fine line between art and reality. Through his adventures, Jiro learns about the patience and practice required to perfect a craft and comes to appreciate the artistry of individuals such as Okada and Yoshida. More important, he learns the value of friendship and loyalty and does not let his desire to excel in the theater affect his friendship with Kinshi.
At the same time, despite his mother’s gruff exterior and his father’s absence, Jiro comes to appreciate the importance of family and ultimately takes responsibility for his mother’s safety. This idea is reinforced by Kinshi’s sometimes tempestuous relationship with his own father, Yoshida. Both boys eventually earn the respect of their parents, who have not previously recognized their abilities.
One of the main themes of the book is the way in which Jiro and his people are forced to “play act” in order to survive. At the Hanaza, Jiro learns that everyone is playing a game, whether in the puppet plays or when they are merely preparing to perform them. Stepping out of the bounds of those roles disturbs the drama in which they are involved. Jiro also comes to question some of the roles and ceremony espoused by the adults whom he encounters. Similarly, in a society full of unrest,...
(The entire section is 565 words.)