Form and Content
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 after the performance, and the police are bound and their uniforms are stolen. One evening soon after, an angry mob dubbed the “night rovers” tries to break into the theater to get food. Jiro and another apprentice, Teji, are forced to guard the door throughout the night, and Jiro is shocked when he hears his mother’s voice crying out in the crowd.
When Kinshi begins to sneak out of the theater at night to help the night rovers, Jiro asks him to find his mother and help her. One morning when Kinshi is late returning to the theater, Yoshida orders Jiro to take his place and operate the feet of an important character in their latest play. When Jiro goes to the storehouse to find a puppet to use for practice, he discovers a Samurai sword and concludes that Yoshida is really the bandit Saburo. After Jiro tricks Yoshida into allowing Kinshi to take back his role in the play, the boy makes his friend promise to stop his evening forays into the town if Kinshi can arrange for him to meet Saburo, who might be able to help the night rovers. Jiro then seeks out Yoshida’s old master, the blind Okada, asking him to talk to “Saburo.” Jiro soon discovers that Okada is really Saburo and that he operates through human “puppets” such as Yoshida.
When Jiro leaves the theater to search for his mother and Kinshi, he is plunged into a riot that leaves much of the town in flames. There, he encounters his father, who is not really ill and who is really one of Saburo’s men. Jiro survives by disguising himself as a fireman and helps his mother and Kinshi return to the theater. Because of Jiro’s loyalty to Okada, Isako will be allowed to live at the Hanaza. Kinshi, whose right hand has been cut off during the riot, will be apprenticed to Okada, and Jiro, who has proved his talents in the theater and his courage in the outside world, will continue to train as a puppeteer under Yoshida.
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.
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...
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