It all started for Mitsuaki Tsuyuki when he tried making his first finger puppet. That moment, however, marked a new chapter after working thirty years as a children’s art teacher. It was the beginning of his love affair with the craft of hand puppets and you can see him working in a modest sized room in the back alleyways of Yanaka, Tokyo. Called Shōkichi, it is his workspace, theatre venue and shop front all in one. It was clear to me Mr. Tsuyuki was not in it for the money, but simply doing what he loved best and connecting to his passion. Shōkichi's frequent features in various television and radio programs attest to its popularity.
Mr. Tsuyuki is a dignified, humble Japanese man who makes hand puppets, performs a comical puppet show and does portrait sketches of customers using....a hand puppet, of course! Most of the puppets are of elderly people. Mr. Tsuyuki says he prefers to make puppets of elderly characters, as their faces are flexible and can portray a wide range of facial expressions. The faces of many of his puppets are simply conjured from his imagination, taking form as he molds their features.
The hands and faces of the puppets are fashioned from clay that is made by grinding stone into a fine powder. Mr. Tsuyuki uses acrylic paints to add colour to the little figurines. From start to finish, it takes him approximately one week to finish one puppet project, which includes making all its clothes, furniture and props to go with it. While most are client orders and some get a special spot in one of his cabinets or on the display shelves, a select few make their appearance in Mr. Tsuyuki's one-man puppet show. He first started running performances in 2000.
The puppets act out a silent comedy of ten short stories and lasts for approximately 30 minutes. It showcases the puppet master's humorous take on various social issues affecting Japan (such as the ageing population), but also incorporates other cultural fads and references. Yet the quirky show manages to strike common cultural ground, as I found myself laughing alongside other Japanese visitors in the small, intimate room. His brilliant attention to detail and parodies of everyday life will have you in laughter no matter your language.
For 500 yen, you can sit down for a talented hand-puppet artist to sketch your portrait before your eyes. If you fancy a puppet of yourself (for yourself, perhaps), then custom order puppets come as mini-caricatures of people young or old, male or female. As long as you have a photo of the desired person’s face then Mr. Tsuyuki can do the job! One custom-made figurine costs ¥40,000 complete with its own kimono, haori and wooden stand. They make good commemorative gifts, birthday presents or souvenirs to take back home.
The “Shōkichi” hand puppet workshop is a two-minute walk from Sendagi station on the Chiyoda line or a ten-minute walk from Nippori station (JR or Keisei line).
While quietly working from his small shop in Yanaka, Mitsuaki Tsuyuki's future dream is for his hand puppets to take to the international stage one day. I highly recommend stopping by during your Tokyo travels so perhaps we could bring the stage to him!