Magic abounds through tales of the supernatural presented with beautifully detailed miniature sets, extraordinary effects, and ingenious artistry. Created by Japanese master puppeteer Koryū Nishikawa V and American puppet artist Tom Lee, a new stage work uses bunraku-inspired puppets, video projection, and live music to explore the creative process of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, one of Japan’s leading literary figures.

The Moss Arts Center presents three performances of “Akutagawa” on Friday, Feb. 17, at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, Feb. 18, at 2 and 7:30 p.m. The performances will be held in the center’s Anne and Ellen Fife Theatre, located within the Street and Davis Performance Hall at 190 Alumni Mall. 

Considered the father of the Japanese short story, author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa is most widely known in the West through Akira Kurosawa’s landmark film, “Rashōmon,” based on the author’s work “In the Bamboo Grove.” This stage production of “Akutagawa” is an international theatrical collaboration showcasing the limitless storytelling possibilities of puppetry. Featuring narration in English, the production reimagines and excerpts several of Akutagawa’s best-known works, offering an intimate window into the mind of an immensely talented, complicated artist who took his own life at the age of 35. (Please be advised that this performance contains a reference to suicide.)

The production features kuruma ningyō, a unique and vibrant puppetry tradition created by Koryū Nishikawa I in Japan 170 years ago. While bunraku puppetry requires three puppeteers to manipulate one puppet, kuruma ningyō requires only one. The style gets its name because it involves a puppeteer sitting on a “kuruma” (cart) and manipulating the “ningyō” (puppet).  

Master puppeteer Koryū Nishikawa V is the fifth-generation master of Hachiōji Kuruma Ningyō. He received training in cart puppetry from his father, Koryū Nishikawa IV, and later in bunraku-style puppetry at the National Bunraku Theater. He is one of a small number of puppeteers who manipulates both types of puppets.

Tom Lee is an Asian American designer, director, and puppet artist who has performed on Broadway in “War Horse” and at the Metropolitan Opera in “Madama Butterfly,” in addition to creating critically acclaimed original work fusing technology and contemporary puppetry techniques.

Nishikawa V and Lee are co-creators of “Akutagawa” and will both perform as puppeteers. Music for the production is composed and performed live by Yukio Tsuji, a resident composer of La MaMa Experimental Theater known for his work on Al Pacino’s “Salome,” and in the original Broadway production of Steven Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures.”

“As puppet artists, Koryū-san and I are tasked with adapting a literary form into a theatrical one, and in the case of puppetry, the forms are quite different,” said Lee. “We are interested in the parallels between the writer creating a character on the page and the puppeteer inhabiting the emotional life of a puppet figure. We hope that witnessing the artistic process, beyond the cultural framework of Akutagawa’s time and legacy, proves a compelling experience. Trying to adapt any ‘classic’ work, even from the beginning of Japan’s modern literary tradition, begs the question, what does this work mean now? Each of the stories we have chosen concerns a character in solitude, forced to deal with their aloneness in starkly different ways. This theme will no doubt be familiar to all of us who have lived through the years of the global pandemic.”

Recommended for ages 14 and up, this engagement of “Akutagawa” is made possible in part through the ArtsCONNECT program of Mid Atlantic Arts with support from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Related events

Join a discussion with co-creators Nishikawa V and Lee as they delve into their long collaborative relationship and the development of “Akutagawa” on Saturday, Feb. 18, at 6 p.m. in the Moss Arts Center’s Cube. The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required.

Virginia Tech students in the Japanese House of the Mozaiko international living-learning community will learn about the history and contemporary practice of kuruma ningyō puppetry from the creators of “Akutagawa.

Nishikawa V will lead led a lecture-demonstration for a Japanese course in Virginia Tech’s Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, as well as a workshop on kuruma ningyō puppetry for students at Christiansburg Middle School.

Ticket information

Tickets for the performance are $30 for general admission and $10 for students and youth 18 and under. Tickets can be purchased online; at the Moss Arts Center's box office, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday; or by calling 540-231-5300 during box office hours.

Paid parking is available in the North End Parking Garage on Turner Street. Virginia Tech faculty and staff possessing a valid Virginia Tech parking permit can enter and exit the garage free of charge. Virginia Tech has also partnered with ParkMobile to provide a convenient, contactless electronic payment option for parking, which may be used at any parking meter, campus parking space, or lot with standard F/S, C/G, or R parking.

If you are an individual with a disability and desire an accommodation, please contact Jamie Wiggert at least 10 days prior to the event at 540-231-5300 or email during regular business hours.

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