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Japanese puppet master holds a family tradition in his hands

Koryu Nishikawa V, grandmaster of Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo Puppet Theater, performs with one of the troupe’s dolls.
Koryu Nishikawa V, grandmaster of Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo Puppet Theater, performs with one of the troupe’s dolls.Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo Puppet Theater

For many kids, a puppet is a toy, wrapped around a hand or even a single finger like a decorated mitten. For young Koryu Nishikawa V, puppets were a business that had been in his family for more than 160 years.

Now 65, the Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo Puppet Theater’s fifth grandmaster began learning kuruma ningyo puppetry from his father at age 13. Even before his official training, Nishikawa haunted the theaters where they practiced, running errands backstage.

For the last few decades, he’s been sprinting around the globe, bringing the tradition to venues outside of Japan, like Wellesley College’s Jewett Auditorium, where he and his troupe will perform Tuesday.

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The puppets, some of which are more than 100 years old, are made of cypress and weigh up to 13 pounds. Their faces are painted simply, often in white, black, and red, but wear expressions potent enough to make you wonder if they haven’t obtained a little vitality in their longer-than-human lives.

“The expression of the puppet is the most difficult because [I] could be performing as a child, as an adult, as a male, as a female,” Nishikawa said through an interpreter. “The emotional movements of these dolls are the most difficult and something [I] feel will be a lifelong learning experience, training experience, perfection experience.”

Each performer sits atop a rokuro kuruma, a small box with wheels, controlling the doll’s movement with hands and feet. Shrouded in black clothing, they loom behind their wooden counterparts. Accompanied by musicians, they glide through prayers and battles and flirtations, their postures mirroring those of their puppets. And there are moments, Nishikawa said, where the line between performer and puppet blurs.

“There are a lot of moments in the performance where [we] can feel the audience reaction and it becomes very vivid in [our] minds, the expression the puppets are having,” he said. “That’s when [I] definitely feel there is a very strong bond. Those moments are the moments when [we] are one with the puppet.”

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At Wellesley, the troupe will perform three love stories. “Yugao,” a new piece, adapts a story from “The Tale of Genji,” in which the titular officer’s love interest is possessed by the spirit of a jealous lover. In “Kuzunoha,” a mother struggles with being separated from her child. “Tsuri On’na,” the program’s lightest piece, follows a man “fishing” for a wife.

Like many components of kuruma ningyo, these tales are rather old. Nonetheless, Nishikawa believes the problems those historic female characters face aren’t so different from the challenges modern women deal with.

“[I] really feel the heart and soul, the struggles that women face haven’t really changed,” he said. “When most of these stories were written, during [Japan’s] Edo period, women’s status was absolutely not the same as men and in certain ways very limited. And yet, the positive outlook these women have toward life, [I] see a strong similarity with women today.”

Don’t worry if the history mentioned above is unfamiliar. In fact, that’s sort of the point. Nishikawa hopes Western audiences not only enjoy the show but also learn a little something about Japanese culture.

After all, teaching is central to the kuruma ningyo tradition. Without it, the art couldn’t have survived generations of sons training to hoist the mantle of grandmaster onto their shoulders. Like his father, Nishikawa’s son began learning in his early teens.

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“When [I] would be in training [with my father], mentally [I] would switch and say this is my master teacher. But the reality is it was hard sometimes,” Nishikawa said. “Now that [I’m] teaching [my] son [I] can imagine the same kind of struggle [my] son is going through.”

At 22, his son has been training for around a decade, but he’s only started expressing himself through puppetry in the past couple years.

Maybe a puppeteer’s touch takes a while to seep through the aged cypress, to become capable of animating something so rigid. But when it does, the stories they tell can reach beyond human limitations.

“Puppets can be just a piece of wood. But they can also be more than human,” Nishikawa said. “There’s a lot these puppets can express when they’re [just] still. And because they’re puppets, they can fly or break in half. [I] strongly believe there’s a unique expression, sometimes more than human, that these puppets can tell.”

Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo Puppet Theater

Presented by the Japan Society of Boston. At Jewett Auditorium, 106 Central St., Wellesley, March 5 at 6 p.m. Tickets $15-$45, www.japansocietyboston.org


Jenni Todd can be reached at jenni.todd@globe.com.