Giant puppet carries hope from Tohoku to Tokyo Giant puppet carries hope from Tohoku to Tokyo

Giant puppet carries hope from Tohoku to Tokyo

    NHK World
    A giant puppet from Japan’s northeastern Tohoku region is on its way to Tokyo as part of the Nippon Festival, a series of cultural events held in celebration of the upcoming Olympics and Paralympics. Mocco, towering 10 meters tall, was created to inspire and support communities affected by the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. It was finally unveiled in March, after the Games were postponed last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

    Embodying Tohoku

    Mocco was made under the visionary eye of puppetry artist Sawa Noriyuki. His expertise at fusing the powerful and the delicate really shows. The whole figure – complete with steel frame – weighs a whopping 1.5 tons. Yet the exterior, including the limbs and head, are carefully decorated by hand. A team deftly operates the puppet using ropes.

    Sawa Noriyuki supervises the assembly work.
    Watch Video 2:34

    Mocco features design motifs that pay homage to the abundant nature of the Tohoku region. There are flowers in the chest, and animals and birds on the eyes. Sawa also used locally sourced textiles.

    The project was a labor of love, especially during these uncertain times. "We’re in a pandemic. But we worked around that to create an entertaining piece and bring joy to people in Tohoku,” said Sawa.

    He also sees Mocco as a beacon of hope for creative people around the world. “Many artists lost the ability to hold events during the pandemic. I believe we also have to make this a milestone for their sake.”

    Mocco design details
    Birds and animals on the eye (left), and flowers in the chest (right)

    Children offer inspiration

    The project was conceived years ago by Yanai Michihiko, a creative director from Fukushima Prefecture. He wanted to refocus people’s attention on the disaster-hit region.

    Yanai Michihiko
    Yanai Michihiko talks about the project.

    He not only involved renowned Japanese artists, but also children across Tohoku, who created art inspired by Mocco. Their unique ideas were eventually incorporated into the puppet’s design. “I thought of a leaf shape for the clothing,” said one student during a workshop.

    A workshop with children in Fukushima Prefecture in 2019

    Yanai had planned a three-stop, outdoor tour of Tohoku for spring 2020. “I heard that some people outside Japan think no one lives in Tohoku anymore,” he said in 2019. “It motivates me to share the reality with the rest of the world.”

    Mocco’s tour from Tohoku to Tokyo.

    Mocco brings happiness to Minamisoma

    The tour was postponed due to the pandemic, but it finally kicked off this May. The last leg took place in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture. It provided a much-needed boost the coastal city, which is still recovering from the devastation wrought by the triple disaster more than a decade ago.

    Nowadays, the locals avoid living by the sea due to concerns about safety. Trees being planted along the shoreline to help protect the area from another tsunami are still just saplings.

    Ever since the disaster, Takadama Kumi has been scared to even look at the ocean. For her, the Mocco project was a way to briefly forget her day-to-day worries.

    Takadama Kumi
    Takadama Kumi joined the Mocco project in the hope that it would bring people back to Minamisoma.

    Takadama was one of 30 people who pulled the puppet’s ropes. "I’m excited” she said before the performance. “It’s more amazing in real life than in the photos. The joints work smoothly, and it’s well built.”

    Fellow volunteer Suzuki Satoshi was just as enthusiastic: “The 2011 disaster was like the end of the world for me. I still remember the horror. But today, I want to enjoy this event. It’s not something I get to experience every day. I’m proud to be involved.”

    Performance connects people

    In the show, actors seek shelter from a storm under Mocco’s cloak, but not everyone can fit. One of them discovers that it opens when he pulls a string. It prompts everyone to work together to ensure they are all protected.

    When the rain stops, they make Mocco stand up and dance to music from Tohoku. It’s all intended to reflect the connection of hearts – separated by both the 2011 disaster and the pandemic.

    Although the show was held without an audience due to anti-virus measures, there was a real sense of joy among the locals who looked on from afar. Some even danced in sync with Mocco.

    Volunteers in Minamisoma with Mocco.
    Watch Video 3:14

    “Some might say now is not the time for such an event,” said Sawa. “That may be true, but it’s also true that the people of Tohoku shouldn’t always have to keep their heads down. I think it’s good to go outside, breathe fresh air, and see something new.”

    Mocco is slated to be in Tokyo for a show on July 17 – a few days before the Olympic Opening Ceremony.

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