Natsumi and Haruka have just missed their train home to celebrate Shōgatsu. Laden with New Year gifts for their family and with plenty of time on their hands, the sisters reminisce about the new year traditions of their childhood, especially making mochi – delicious, sticky rice cakes – with their grandma, and the tale of the Little Mochi Man that always followed. It’s a while until they can catch the next train – why not tell the tale again now, to the whole waiting room? A Thousand Cranes use this clever premise to take us on a journey across Japan and through the seasons.
Though their story starts in the fields, with farmers harvesting the rice crop, and moves into the kitchen, as the rice is prepared and pounded, it truly begins when the resulting sticky paste is pulled apart into three big balls: three mochi bullies, each vying to become the lucky kagami mochi who will be decorated and displayed as a token of good luck in the house for the new year. The leftover scraps are reluctantly shaped into a scrappy, small rice cake, a little mochi man. But what he lacks in size, he more than makes up for in determination and, sure that he too can be in with a chance of becoming the kagami mochi despite what the bigger brutes say, the little mochi man heads out on an adventure to collect decorations that will make him a more appealing choice.
Looking to their luggage and the contents of the waiting room for props and set, Natsumi and Haruka use many different types of storytelling to create their engaging account of the mochi man’s travels and the new friends he makes. There’s an inventive reimagining of everyday objects into both characters (such as a wonderful crane created from a paper parasol) and scenery (waiting room chairs and a nearby sandwich board become a table in their grandmother’s kitchen), as well as origami puppets, shadow puppets, movement, dance and song, with each duet performed in both English and Japanese.
The Little Mochi Man’s story is one of kindness, friendship, and familial traditions, and celebrates difference, determination and underdogs. It’s also a first introduction to Japan for much of its young audience, taking in Tokyo and bullet trains, Mount Fuji, snow monkeys and more. Though the production teaches mostly unfamiliar audiences a bit about the country and culture of Japan, the show is impressively non-didactic. Japanese words are woven into the script in a way that feels natural and makes their meaning clear without awkward explanation, and Little Mochi Man’s journey is a purposeful quest of discovery and resilience, rather than a convenient vehicle to include famous landmarks and traditions. A Thousand Cranes have created a sweet, little play about a sweet, little mochi.
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