Cultural appreciation comes full circle when a group of shadow puppeteers translated Star Wars – a sci-fi inspired by a samurai film – into shadow puppets using Malaysia’s traditional art form of “wayang kulit” or “leather puppet show”. Tintoy Chuo of Fusion Wayang Kulit explains the design methodology and art direction that enable him to remediate sci-fi and comic characters into what can be described as the most ancient form of anime or book-to-screen format.

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Master Puppeteer or “Tok Dalang” Mohammad Dain Othman performing Peperangan Bintang or Star Wars as shadow puppet play. Image: © Fusion Wayang Kulit

We’ve been following your progress for years, since you first translated Star Wars characters into wayang kulit or the Kelantanese (East Coast) shadow puppets in 2012. What were the challenges and the happy discoveries that FWK made during this maiden project? What is it about our shadow puppets – or George Lucas’s narrative – that made it possible for Star Wars to be expressed in this traditional art form?

Thank you and it is an honour to be followed by Story Of Books.

About the challenges: When we just started back in 2012, everything was a challenge. There were many questions and there were no answers. There was nothing we can google about as nobody had done this before. It was tough. But I changed my perspective by seeing it as a speed bump I had to pass through. So I didn’t feel that bad and we can carry on to complete our first fusion-type performance.

The happy discoveries: I’d say this project made me feel more and more of a Malaysian, because usually I wouldn’t be involved so much with our own culture. But I get to do so. I feel that is it very meaningful that I can do something for my culture.

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Puteri Leia aka Princess Leia. Image: © Fusion Wayang Kulit
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Peperangan Bintang or Star Wars. Image: © Fusion Wayang Kulit
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Sangkala Vedeh aka Darth Vader. Image: © Fusion Wayang Kulit

You’ve moved on to doing many reinterpretations now – including one of Ed Sheeran! How did that come about?

It’s because people started calling us the Star Wars people. It is good but we prefer to be associated more with wayang kulit. We were invited to create a set of DC Justice League superheroes-inspired puppets to promote a Justice League RUN (a marathon) back in 2015. That was when we started doing more.

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Batman. Image: © Fusion Wayang Kulit
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Wonder Woman. Image: © Fusion Wayang Kulit
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Green Lantern. Image: © Fusion Wayang Kulit
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Justice League Weekend 2015 in Malaysia. Pic © Fusion Wayang Kulit
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The Flash. Image: © Fusion Wayang Kulit
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Superman. Image: © Fusion Wayang Kulit

Then, during a Japanese anime event, we created three iconic Japanese mecha robot inspired puppets, and my co-founder actually managed to produce the world’s first transformable puppet.  We named it Valkruda Seta, inspired by the Macross anime series.

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The Macross puppets are transformable. Image: © Fusion Wayang Kulit
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The team behind the world’s first transformable puppets inspired by Japanese mecha characters. Image: © Fusion Wayang Kulit
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Macross interpretations. Image: © Fusion Wayang Kulit

You can see the video of the transformable puppet here:

For Ed Sheeran, it was Warner Music Malaysia that initiated it back in 2018. They wanted to make a localised music video to promote Ed’s album and they had me design a puppet of Ed Sheeran. Of course, I did it in “the shape of him”.

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Ed Sheeran’s spitting image, thanks to © Fusion Wayang Kulit
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The Shape Of Him. Image: © Fusion Wayang Kulit

Early 2019, Ed came to Malaysia for his concert. The team of Warner Music Malaysia presented this puppet to him and I’m so glad he liked it:

A few years back, in Bali, we got served by a shopkeeper who was enjoying a Javanese shadow puppet show that was taking p*ss out of the Indonesian politicians. He was sniggering over this mobile phone. The show was played on his phone! It appears that the Indonesians, like the Japanese with their manga, are comfortable using traditional expressions to discuss contemporary issues. Malaysians, understandably, were hesitant to do so. But they have no problem remediating concepts from abroad such as Marvel superheroes or sci-fi characters in their shadow puppets.

Well, Malaysian has this, too. In Kedah, there is wayang gedek, where they perform political or social stories all the time. Most are meant to be funny.

Do you think we’ll get to the point where we’d be comfortable reproducing not just the textbook Ramayana characters, but also allow some room for modern social commentaries?

Yes, it is already happening.

Muhammad Dain Othman, the “Tok Dalang” or master puppeteer that FWK collaborated with, has a degree in anthropology. It’s cool to see design-anthropology collaborations like this (note: Story Of Books editor is an anthropology postgrad). What were the key things that you learned from him, and what did you – as a designer – exchange with him in return?

Pak Dain, who is the 13th accredited Tok Dalang (“Master Puppeteer”) of the Kelantan traditional Malay shadow play, is not only knowledgeable in the art. He is an open minded person, which is why I could talk about my ‘crazy’ idea with him.

Mohammad Dain Othman mentored Tintoy Chuo and in return, Chuo introduced him to contemporary sci-fi and comic characters. Othman was a graduate of anthropology. Image: © Fusion Wayang Kulit

I learned so much from him, all the wayang kulit-related stuff and I am still learning today. It is such a blessing to have him, because when we started our project we could go two different ways:

1- Just simply do it in the way I like, which is much easier;

or

2 – Do it the proper way according to the format of traditional wayang kulit. It was harder.

We chose 2 because I wanted to respect the culture and do it properly. It was harder because there were things we cannot do, or we need to follow certain requirements. But it was worth it because we could be sure that whatever we were doing was correct.

In return, I told him about multimedia and introduced him to sci-fi characters from Star Wars, and the Marvel and DC superheroes.

Will you do an interpretation of the mythical character, Demang Lebar Daun? He’s crucial to the Malaysian understanding of the relationship between the “rakyat” (the people) and the rulers. He provided the sacred covenant with Sang Sapurba that permits a foreigner to rule over his people, but prohibits the ruler from harming the people. If you have free reign, what do you think he’ll look like? More like a human, a beast or a deity?

I’d prefer to make him more of a beast or a creature. It would be easier to express and more entertaining to work with.

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© Fusion Wayang Kulit
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© Fusion Wayang Kulit
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© Fusion Wayang Kulit

How does graphic design inform you shadow puppetry?

It matters a lot. It is the core of how I think and design. Especially when I had the idea to do this based on “what if?”. I combined two totally different elements – the old wayang kulit and the new Star Wars  – into one. That was how we got the first Star Wars-inspired wayang kulit project. It was a very crazy concept.

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Batman and Joker slinging it out in Guangdong, China. Image: © Fusion Wayang Kulit
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The team in Malay traditional costumes to present “Batman and Joker” at Guangdong, China. Image: © Fusion Wayang Kulit
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Batman in action. Image: © Fusion Wayang Kulit

What’s next for you?

We are honoured to be invited to participate in Batman 80th anniversary event at the Resorts World Genting, Malaysia, where we made a few signature Batman characters into puppets.

At the same time, we are preparing a new fusion story.

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The 1966 Batman. Image: © Fusion Wayang Kulit
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The Dark Night. Image: © Fusion Wayang Kulit
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The warrior Batman. Image: © Fusion Wayang Kulit
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Batman over the years. Image: © Fusion Wayang Kulit
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The mecha Batman. Image: © Fusion Wayang Kulit
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Batman Begins. Image: © Fusion Wayang Kulit

What is a hero to you?

A hero is someone who is willing to put others before himself in desperate times. It is not those big-chested strong-biceps people wearing masks or capes.

Ebook, PDF or print?

PDF.

Tintoy Chuo, Co-Founder, Fusion Wayang Kulit on graphic design’s influence on his approach to wayang kulit: “It matters a lot. It is the core of how I think and design. Especially when I had the idea to do this based on ‘what if?’. I combined two totally different elements – the old wayang kulit and the new Star Wars  – into one. That was how we got the first Star Wars-inspired wayang kulit project.” Image: © Fusion Wayang Kulit

About Fusion Wayang Kulit (FWK)

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