The novel follows the adventures of thirteen-year-old Jiro, who finds himself caught up in the political events of late eighteenth century Osaka, Japan. When Jiro accompanies his father, Hanji, to deliver a puppet to the Hanaza theater, Yoshida, the owner and master puppeteer, offers to take the boy on as an apprentice. To Jiro’s chagrin, his mother, Isako, does not take Yoshida’s offer seriously. Determined not to be a burden on his family during the current famine, Jiro runs away to the theater, where he becomes an apprentice; he begins his career by opening curtains and memorizing scripts and eventually graduates to a role as a “foot operator.” Along the way, he is helped by an older boy, Yoshida’s son, Kinshi, who does not seem able to please his father.
Worried about his father, who is said to be ill, Jiro briefly returns home to discover that Isako has taken his father to recuperate at a relative’s farm in Kyoto. When Jiro again returns home on New Year’s Day, he discovers that his mother is near starvation. One evening, Saburo, the mysterious bandit who steals from the rich to help the poor, leaves a notice on the door of the theater demanding a special performance of the current play,“The Thief of the Tokaido.”