The Secrets of So Sato

Written by So Sato and Richard Kaufman
February 1, 2017


Book Review

The following entries comprise the titles and exact descriptions of two of my favorite effects drawn from The Secrets of So Sato:


EFFECT: The spectator selects a card, which is then returned to the deck and lost. The deck is placed on the table and performer shows his palms empty. He slaps his palms together and suddenly the selected card appears between them.


EFFECT: The performer says that he’s going to perform an observation test on the spectator. He removes the four Aces from the deck (which is left on the table) and displays them. He tells the spectator to trace the movements of the Aces. The performer places one Ace face down on the table, then takes a card off the top of the deck and puts it on top of the Ace. This is repeated until all four Aces have been dealt to the pile with indifferent cards interlaced between them. The performer picks up the pile and drops it on top of the deck. He asks the spectator what the exact position of the four Aces is. Whatever the spectator guesses, he will be wrong, because all four Aces are immediately shown to be on top of the deck.

“Magic Slap” is the book’s opening item, and the prosaic description does little justice to the startling and magical quality of this purely visual effect, which the author says he often uses as an opener (conditions permitting), “… because the effect looks like pure magic—a card appearing out of the air at the fingertips.”

The description of “Amnesia,” while perfectly accurate, also does inadequate service to the effect, because many magicians will assume that some sort of secret subtraction or repeat counting procedure is involved in order to alter the positions of the Aces. In fact, the effect is so strong because it is in reality as clean as the accurate description depicts it. And for this reason, this routine also serves its creator as another favored opening effect.

Not only are these two effects pure, direct, and mystifying, but they are also accomplished by radically different means. “Magic Slap” depends on pure sleight-of-hand skills, which Sato-san executes with effortless panache. “Amnesia,” on the other hand, is almost self-working, depending primarily on Sato-san’s “Mimic Show,” a new approach to a principle so simple and ancient that when I first discovered the secret as described in the text, I laughed out loud. Yet the principle, and Sato-san’s original approach to it—a handling finesse of sorts—is so effective, a static line drawing illustration in the book will effectively fool most magician readers.

I single out these two routines because not only do I consider them both worthy of use, but because they showcase these two compelling extremes of Sato-san’s range of skills and creations. He clearly possesses substantial knowledge of the literature and principles of modern sleight-of-hand card magic, and he applies these strengths in powerful and worthwhile manner; there is no novelty for novelty’s sake here, no pages of filler built on minor variations. When Sato-san offers his new version of Vernon plots like Triumph or the full-deck All Backs, rest assured that these are new approaches with merit worthy of expert consideration.

But So Sato also possesses a distinctly original and creative mind that takes him far beyond variant solutions for classic routines—a skill set he uses daily in his job working at Tenyo Magic’s Creative Division. Thus you will also find in these pages a mystifying and visual routine entitled “Warp Wrap,” in which two cards transpose, one at the face and the other buried within a pack wrapped entirely in a rubber band. Similar principles have been used in the past, however an ingenious new addition is brought to bear here that renders the simply homemade card gaff particularly friendly to smooth and efficient sleight-of-hand use. And as the author wisely states: “I think the value of card magic using gaffed cards depends on whether the gaffs are used in a subtle and effective manner. If you use gaffs in card magic, the benefits must outweigh any negative aspects such as your own guilt.” 

So Sato makes his living as a magic creator for Tenyo, but when it comes to the material in this book, and his performance of it, he is truly an amateur magician, and in the best sense of the term. He obviously cares a lot about presentation, and he creates thoughtful and textured plots and premises that, while not narratively elaborate, serve to engage audiences with requisite procedures and resulting magical effects.

Hence while Sato-san did not invent the “horse race” theme for his routine “Zen Races,” his approach to the effect is a worthy example of the presentational aspect of his work. Frankly the trick—based on a 1955 routine of Tony Koynini’s and a later version by Nick Trost—reads poorly, and Sato-san acknowledges in the description that “The trick is… generally thought of as boring. It also requires a full-deck setup. And so the trick has been forgotten.” But, having said all this, watch the spectators laughing in his video performance, and you will recognize the benefits and strengths that this distinctive creator has brought to this odd and potentially clunky and procedure-heavy routine.

As to seeing that performance on video: The book contains 35 entries, and is accompanied by about an hour-long performance-only video of So Sato performing 18 of these routines (and some of the book’s entries consist of methodological principles, or multiple variations in application, so you effectively get to see most of the book’s contents). The video is a minimalist single camera affair (doubtless allowing for its inclusion with the book at a reasonable price), with the only audience consisting of two or three spectators joining Sato-san at the close-up table, which is well suited to his low-key style. But the video in combination with the book does enormous service to the contents. First and foremost, I strongly recommend that before you so much as glance at the contents of the book, first sit down and enjoy the video. This is important because if you do this, I guarantee you will be fooled, and probably multiple times. That experience alone is a distinctive pleasure of the work. (And see Take Two #12 for further thoughts about magicians being fooled by other magicians.)

Also, because some of the methods are odd, and some others somewhat procedurally complex, the video goes far in assisting students in visualizing the effects as they really appear. While I have little sympathy for magic students who complain that they have difficult learning from books (okay, I actually have no sympathy, excluding the developmentally disabled), one of the most difficult (and yet important) skills required in order to effectively study the literature of conjuring is the ability to visualize effects from written descriptions. I believe this ability comes like most things: namely, with practice. Nevertheless, while I have my doubts about the value of video as an instructional medium in magic (see my comments in Take Two #14), if every book was accompanied by performance-only video, sans instruction, you would get no complaint from me. The So Sato book/video package is not the first example of such an approach, but it is a welcome and useful one.

Sato-san’s performance style, it should be mentioned, is extremely gentle, slow and deliberate. Nevertheless, it is far from boring, and not at all amateurish in terms of polish and mastery; rather it is precise, deliberate, consistently smooth and compelling. I will say—and I mean no disrespect or criticism in this—that since American students will not understand the spoken Japanese, and as there is no translation accompanying the video (and none is necessary, as the plots are very clear cut and often visual), for what it’s worth, some viewers may find that watching certain of the performances at exactly double speed, and no faster, may perceive the effects as occurring at a more “natural” American pace. I find this observation an interesting one to ponder in its many implications.

Other distinct items include “Bath Towel Mentalism,” a routine in which two spectators, seated facing one another at the table, place their hands beneath a large bath towel. They then follow a series of procedures with a pack of cards, half of which is given to each, in which each spectator blindly selects a card, exchanges it with the other person’s selection, buries the other person’s card in their own half-decks. Although neither performer nor the participants ever see the selections, the performer divines the identities of the two cards. It’s a mystifying effect, and while the procedures could readily be undertaken beneath the tabletop, the bath towel provides a novel and amusingly visual element.

In “The Professor Still Fools Us,” the magician recounts some historical information about Dai Vernon, and utilizes the spelling of the Professor’s name in order to help locate a spectator’s freely thought-of card, selected from an imaginary deck. An elegant and pleasing element of this construction is that not only is the method extremely deceptive, but it relies on the principle of multiple outs that was so dear to the Professor’s heart, and so profoundly present in some of his greatest and most influential creations, including “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” and of course, “The Trick That Cannot Be Explained.”

“Acrobat Leader” is a version of “Follow the Leader,” for which Sato-san has ingeniously applied Lennert Green’s snap deal. Sato-san also applies this technique effectively in his “Lateral Thinking Assembly” in similar fashion, and these contributions rely on his remarkable discovery that by executing the deal while crossing the hands, the move becomes eminently more deceptive, while also favoring the angle requirements of the sleight. The result is a very clean and mystifying routine, and his application of a standard technique of Jacob Daley’s lends the routine a mystifying finale (again, with its clear impact demonstrably achieved in the performance video).

So Sato has a talent for devising false shuffles, false cuts, and deceptive cutting display procedures, which rely not only on visual deception but also on rhythm and pacing. Thus, the viewer will far more readily appreciate “Bushfire Triumph” (two versions) and “Another ‘All-Backs’” on initial viewing of the video performances, before tackling detailed study, at which point the excellent line drawings (23 and 32 respectively) by Tomoki Kawashima provide thorough service.

While on this subject of Sato-san’s inventiveness regarding false shuffles, cuts and displays, I could not help but notice that in at least two instances, he utilizes original procedures in the video performances that he has chosen not to include in the explanatory text. Thus in “Magic Slap” there is a clever such control sequence; and in “Zen Derby” he does a tabled false cut sequence that is also quite nice but is not described in the book. I don’t begrudge him these choices, and imagine that his intention is to seed the student’s imagination with some of the related principles that are described in detail, with the hopes that the thoughtful student will then continue to explore the possibilities.

A year ago I had never heard of So Sato, until a couple of videos, linked below, came across my radar, courtesy of my cherished friend, Yuki Kadoya, an extremely talented and scholarly Japanese magician whom I’ve known for more than 25 years. Kadoya-san has translated many English magic texts into Japanese and in some cases published some of them in Japan (he has translated and created two of my own, one of which he published), including several books by Richard Kaufman, and now has served as translator, from Japanese to English, of The Secrets of So Sato. Those two video performances whetted my appetite for this book, and the book did not disappoint. The contents include material that previously appeared only in Japanese editions of two previous books by the author, along with new additional material. The book is a nicely produced clothbound hardcover, is clearly if simply written, and includes a plentiful quantify of quality line drawings by the aforementioned Kawashima-san. I confess I’m less than thrilled with the all san-serif typesetting, which is hard on the eyes, but in total the package is very reasonably priced considering the production quality and the inclusion of the DVD of performances.

This is a something-for-everyone kind of book, which includes sleight-free routines, challenging sleight-of-hand material, and a handful of technical tools with utilitarian value. If you were to add just one of these offbeat plots and effects to your repertoire I can almost guarantee it will extend the texture and variety of your work because you can probably find something that is unlike most of the card magic you do. And perhaps best of all, the book’s contents reflects the range and breadth of a distinctive creator’s mind and oeuvre, a goal this reader seeks in every conjuring volume. So Sato is truly a possessor of secrets, some of which he has guarded dearly until the release of this volume. Now, his secrets can be yours. Treat them gently. 

The Secrets of So Sato by So Sato & Richard Kaufman; published by Kaufman and Company; 2016; clothbound hardcover; 191 pages; illustrated by Tomoki Kawashima; translation by Yukishige Kadoya; Price: $60.00, including performance-only DVD. Available from Kaufman and Company


Bonus Clips

Here are the first two videos I saw of So Sato’s work. Prepare to be fooled. There’s much more of this (and simply but better shot) on the hour-long DVD that comes with the book. 


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