Bunraku marries language, cultures

Ominous in black robes and hoods, three artists move stealthily to manipulate unique charges: 1.2-metre Japanese puppets that are putting a new face on language instruction for college students in Missouri’s heartland.

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Ominous in black robes and hoods, three artists move stealthily to manipulate unique charges: 1.2-metre Japanese puppets that are putting a new face on language instruction for college students in Missouri’s heartland.

Their art is Bunraku, an ancient form of lyrical theatre in Japan, and their sensei (teacher) is a former Mormon missionary-turned-devotee — University of Missouri professor Martin Holman.

Holman has taken on a rotating cast of students in his Bunraku (boon-RAH-coo) Bay Puppet Troupe, considered the only traditional Japanese puppet troupe outside of Japan.

Despite their relative inexperience, the Missouri ensemble has performed at the Smithsonian Institution, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and other prestigious venues. They travel to Japan each summer to study with the 300-year-old Imada Puppet Troupe in Iida, near Nagano.

Sometimes, the initial reaction of audiences is one of disbelief, Holman said.

“Here we are, a bunch of white and black and Asian-American people doing Japanese puppetry,” he said. “They look at us and go, ‘How can it be authentic, it’s from Missouri?’ Well, put the hoods over our heads and (compare us to) any number of Japanese puppet troupes, and I’ll defy you to tell us apart. Because you can’t.”

Bunraku puppeteers are visible to the audience but dressed from head to toe in black, with a similarly cloaked but hoodless chanter who serves as narrator for often weighty subject matter. In one piece, a mother must again abandon the daughter she sent into exile as an infant to protect the child from a thieving samurai father. Suicide is a common topic.

The puppeteers move about the stage in threes to the eerie twang of a three-stringed, banjo-like Japanese instrument called a shamisen. The interplay of three is an important one to the tradition: three puppeteers to work the rods and levers that control each figure, performing in unison with the shamisen player and the chanter, known as a tayu.

The puppets are silent, but the subtle gestures as their masters move their arms, hands and legs convey a range of emotions.