Bunraku Bay performs with 300-year-old troupe

The puppet troupe is the only one of its kind in North America.
Japanese-trained student puppeteers from the Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe perform the opening act for the Imada Puppet Theater traditional Japanese puppet show Monday night at Jesse Auditorium. This is the second time the 300-year-old Imada Puppet Theater has been to the United States.

A puppet troupe from Nagano, Japan, joined Columbia's Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe for a performance Monday in Jesse Hall.

The Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe, led by MU Japanese Studies Coordinator Martin Holman, is the only North American group of performers practicing Ningyo Joruri, a traditional form of Japanese puppetry. Performers from the Imada Puppet Troupe, a 300-year-old group that has hosted and mentored students from MU for the past five years, joined them on stage.

The Ningyo Joruri form of puppetry involves large puppets controlled by three performers, Holman said. The three work as a team, controlling every limb of the puppet as fluidly as possible.

"The main puppeteer holds the puppet in the center, and is often called the center operator," Holman said. "On the left, you have an operator who controls the puppet's left hand with his or her right hand and you have a third who operates the puppet's feet."

The action on the stage, which ranged from abstract, sparsely staged performances to dramatic scenes with intricate sets, was combined with traditional Japanese music and a narrator.

MU and the Imada Puppet Troupe participate in a foreign exchange program each year, sending American students to Japan for two months of training in Japanese puppet theater. Holman and Tamon Sawayanagi, the director of the Imada Puppet Troupe, both said the exchange program is a unique opportunity for MU students interested in Japanese puppetry.

"In August 2004 and again in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008, Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe participated in the Iida Puppetry Festival, the largest theater festival in Japan devoted to the art of puppet drama," the Bunraku Bay Web site states. "Bunraku Bay performers were honored to appear on the stages of the Imada Puppet Troupe and the Kuroda Puppet Troupe."

Sawayanagi said the exchange program proved valuable for the instructors as well, and was a central force behind their willingness to perform with Bunraku Bay.

"One of the things we felt was that, despite the fact that we were teaching them, we were taught by the students," Sawayanagi said through a translator. "Seeing their diligence, their dedication to practicing, we thought we learned something about dedication."

Holman said although a traditional Japanese puppet troupe calling Columbia home might seem odd, he founded the puppet troupe to share what he had learned of the art form.

"I'm the first foreigner to ever be trained in traditional puppet theater, and that started in 1993," Holman said. "I began to teach my students and, after I had enough people trained, I started my own troupe."

Bunraku Bay, who has performed with the Imada Puppet Theater for the past month, will travel to Princeton University for a pair of performances Saturday. Two more dates in Missouri follow in October and November. Although no performance in Columbia is scheduled, Holman isn't ruling out a return in the future.

"We've gotten a pretty good audience for this," Holman said. "Maybe in a couple of years, depending on what they want to do, we can come back and perform again."

After the show concluded, Holman said Monday's performance was an experience he won't soon forget.

"Ever since I came here to Missouri five years ago, I dreamed I would be able to perform in front of a home audience," Holman said to the audience. "I am overcome with gratitude."

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