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Japanese puppets teach language, meld cultures

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

Their art is Bunraku, an ancient form of lyrical theater 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 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.

Holman, 51, first visited Japan three decades ago as a Mormon missionary after his junior year at Brigham Young University. The zoology major who grew up in southern Indiana fell in love with the country, abandoning his designs on medical school.

He came home, changed his major and went on to earn a doctorate in Japanese literature at California-Berkeley.

Holman returned to Japan in 1989 for a series of teaching jobs. A stint leading a study abroad program for Michigan college students introduced him to Bunraku, which demands a lifetime commitment from masters in Japan.

When he returned to the United States in 1996, Holman sought to share his newfound passion with his students. He joined the Missouri faculty in 2005, teaching Japanese language and literature.

Van Gessel, a Japanese professor at Brigham Young who taught Holman at Berkeley, said his former pupil's devotion has earned him respect among other Bunraku artists.

"The expectation is that anyone who is going to devote themselves to this art will give their hearts, souls and minds for the rest of their lives," Gessel said.

There are no such expectations at Missouri, where Holman is quick to point out that few, if any, of his students will embark on careers as professional puppeteers.

What troupe members can expect is immersive language training that goes far beyond rote memorization.

"If you have a common goal -- which in the case of the puppetry is to operate the puppet -- then you've got a reason to talk and negotiate language and figure things out," he said. "The language becomes the tool to accomplish the goal."

Troupe member Andrew Procter, a Columbia international studies major, left for his second summer in Japan with Holman.

Last year, Procter said, Japanese audiences appreciated the respect the American students brought to Bunraku, especially in light of disinterest among many young people in Japan.


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