Bunraku - Telling stories through puppeteering

An MU troupe uses traditional techniques learned from professionals in Japan to entertain and educate audience members
Friday, March 28, 2008 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 7:50 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
A 2005 production of the Kotobuki Shiki Sanbaso with University of Massachusetts student Sam Wood. The ritual dance is performed before every show to purify the theater.

Members of the Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe reveal their bruised and swollen hands after a demonstration of traditional Japanese puppetry. The strings and pulleys used to manipulate the puppets’ limbs cause visible wear and tear on their skin.

“They can be kind of hard to manipulate for 40 minutes on end when you’re just holding it up with one arm,” said troupe member and MU senior Brett Windhausen.


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Martin Holman, coordinator for MU’s Japanese Studies program, directs and runs MU’s Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe, including its summer program in Japan. He said there are other troupes outside Japan that use the Bunraku style of puppeteering, but he thinks MU’s is the only one that goes beyond technique to also perform traditional Japanese theater.

Holman said students learn from the Japanese puppet masters by mirroring their skill and careful coordination.

“When we perform in the United States, we are bringing traditional Japanese puppet theater to an American audience and showing them what it looks like,” he said. “I consider it an opportunity to bring an aspect of Japanese culture to America that Americans would never get the chance to see.”

Members train for two months during the summer with three troupes in Japan: Kuroda, Tonda and Imada. Each troupe measures its history in centuries.

Windhausen’s fervent interest in puppetry began a couple of years ago when he signed up for the summer training program.

“Even though I had zero Japanese language experience at that point, all the people from the troupe were incredibly nice to me and accommodating. It really kind of happened by accident,” Windhausen said.

The troupe performs throughout the United States, counting the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian Institution among past gigs. Recently, members returned from trips to Indiana and Penn State. At the Penn State event, Windhausen said about 800 people showed up.

In Japan, audiences are more curious about the troupe itself — the sight of non-Japanese students performing traditional Japanese puppetry is almost a “novelty act,” as Holman put it.

“People come to see how well you are doing,” Alice Chan, an MU junior, said. “They will wrap money in tissue and throw them onstage.”

Chan moved to the U.S. from Taipei, Taiwan, when she was 13. Along with Windhausen, she is one of the most experienced members of the troupe.

“It’s fun and tough at the same time,” Chan said.

Along with the puppets, each performance includes a player of a shamisen — a Japanese stringed instrument — and a chanter, who narrates and assumes the voices of each puppet. Chan is also training to be a chanter.

“You have to remember the tone, pitch, voice — your emotions show. You almost merge with the character,” Chan said.

These characters usually originate from traditional Japanese stories, though they come from many genres and there’s one to fit every occasion.

Bunraku Bay has four main plays that it brings out at performances. “Sanbaso” is a ritual dance performed before every performance to purify the theater. “Date Musume Koi no Hikanoko” is a story of a young woman who climbs a tower to ring a false alarm and save her lover’s life. “Hidakagawa Iriaizakura” features a jealous woman whose pursuit of an unwilling monk transforms her into a demon. “Keisei Awa no Naruto” is about a mother meeting the daughter she was forced to abandon 10 years earlier.

“I think the plays are really interesting, beyond the fact that they’re just set in a different time or place, and I think people enjoy them, so I like putting them on,” Windhausen said.

After the demonstration is over, the puppets go limp amid post-performance chatter among troupe members. What had previously been walking, breathing characters are disassembled and stored away, to be taken out when the stories need telling again.

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