COLUMBIA — The audience follows her every move as she gracefully tilts her chin toward the ground. Suddenly, her head snaps up with eyes glaring, teeth bared and horns rising. A collective gasp erupts in the auditorium, followed closely by laughter.
Tamon Sawayanagi, director of the Imada Puppet Troupe, smiles as he pulls a hidden lever changing his female puppet’s face back to her original peaceful expression.
Sawayanagi and three other members of the Imada Puppet Troupe of Iida City, Japan, demonstrated traditional Japanese puppetry Friday for more than 200 people in Jesse Wrench Auditorium at MU.
Before the demonstration began, Martin Holman, the coordinator of MU’s Japanese Studies Program, spoke about the history of traditional Japanese puppetry.
The art dates back to the tradition of storytelling in the 13th or 14th century. Holman said the puppets slowly became the central focus of the performance.
While Holman said the art form of puppetry, known as bunraku, only originated about 150 years ago, the term is now commonly used to describe most traditional Japanese puppetry.
With Holman offering translations, Sawayanagi and the other troupe members shared details of their roles in the art form.
Three people are required to operate each puppet. Sawayanagi said the main puppeteer, or omozukai, controls the head and right arm. Another person controls the left arm while a third person controls the feet. To maintain the puppet’s posture, the feet operator must always keep his arm against the omozukai’s hip, he said.
To show the audience how the different positions are created, Sawayanagi lifted the puppet’s kimono to reveal how the feet operator’s fist becomes the puppet’s knee during one pose.
The puppets’ heads and arms are carved. Some of the puppet heads that the troupe use are more than 100 years old.
The puppeteers are not the only members of the troupe. Ryuzo Matsuo is the troupe’s tayu. He provides the narration for the story and dialogue for each puppet, including different voices for each man, woman and child.
Yukihiko Kinoshita is the troupe’s samisen player. He strums the samisen with a plectrum, known as a bachi, with an ivory tip.
Kinoshita said the instrument consists of three strings and is mostly made of wood and covered with cat or dog skin. Japanese speakers laughed as Kinoshita spoke. Audience members who didn’t speak the language had to wait until Holman translated Kinoshita’s assurances that they would not use the audience members’ pets for samisens.
Kinoshita said the samisen player helps set and change the tone of the play and can depict weather, emotions and other musical instruments.
Following the demonstrations, audience members were invited to play with the puppets and ask questions of the troupe. Students from MU’s Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe helped the children and adults master the inner workings of the puppets and assisted in translating.
Hope Martin of Columbia brought her two children to the demonstration. She said her 9-year-old son Sam became interested in Japanese culture through the game Pokemon. Through audio lessons downloaded on the Internet, the family has learned some Japanese words and phrases.
“I want to go to Japan sometime and maybe get a job offer,” said Sam, after he introduced himself in Japanese to the Imada troupe and practiced with a couple of the puppets.
The Imada Puppet Troupe’s first performance in the United States was last week in Chicago with members of the Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe, a local performance group.
Holman, who has lived and taught in Japan, formed Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe in 2004. In 1993, he became the first non-Japanese to train and perform in the traditional puppet theater in Japan.
Holman said the Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe is the only active troupe outside of Japan in the world. The troupe consists of MU students, as well as students from other colleges, and has a core group of 12 to 15 active participants.
Members of the troupe travel to Japan for two months in the summer and train with Japanese puppeteers.
Holman said his main job at MU is to teach Japanese. He said students don’t often have reasons to practice speaking, but working with the puppeteers in Japan gives them a way to practice their skills.
Since forming, Bunraku Bay has performed throughout the United States and Japan, including the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Holman said he hopes the troupe can hold a full performance in Columbia sometime in the spring.
More information about the Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe can be found at bunraku.org.