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Martin Holman: A pioneer in Japan's puppet theater tradition

By Louise George Kittaka
The Japan Times
August 18, 2021

A Tokushima tradition: Puppeteer Martin Holman says one of his favorite aspects of performing is when his puppets perform lion dances, essentially with puppets of their own. | OMAR CAMACHO

Martin Holman’s interest in puppetry started early in life.

“I’ve loved puppet theater of all kinds since I was a child,” he recalls. “The first thing I can remember asking Santa Claus to bring to me for Christmas was a marionette.”

Little did he know at the time his passion for puppets would lead him to become the first non-Japanese to train and perform in Japan as a traditional puppeteer in the style known as ningyō jōruri, which translates as a “dramatic narrative with dolls/puppets.”

In this style, each puppet is operated by three people and performances include a narrator and shamisen player. The art form later became more popularly known as “bunraku.”

After retiring from a career in academia, Holman, 63, moved to the city of Tokushima where he now lives and works with his troupe, Tokubeiza. Together they offer fresh perspectives on what’s known as Awa ningyō jōruri (Awa is the name of the region Tokushima Prefecture is located in), a tradition that grew from Tokushima’s rural communities, where it was often performed on outdoor stages to the delight of farming families. To ensure that they could easily be seen from a distance, the puppets used in it are larger than those typically found in puppet theater performed elsewhere. The prefecture has also developed a reputation for its talented puppet makers, who supply dolls to professional troupes across Japan.

Efforts over the past few decades to preserve the art form in Tokushima have also paid off; there are currently more than a dozen active puppet theater troupes. In 2019, Tokubeiza became the newest addition.

Down by Bunraku Bay

Holman’s first encounter with Japan’s puppet theater came in university from a video about puppetry as practiced around the world. In 1978, he had the opportunity to visit Japan as a short-term missionary. Feeling a connection with the country, upon his return to the United States he promptly switched his major from biology to Japanese.

In the years that followed, as a graduate student and then a career academic, Holman returned to Japan for several stints, leading to opportunities to learn more about puppetry. A position with the Japan Center for Michigan Universities took him to Hikone, Shiga Prefecture.

“I immediately went to visit the nearby Tonda Traditional Bunraku,” he says of the trip. “I started training with them right away and continued for three years.”

The venerable Tonda troupe can trace its roots back to the 1830s, and made history when in 1993 it accepted Holman as the first non-Japanese member of a traditional troupe. He made his stage debut the following year.

“I worked hard to learn the things that my teachers taught me,” he says. “I feel that people always treated me with respect and they didn’t baby me just because I was a foreigner. I was eager to learn and I think that was evident from the beginning to the people who taught me.”

Holman has been paying things forward ever since, sharing his skills and passion for puppetry with others. He arranged many opportunities for his American university students to train in puppet theaters as part of intensive summer or year-long programs, and founded his own troupe, Bunraku Bay Puppet Theater, in Columbia, Missouri, in 2004.

“Over the years, I’ve had more than 160 students who participated in summer training programs. I recruited the best of them to form Bunraku Bay,” Holman says. “We gave more than 200 performances all across the U.S., and at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

“We performed traditional pieces that would be readily comprehensible to a non-Japanese audience. We didn’t try to dumb down the pieces for them.”

(Video)Kaiju Bunraku | Lucas Leyva & Jillian Mayer, 2017

Kaiju Bunraku | LUCAS LEYVA & JILLIAN MAYER, 2017 FROM Borscht on Vimeo.

The Bunraku Bay troupe was featured in a short film titled “Kaiju Bunraku” (2017), a particularly memorable experience for Holman. The film, by Lucas Leyva and Jillian Mayer, was screened at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival and won prizes at a number of other events.

While he makes his home in Japan now, Holman says he has confidence in the abilities of the troupe’s members to carry on while he’s gone. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has, of course, put Bunraku Bay on hiatus this past year, but it hopes to resume performances in autumn.

A new approach

Upon retiring from his position as head of the Japanese studies program at the University of Missouri, Holman says Tokushima was the natural choice for this next stage in his life.

“There is far more puppet theater going on here than anywhere else in Japan, and this is where almost all of the puppet head carvers live and work,” he says. “It’s inspiring and invigorating to live in Tokushima.”

Breaking through: When Martin Holman went to Shiga Prefecture in the 1990s, he sought out Tonda Traditional Bunraku, a troupe that dates back to the 1830s. | OMAR CAMACHO

Holman says he founded Tokubeiza in part because he had his “own ideas about what (he) wanted to do in the traditional puppet theater.” Its members are a mixture of ages and nationalities.

Only a handful of perennial favorites are performed by most Awa ningyō jōruri troupes these days, but Holman sees great potential in adapting other classic tales that have not been seen in the puppet theater before.

“Through the hundreds of years of history of the traditional puppet theater, there are many instances of stories from folk tales being adapted for puppets,” he explains, “as well as plays from traditional kyogen and noh dramas.”

One new addition to Tokubeiza’s repertoire is the beloved folk tale “Kasa Jizo,” a story about an elderly man who shows compassion for six jizo statues on a snowy New Year’s Eve by covering them with kasa (bamboo hats) that he had hoped to sell.

“We are also working on the 500-year-old comic kyogen piece ‘Kaminari,’ about the god of thunder,” Holman adds. “He trips on a cloud and falls to the Earth. He injures his back and is unable to return to his home in the clouds.”

In addition to writing, performing and directing, Holman designs and creates the bodies and costumes for the characters in his plays. He says this is one of the most challenging aspects of the job, and he is currently putting the finishing touches to the “blustery god puppet” for “Kaminari.” Puppet heads, on the other hand, are always made by experienced carvers to create the expressive and dynamic faces that are essential to ningyō jōruri.

On the stage, one of Holman’s favorite acts is the lion dance, in which the puppet he’s controlling operates its own puppet — a lion — to create an intricate dance between the puppets and puppeteer.

“The puppet is actually doing the job that a human dancer normally does, so our lion dance is something of a double-layered performance,” he says.

Holman’s ability to think outside the box has allowed him to steer Awa ningyō jōruri in innovative new directions, an effort that isn’t going unnoticed.

“Tokushima Prefecture asked us to operate the puppets for a video campaign to bring people to Tokushima during the World Masters Games,” Holman says. The World Masters Games are a sporting event for athletes over the age of 30 that were originally scheduled for May, but have been postponed until next year due to the pandemic.

COVID-19 has dealt a blow to the activities of many theatrical troupes in Japan, but Holman is optimistic that this year will see a return to a more normal schedule. Currently, both “Kasa Jizo” and “Kaminari” are set to debut in the summer, and Holman hopes Tokubeiza will get the chance to perform at puppetry festivals across the country.

“We are willing and eager to take our puppets wherever people would like to see our performances, or to smaller-scale lectures and demonstrations,” he says.

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