Tales from the East: Traditional Japanese puppets coming to Tupelo Saturday

By M. Scott Morris / NEMS Daily Journal


In America, puppets often are considered child’s play. In Japan, puppetry has a rich history of appealing to young and old, said Martin Holman, director of Bunraku Bay Puppet Theatre.
“There was a period of time when it was the most popular theater form in Japan,” Holman said. “It was more popular than kabuki, which uses live actors.”
When they visit Tupelo High School’s Performing Arts Center on Saturday, Holman and his troupe will bring Japanese stories that were originally performed in the 1700s and 1800s.
Holman first went to Japan 32 years ago. It was his dream to work with a traditional puppetry theater, but it seemed out of reach.
“They’re hard to get in … if you’re a white guy from Kentucky,” he said.
He was invited to tour a theater that had been in operation for 170 years.
“I thought, this is my chance. I thought they might laugh at me. They might sneer at me,” Holman recalled, “but I said, ‘I want to be trained as a puppeteer.’
“They said, ‘You start tomorrow.’”
It was a big moment for Holman, and, apparently, a big moment for Japan. His debut performance in 1994 attracted several media outlets.
“It was carried on the national news,” he said. “That’s how I learned I was the first non-Japanese to be trained. I said, ‘That can’t be true.’ They said, ‘You’re the first one.’”

Traveling troupe
He’s lived in Japan for about 10 years over the past three decades. Now, he’s based in Missouri, and he regularly shares what he learned.
“When we come to Mississippi, that will be our 31st state,” Holman said.
He’ll use puppets that were built in Japan. His troupe members are Americans who were trained in Japan.
“It takes three people to operate each puppet,” he said. “If you have two characters on stage, you get six people on stage. It can get complicated.”
Bunraku Bay’s visit to Tupelo is sponsored by the Japan-America Society of Mississippi. The troupe will present traditional Japanese tales that have been chosen for American audiences.
It won’t be Elmo the Monster on “Sesame Street,” but Holman promises an entertaining time.
“The puppet theater in Japan is a puppet theater for all ages,” he said. “It is not a children’s theater, but children will enjoy it.
“It has all of the drama, all of the comedy and all of the excitement of live theater,” he continued. “Chances are, you may not have had a chance to see anything like it. It’s a bargain at $5.”

Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or scott.morris@journalinc.com.