Fall 2007.
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Illumination magazine.
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Martin Holman with a puppet presenting the Sanbaso, a greeting to the audience that opens most Bunraku programs.

Because of its association with childhood entertainments, puppet theater seldom warrants more than a footnote in the history of Western drama. Things are different in Japan, where many of that nation's most sublime theatrical compositions were, in fact, written for puppets.

Works by Japanese literary giants such as Monzaemon Chikamatsu and Sensuke Suga used articulated wooden figures to enact poignant, often tragic, human dramas set among the merchants and tradesmen of 18th century Japanese cities. Such content was a daring departure from the historical, religious and mythic themes that dominated earlier forms of Japanese theater. Audiences couldn't get enough, and puppet theater became all the rage.

Even in today's age of anime and iPods, ningyo joruri -- a uniquely Japanese form of puppetry using teams of on-stage puppeteers, a narrator and samisen (a banjo-like stringed instrument) players -- continues to attract passionate devotees. Count MU's Martin Holman among them.

"It's just good theater -- it's good theater whether the audience is Japanese or not," Holman says. "The Sanbaso piece, for example. It's funny, has good music, great spectacle, and it's fun. I've never had an audience that didn't love it."

These days, Holman says, ningyo joruri is routinely referred to as Bunraku, a moniker reflecting the influence of Uemura Bunrakuken, a legendary 19th-century performer. Its puppets are large, usually around four-feet tall, and are manipulated using a system of rods and levers by teams of three puppeteers called ningyo-zukai. The chief puppeteer, called the omo-zukai, operates the puppet's right arm and head, including the eyes, mouth and eyebrows. The second puppeteer controls the puppet's left arm and hand, while the third, the junior member of the team, is responsible for moving the legs of male characters or, in the case of female puppets, using his fingers to create the illusion of leg movement beneath the dolls' kimonos.

It takes years to perfect these movements, at least to the standards of Bunraku purists. The goal, according to a master puppeteer quoted by scholar Barbara Adachi in her 1978 book, Backstage at Bunraku, is more than simply making mechanical characters "come to life." Puppeteers must, like all successful dramatic artists, use their own skill and stagecraft to help the little wooden actors reveal greater truths.

"The puppet has no words, but shoulders can be moved in bravado or resignation, arms raised in horror or threat, hands clenched in determination or opened in insult. A puppet's gait can express weariness or joyous expectation, the innocence of youth or the despair of old age. It is the artistry of the hara -- the inner center of emotion and spirit -- that the chief puppeteer wants to attain as he works with the left arm operator and the leg operator."

Unlike puppeteers in most Western theaters, the ningyo-zukai are plainly visible to the audience. Dressed in stark, black cotton robes, they move in graceful counterpoise to puppet characters gliding along a waist-high wall. In traditional performances, the puppeteers often remain anonymous behind black hoods, or zukin.

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