Elegantly dressed and standing up, a puppet moves ever so slightly in a traditional Japanese outfit. The head is masterfully crafted and the body takes form out of the puppeteer’s arm. Martin Holman, a professor and director of the Japanese language program at the University of Missouri, stands behind this curious puppet.
Holman came to the university in 2005 with a detailed résumé under his belt. His background in more than one language began in early elementary school with his first second language, Spanish. He eventually took more Spanish and then French, Latin and German in high school.
Holman began his undergraduate degree at Brigham Young University as a biology major.
“I enjoyed language classes but didn’t think of them as a possible career because, you know, a smart boy is supposed to be in the sciences,” Holman said.
At the time, Holman thought having a major in biology would give him more opportunities to find a job after college.
“Between my junior and senior year I was still a biology major at Brigham Young University, but I decided to take two years off to be a missionary in Japan,” Holman said.
After returning from his mission trip, Holman decided to change his major to Japanese even though he was almost done with his biology degree. He realized he could have a potential career in higher education.
After earning his undergraduate degree in Japanese, Holman began attending the University of California – Berkeley for graduate school. Holman had a fellowship to Nada University in Japan. After finishing his doctorate degree, he took a job at a Japanese university teaching Japanese literature to undergraduate students. He was there for about two-and-a-half years. Eventually, he went back to Japan as the director of the Japan Center for Michigan Universities.
During this time, he came in contact with puppet theatrics, which he had only researched in books. This moment had been building up for a very long time.
“In a way, he is a nerd,” said Chieko Kellar, Holman’s assistant professor for Japanese. “He told me that he was passionate for puppets when he was a child. He’s only a nerd for puppetry. This is his life’s theme. It has to be unique and exclusive to him. Personally, he found something he can work on for the rest of his life. My guess is he can be very special by doing those things.”
During his time as the director of the Japan Center for Michigan Universities, he was only eight miles from one of the largest puppet troupes in Japan. So, he decided to visit during one of their rehearsals. Afterwards, the troupe practiced and showed him around.
“At the end of the evening, after I watched them rehearse, they asked me if there was anything they could do for me,” Holman said. “I told them that I would really like to be trained as a puppeteer. So, they said, well come back at 7 o-clock and you can start tomorrow.”
Holman has since been officially trained in the art of puppetry and has begun teaching students on his study abroad program.
The “Iida” program, led by Holman, gives students a chance to experience Japanese culture. The program is eight weeks long. The first two weeks are spent sightseeing in Kyoto, Osaka and Nara, and the rest of the summer is spent in Iida. During their stay in Iida, the students train for The Iida International Puppetry Festival, which draws 250 puppet troupes in to perform and up to 40,000 spectators each year. He directs his own puppet troupe, the Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe, that will perform at the festival. Banraku is a specific type of traditional Japanese puppetry
“The technique behind the puppetry is actually not considered ‘Bunraku’ but actually ‘Ningyou jouru di bay’,” said Ryan Tiefenthaler an MU senior studying philosophy who performs with Holman in the puppet troupe. “Holman simply uses ‘Bunraku’ as a title to encompass the whole troupe. The troupe is recognized by the national theater in Osaka and the other puppet troupes of Japan.”
Holman commissions a carpenter who specializes in creating the wooden puppet heads. There are only a few professional carpenters in Japan who specialize in this field of work. Holman’s desire for precision of detail and passion for puppetry directly relates to his teaching in the classroom.
“He’s actually one of the very few professors that you can actually get a really good idea of the type of person he is in class because he shows a little bit more emotion and caring for his students than most professors,” Tiefenthaler said. “Especially in Japanese, which is such a small program. It’s easy for him to get to know the students. He still keeps in touch with most students.”
Holman recently performed alongside the Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe at the Asian Heritage Festival in St. Louis.
You can ‘like’ the “Bunraku Bay Puppet Theater – Traditional Japanese Puppetry” on Facebook to find upcoming events where the troupe will perform.