The University of Iowa

UI helps bring Japanese puppet troupe to Riverside Festival Stage July 18

July 31st, 2009

Members of the community and local elementary school students had opportunities to learn more about Japanese culture and language thanks to two events spearheaded by University of Iowa International Programs, under the leadership of Buffy Quintero, International Program Outreach Coordinator.

The Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe performed at 7 p.m. Saturday, July 18 at the Riverside Festival Stage in Lower City Park in Iowa City. The performance, which was free and open to the public, was held in conjunction with the Japanese Bunraku Summer Camp offered by UI International Programs July 13-17 at Shimek Elementary School. The puppeteers performed three pieces: Kotobuki Shiki Sanbaso, Yaoya Oshichi and the Lion Dance.

The camp and performance were funded by a $5,000 grant from the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnerships, and the performance was sponsored by UI International Programs and the Iowa City Parks and Recreation Department.

The Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe offers performances of pieces from the traditional Bunraku repertoire as well as puppetry demonstrations and workshops. The troupe has performed in Japan as well as many locations in the United States including the Smithsonian, the Kennedy Center, the University of Chicago and the Japan Society in New York.

Banraku Bay Puppet Troupe is the only troupe in the United States that performs the traditional Japanese puppetry known as “ningyo joruri” or “Banraku.” The “bay” of the troupe’s name derives from the bay state of Massachusetts, where the troupe was first organized, and from the “bei” (pronounced bay) of the Japanese word “Beikok,” which means “American,” illuminating the troupe’s slogan, “Traditional Japanese Puppetry in America.”

The main performance was of Yoaya Oshichi. Oshichi, daughter of the greengrocer, must relay information and a lost sword to her lover by dawn or he will die. But on this snowy evening with the gates of the city already secured for the night, she cannot reach him. Passing near a fire tower, Oshichi realizes that all the gates will be opened if a fire alarm is sounded. But the penalty for sounding a false alarm is death. Oshichi chooses to climb the icy tower to ring the bell, a testament of her devotion to her love.

“It’s an opportunity to expand your horizons to other art forms that are available out there,” said UI graduate student Nicholas O’Brien. “It’s an ancient art form, and this is a great community for this kind of performance. It can be fun, entertaining and educational all at the same time.” O’Brien taught Japanese language at the camp. He spent the past six years living and teaching in Japan.

Bento boxes from Oyama restaurant were available for purchase, and Japanese arts and cultural activities were offered for families, prior to the performance, also at the Riverside Festival Stage.

The one-week summer camp course provided incoming fourth through sixth grade students a unique introduction to Japanese language and culture that is not available in the Iowa City School District.  Students learned about artistic traditions of Bunraku puppetry through instruction and hands-on learning conducted by a professional puppeteer.

“The kids actually get to do something while learning language and culture. So often learning about a culture means reading a book, going to a museum or watching something,” said Martin Holman, director of the Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe. Holman is also a faculty member at the University of Missouri who will teach Japanese language and puppetry throughout the week. “I want people to be doing something. If they are actually doing something with someone that actually internalizes the culture, rather than just being a viewer, they are a participant.”

UI International Programs hopes to continue to play a leading role in advocating for language and culture education for K-12 students and strives to provide opportunities for language and culture instruction, Quintero said.

“I think the camp is great because I think it really gives kids a look at something they really don’t get a chance to see ever. Japanese puppetry is a very, very old and very interesting art form, but it’s also really fun. It’s something very unique to Japanese culture,” O’Brien said.