The comedic art of Rakugo is not one of the better known traditional Japanese arts in the west. It doesn’t have any distinctive masks or costumes, such as Noh and Kabuki. It is instead performed by a lone storyteller sitting on stage using only two simple props: a small cloth and a fan. Because the action in Rakugo is entirely related through words, it is difficult—but not impossible—to translate its stories satisfactorily into English. However, it demands that the storyteller (the Rakugoka) be convincing and engaging in playing multiple roles with only subtle variations. It also demands that the audience use their imagination.
It is a rare for American audiences to see a real Rakugo performance, but UW in partnership with NHK World is bringing one of Japan’s most popular Rakugo storytellers to Seattle, Katsura Sunshine. Rakugo’s popularity waxes and wanes, but there are now hundreds of Rakugo performers working in Japan. Katsura Sunshine stands out because he is the only non-native Japanese Rakugoka officially recognized. This and his deep understanding of western theatre make him uniquely qualified to guide American audiences into the colorful world of Rakugo.
From Athens to Edo
Katsura was born Gregory Robic in Toronto. Attending university there, he studied Classics and was particularly drawn to Greek drama. Greek and Roman theatre were the foundation for much of the Western canon, so American audiences are at least more passively aware of it than they are of Rakugo. In an interview with Katsura, I asked what drew him specifically to Rakugo. Was it the differences or the similarities?
“Greek theatre was really wild,” he says, especially as many plays were staged as part of raucous contests. “Part of the way through a Greek comedy, the story stops and the Chorus comes out to address the audience directly. They mock the other shows in the contest, plead for support, flatter the audience and the judges, talk about society and politics, and campaign for first prize. And then the plot continues. Also all the roles were played by three actors. If you wrote in this style today it would feel very avant-garde. I loved it!”
“Rakugo is quite similar in many coincidental respects. The first half of any Rakugo performance is a direct address to the audience in a conversational tone—much like stand-up comedy. There is self-deprecating self-introduction, observational humor, personal experiences, favorite jokes, humorous explanations of some details of Japanese culture needed to understand the story, etc. The second half is the story proper which has been handed down from Master to Apprentice over the generations—and all the characters are played by the lone storyteller.”
It’s worth noting that there is still room for invention regarding these stories, and both Rakugo and Kabuki got their start in the 17th century, around the time that an imperial edict prevented the creation of new Noh plays. Noh was frozen in amber as a sacred art. Conversely, more populist entertainments such as Kabuki and Rakugo had to innovate if the storyteller was to succeed.
The Origins of Rakugo
Rakugo arose in the Edo era, though historians can’t precisely place when or where. It seems to have arisen in three locations simultaneously: Kyoto, Osaka and Edo, now known as Tokyo. The Kyoto style has disappeared, while the Osaka and Tokyo style persist across the country. The former comes across as more rambunctious, owing to the way that Rakugoka in Osaka would loudly gather a crowd in a public space, tempting them with a specific story. The story would not begin until a large enough crowd had assembled, Katsura explains.
Tokyo Rakugo would happen in a more cabaret-style setting and the story would be chosen by the Rakugoka depending on the audience. Katsura explains that this comes from the practical matter of knowing when to satirize one group or another. For instance, a Rakugoka in Edo would not have told a story satirizing a samurai character when there were armed samurai present. But in a crowd of laypeople? Absolutely.
To this day, Rakugo programs in the Osaka style tend to list exactly which stories will be told, whereas in the Tokyo style the Rakugoka chooses in the moment, based on the audience. It is worth noting that there is no real rivalry between the different styles, such as the rivalry one finds between different Kabuki schools, for example. There is a mutual respect for all Rakugo styles, provided that the storyteller is skilled.
Katsura is of the Tokyo school, but the programs for his two nights at UW will already be set, as he will be telling stories related to specific pieces of art. No doubt, the most famous artistic output of the Edo era in the west are the Ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Katsura’s NHK World show, Dive Into Ukiyo-E, has an international audience of art enthusiasts, as he takes people through the stories behind the composition. This will be the format of the programs at UW on November 1 and 2.
The Origins of Katsura Sunshine
One may still be wondering: How did Gregory Robic become Katsura Sunshine? After all, Japan’s culture can be notoriously closed and hard to navigate as a visitor. But that is absolutely nothing compared to the hierarchical apprenticeship systems that preserve the craft of traditional art.
As is customary, Katsura Sunshine acquired his name from his master, Katsura Bunshi VI, during his three-year apprenticeship. There is not a single day off for the apprentice, and every moment is dedicated to not just doing what the master says, but also anticipating what he may need. Katsura says that though the the experience is rigid and psychologically exhausting, it is also beautiful.
In the interview, Katsura laughs and says, “You might think that if he likes you, the master will make it easier for you, but it’s just the opposite. If he doesn’t like you, he’ll shoo you away. If f he does like you, then you’re the one he is always calling upon.”
“I went to my Master’s house first thing in the morning every day and did the cleaning and laundry, housekeeping, menial chores, and then set off with my Master to whatever work or performance he had. All your attention must be dedicated not to your art but to service of the Master—how to make his life easier and his work smooth and comfortable. You learn by observing, imitating….by osmosis really. But you learn so much.”
Unlike paying for a teacher’s time with weekly lessons, Katsura notes that one learns an entire lifestyle and way of understanding other people, which is essential to Rakugo. At the beginning, Katsura knew conversational Japanese, but he had not mastered the more convoluted polite speech, known as Keigo. Speaking to seniors requires it, as does one’s address to an audience. And there is another more subtle thing that must be learned, one that pervades Japanese culture. The idea of “Kuuki wo yomu” might be translated as “reading the atmosphere [of a situation]” and is important to skillful and diplomatic interactions on a regular basis. (In English, we might say that someone who can’t do it has a low EQ…or is just plain rude.)
As mentioned above, the Tokyo-style of Rakugo especially requires that the storyteller be attentive and responsive to the audience. Hence, Kuuki wo yomu is absolutely essential, and can’t be acquired through a text…or weekly lessons for that matter.
Says Katsura, “One of my seniors when I was apprenticing said something remarkable: ‘During your three years of apprenticeship, if you want to be extreme about it, you don’t even have to learn one story. Learn how to serve our Master perfectly. That should consume you. That will serve you so much better in your future as a storyteller than studying lots of stories and neglecting your duties. Because you only have three years to apprentice. You have the rest of your life to learn stories.’ A remarkable thing to be told, but in retrospect 100 percent true.”
Lost in Translation?
With so many peculiarly Japanese historical and cultural aspects involved in Rakugo, one might assume that it will be an alien experience, but this is not the case. It is accessible to to anyone with an appreciation for performing arts, and even allows one to pick up new knowledge about the visual arts and history through the expository sections provided by the Rakugoka.
I myself thought that perhaps there would be too much wordplay in Rakugo to translate it fully, but Katsura says otherwise.
“There is a mistaken belief that Rakugo is rife with Dajare [puns], and this is partially the fault of the very popular and perennially successful show [in Japan] Shoten, where you have many Rakugo performers trying to outdo themselves in word games. But most of the stories are not dependent on this kind of humor at all, so it really isn’t a problem for translation.”
I also brought up the fact that audiences (especially in the U.S.) are conditioned to want more sarcasm and irony than one usually finds in Japanese humor. Katsura thinks this also is not a problem, and he has the experience to back him up.
“A Rakugo story is less a dramatic version of stand-up comedy, which can be very sarcastic, and more comparable to a sitcom with one performer playing all the roles. Not all of our sitcoms are necessarily sarcastic or ironic, are they? The humor lies in the interaction of characters: familiar characters in familiar situations with familiar conflicts, with just a surprising twist here and there that makes them funny. In this sense I really think the humour of Rakugo is universal – I have yet to be told after a show that the stories would be funnier if there was more irony or sarcasm.
For all the peculiarities of Rakugo, it may help audiences see additional connections between performing, literary and visual arts. Beyond that, it may also help bridge cultures for those who are curious enough to dive in.
“Many people say, ‘You gave up your career as a playwright and became a Rakugo storyteller,'” says Katsura. “But I think nothing could be further from the truth. Rakugo contains comedy, drama, anecdotes, theatrics, tradition, innovation, everything I had loved as a playwright and student of Greek Theatre.”
What’s not to love?
Rakugo! An Evening with Katsura Sunshine
When: Tuesday, November 1 and Wednesday, November 2, 7 – 9pm
Where: University of Washington, ECC Theater (3940 Brooklyn Ave. NE)
Register online. Free and open to the public.