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Rakugo: Momentum builds to find new audiences overseas

Courtesy of Yanagiya Tozaburo

Yanagiya Tozaburo gives a rakugo performance.

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterRakugo is a one-person show in which the performer — wearing a kimono and kneeling on a traditional square cushion — tells a usually comical story, distinctively portraying multiple characters through speech and gestures.

The difference between rakugo and manzai, another popular form of comical entertainment, is simply the number of performers involved per session. While there is manzai with a rakugo-like narrative aspect, there also is rakugo rendered in a style similar to manzai. The big difference between the two is that rakugo is performed by only one person, while manzai is performed by at least two people.

Rakugo comic storytelling is said to have been born before the Edo period (1603-1867) and have a history of more than 400 years.

People called “otogishu” were the first rakugoka storytellers. They would amuse the powers of the day, like Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), by telling them the affairs of society and other stories in a humorous way.

The storytelling then became something more than just the telling of an interesting episode. It developed into rakugo due to the inclusion of a punch line, called ochi (literally, the “drop”), to effectively conclude the story with puns called jiguchi, among others.

The term “rakugo” was coined as a word written with two Chinese characters meaning “drop” (”raku” of “rakugo,” also pronounced “o” of “ochi”) and “word” (go).

Master rakugo storyteller Tatekawa Danshi, who died in 2011, defined rakugo as an “affirmation of human karma.” He explained that rakugo is something that changed desires that people are born with — to eat, drink, be lazy or make a beautiful woman his own, among others — into an art form rendered into entertainment.

Rakugo stories created in the Edo period and Meiji era (1868-1912) are called koten rakugo, or classical rakugo. Most of the authors of classical rakugo are unknown.

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    Katsura Sunshine

Anyone can become a rakugoka storyteller if taken as a disciple by a professional rakugoka. Today, there seems to be a little less than 1,000 male rakugoka and about 50 female rakugoka in Tokyo and Osaka.

Classical rakugo stories have been performed by many rakugoka over the years. They have survived by being sophisticated or changing their form to fit with the times while being passed onto younger generations.

Among modern rakugo storytellers, those who do not perform classical rakugo in exactly the same way as their predecessors, but who can perform classical rakugo by arranging the old stories with a modern flavor, seem to be enjoying popularity.

Katsura Bunshi, a popular present-day rakugoka, said, “Rakugo is a traditional form of entertainment, but at the same time, it is a popular form of entertainment that makes modern people laugh.”

Now, the internationalization of rakugo is picking up momentum. There are Japanese rakugo storytellers who perform in foreign languages, and there are foreigners who perform rakugo as professionals in fluent Japanese.

This “sit-down comedy” — as opposed to “stand-up comedy” — is making people all over the world laugh.

Yanagiya Tozaburo, 42, a mid-level rakugo performer with a 20-year career, is eager to make “rakugo” a household word in English, like “kabuki,” “sumo” and “sushi.” Tozaburo moved to New York this spring, making the Big Apple his base while traveling all over the United States to perform rakugo in English.

Tozaburo started English rakugo two years ago as a job for a language school. He decided to relocate overseas after coming to think: “It has elements of theater and is highly imbued with a sense of literature. It will be accepted worldwide as a one-person performing art.”

Compared to other Japanese traditional performing arts, such as kabuki and bunraku puppet plays, which require large-scale stage settings, the advantage of rakugo is mobility. Tozaburo plays his recorded debayashi — music accompanying a performer’s entrance onto the stage — on his smartphone via a small speaker. He can travel with one backpack that contains everything he needs for his stage setup, from the kimono to the cushion.

Tozaburo arranges his stories to suit the locality. For a story titled “Zoo,” in which a part-time worker wearing an animal costume acts like an animal in a cage, Tozaburo uses such city names as New York or San Francisco as well as character names such as John or Steve. Tozaburo is proud of his arrangement skills. “I have trained myself as a professional. I can adjust a story to fit it to the atmosphere of the local audience,” he said.

Back in Japan, a German translator and interpreter named Clara Kreft, who has lived in the country for the last 17 years, is an avid rakugo fan. She has been coordinating the dispatch of rakugo performers to Europe for eight years. Kreft has organized rakugo shows in about 20 countries, including Britain, Finland, Germany and Iceland.

In addition to Japanese, Kreft is fluent in English and French. Using those skills, she produces subtitles for overseas shows she is involved in. Before starting to make subtitles, she listens to performances or recordings repeatedly to make herself fully understand the timing of each line and word. She goes through rehearsals thoroughly so as “not to display subtitles with the wrong timing, so that laughter doesn’t start before a joke is actually spoken.”

There are also foreigners who have become rakugo storytellers whose native tongue is not Japanese. One of the pioneers in this group is Katsura Sunshine, a Canadian who in 2008 became an apprentice of Katsura Bunshi, who is highly respected among tellers of nonclassical rakugo.

Sunshine, who can perform rakugo in English and French as well as in the Osaka dialect, was determined to become a pro rakugo performer rather than telling rakugo as an amateur. “Pro rakugo performers have a certain ‘aura’ that cannot be explained in words,” Sunshine said. “I wanted to acquire it through real training.”

Sunshine plans to start rakugo performances at off-Broadway theaters from September for an extensive period. As Sunshine did, young Canadian and Swedish rakugo performers are going through pro training as apprentices.

— Morishige covers traditional performing arts.

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