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Rakugo in English

Just came home from a performance of Rakugo in English, by Kaishi Katsura, who was a traditional Rakugo performer before he decided he wanted to share the spirit of Rakugo with the world, and began performing Rakugo in English in 1997. He has since performed in more than 70 cities, and done more than 300 performances world-wide.

Rakugo, in case you weren’t aware, is a traditional comic storytelling art that began in the Edo era and continues even today, with a long history of over 400 years. Some stories are recycled through the years, and some stories are revamped; in Kaishi’s words,

“It may be traditional, but it is anything but old-fashioned. Throughout its history, storytellers have always put their own modern stamp on the old stories, and are always coming up with new stories as well!”

My first introduction to Rakugo was when I watched the Japanese drama Tiger & Dragon about 3 years ago (yes, I know, I gain most of my knowledge of Japanese traditions through anime/manga/dramas; it’s a terrible thing), which was 11 episodes long (and it even came with a Special, which you must watch before starting the series, yes, I know, strange, but it wasn’t done chronologically…but since the whole drama’s completed now you might as well try to make sense of it chronologically). It starred Nagase Tomoya as Yamazaki Kotora / Hayashiyatei Kotora / Tora / Toraji / Toravolta and Okada Junichi as Yanaka Ryuji / Hayashiyatei Kotatsu, and these two boys absolutely made my day. I laughed so hard throughout the drama it was hard-pressed for me to remember when I didn’t love it (I never not loved it I think). In any case, I don’t think I’ll start a review on Tiger & Dragon now since I love it so much it’s quite hard to get me to shut up about it, but do watch it if you haven’t, since I highly recommend it! (It gets 5 out of 5 stars both acting and plot-wise from me, although I understand from my friends that not everyone enjoys the show; some say it drags a little in the middle, starting from about episode 5 or 6, but that never happened to me, so…)

Moving back to Katsura’s rendition of Rakugo in English. The performance began at 8 pm and ended in an hour (or so), which felt much too short since we were all enjoying ourselves thoroughly. Although I had issues with the emcee who sounded like she was faking her accent (I hate it when people do it and sound abnormal, the way most Asians do when they’re trying to speak to Caucasians, although I admit I do it myself, sigh) and trying much too hard to be funny as well (just give it up girl), I was practically wheezing with laughter every time Katsura said something.

Understandably, he didn’t try to give us too many of the really traditional Japanese rakugo stories (I love the story Manju Kowaii, which means in literal translation, “I’m Afraid Of [Japanese] Dumplings”…I’ll share the story on another post/page if I have time), so I was a little disappointed that the rakugo stories he presented catered so much to an English audience – so much so that, for many of them, you could literally see the punchline about 5 lines before it occurs.

Of course, the best thing about rakugo is that, in rakugo, because so many of the stories are recited repeatedly, audiences do actually know many of the rakugo stories even before they watch the performance (take for e.g. manju kowaii) – what makes rakugo special is in the way the rakugoka (the performer of the rakugo) does his performance, or the way he presents his stories (which may be different from his master’s / other rakugokas). This held true for Katsura-san’s rendition – even though I saw the punchline coming, and was giggling in my seat in the silences before he even performed it, his expressions and his mannerisms were still priceless, and caused many a member in the audience to burst out laughing unexpectedly.

His rakugo stories were split into 3 sections, interspersed with various interesting tidbits about rakugo (where it was first performed: a temple; when it first started: Edo period, 400 years ago; how many rakugo performers there are currently: over 700, and they earn income equivalent to movie actors; how to become a rakugoka i.e. undergo apprenticeship for 3 years and suffer without money, girls, or free time, etc). I was a little afraid that the audience might not get the jokes, but since everyone was practically laughing continuously throughout the programme, my fears became unfounded.

The first story he shared was about a man who wanted to hire a rickshaw (I can’t remember what the Japanese equivalent is anymore) to get him to church. First, he hired one that was so slow, even a grandmother walked faster than him. The slow rickshaw puller even had to get the customer out of the shaw in order for him to help push the shaw up a steep slope…and unfortunately, he didn’t anticipate that what goes up must eventually come down, so when he crossed the peak, the puller ended up rolling down the slope, leaving the customer stranded.

The man then said to himself, “I still need a rickshaw puller to get to the church on time. But this time I shall choose carefully.” So, he picked another rickshaw puller, who looked strong and able and who yelled confidently of his speed and strength. When he got into the rickshaw, the puller said to him, “Hold onto the bars, close your mouth, shut your eyes and off we go!” and shot off at the speed of light. The man was shocked at the way the rickshaw bounced up and down, up and down, and so he yelled at the puller, “Why is it doing that?” The puller answered, “Oh, we’re going very fast on a road that hasn’t finished construction yet. You’d better stop talking. One of my other customers tried to speak here and ended up biting his tongue and bleeding to death.”

….you can imagine the man’s reaction when he heard that.

Anyway, the man realised that the puller was heading in the direction of the train tracks, and of course, what else would come along but an express train? The man yells to the puller, “Slow down! We’re going to hit the train!” and the puller instead speeds up, yelling back, “But that’s what makes it so exciting!” The train whistles past them and the man grabs on and prays. They aren’t hit, and the man heaves a sigh of relief, whereupon the puller tells him, “You’re lucky. Sometimes the back of the rickshaw gets hit by the train and my customers get killed.” (Black comedy here, anyone?)

Then the puller stops and goes, “Sir, we’re here.” “…Where?” “…Here.” Grains of sand blow into the man’s face. “…This isn’t the church.” “Did you say church, sir?” “Yes, I said church.” “…Oh. I heard beach. Nevermind, sir, we’ll just head back the same way we came.” Before the man can do anything to protest this (and I think he would have protested, just for the hell of it), the puller goes off and heads straight back for the train tracks again, and this time, a super express train heads straight for them. The man yells, “We’re not going to make it! You have to stop!” but the puller only speeds up the same way he did before. The man faints, and is woken up moments later by the driver. As he wakes up, he sees the most beautiful flowers he’s ever seen in his life.”Where are we?” He asks the puller.

“Heaven, sir.”

Finito. It’s a great rakugo story, with many different elements you can analyse (if you’re in a literary mood) or just laugh at (if you’re in the mood for a bit of humour). There’s a moralistic point of view here (don’t judge by appearances?) interspersed with lots of black humour (the whole ending up in heaven, which is the final destination, one can argue, through which the church is supposed to be a medium). I quite enjoyed this one, but perhaps it’s only better if you go back and think through it again since a friend of mine confessed this was the section she liked the least.

Katsura-san’s second section was more condensed, and concise. He showed the audience how the rakugoka performs an entire show (rakugo is like a one-man standup comedy, except sitting down) using only 3 props: the paper fan (扇子, “sensu”) and a small cloth (手拭, “tenugui”), and perhaps the most important prop of all: an audience’s imagination (vital point, this one. No imagination = no story). The rakugoka kneels on a cushion, called the Kōza (高座), and performs in a special theatre called the Yose that was built for rakugo storytellers. In this section, he specifically showed how the rakugoka is able to act several different characters, and how he is able to use his acting abilities to show the audience, for example, a difference in the size of the house that a person is in.

The example he used was short, but hilarious. In a normal house, a person would call out, “Hey! You!” “Who, me?” “Yes, you, come on up over here!”. In a big house, a person would call out, “Heeeeyyyyyyyy….Yooooouuu.” (The way he pulled his echoes were supremely well done) “Whhhoooo, mmmmeeee?” “Yeeeesss, yoooouuuu, cccooooommme ooon uuuppp oovvveerr hhhheeerreee….”. In a small house, a person would call out, “Hey yo – Oh!” (Shock because the other person is right over the shoulder). We all died laughing.

He also showed us how rakugokas eat noodles, which was extremely difficult, since they make a slurping noise – I have no idea how (this part was interactive, so it was quite fun). He finished it off by telling us, “That was disgusting!”

The third and last section was also quite short, and to be honest, this was the one where I saw the punchline about 5 lines ahead and started giggling way before anyone else did, so it was a little embarrassing.

…this post ended up being a little longer than I expected, and I need to sleep for work tomorrow, so I guess I’ll have to continue tomorrow. Anyway, great work, Katsura-san, and do keep the spirit of rakugo alive and well! I want to be able to understand Japanese well enough to go watch a genuine rakugo performance in Japanese, and be able to laugh at all the jokes. Ja, oyasuminasai, minna-san!