[From Decemberber Issue 2014]
KATSURA Kaishi, Rakugo-ka
In Japan there is a comic form of entertainment called “rakugo” (comic storytelling) which has been around for approximately 400 years. It features one person portraying many different characters. The storyteller sits down on a cushion and spins a tale using only a tenugui (Japanese thin towel) and a sensu (folding fan) as props. The performer is called a rakugo-ka (comic storyteller) and in theaters that specialize in rakugo in Tokyo and Osaka, performances take place every day.
Based in Kansai, KATSURA Kaishi continues to translate and perform classic rakugo stories in English. Since 1998, he has successfully performed over 300 times in 97 cities in 17 countries worldwide. “I started this partly because I loved English and longed for a chance to study abroad. My master (the late KATSURA Bunshi V) generously gave his permission, even though it was shortly after I had completed my apprenticeship.”
“At the outset, even in Japanese, I only had seven or eight stories in my repertoire,” says Kaishi. But now, after receiving many awards including the Ministry of Culture Rookie of the Year Award, and the NHK Japan National Television Award for Young Artists, he is beginning to gain acknowledgment for his abilities in Japan. Subsequently, he was appointed as the cultural ambassador of the Agency for Cultural Affairs and went on a six-month English rakugo tour in the United States.
“Driving the camper van myself, I toured around 33 cities with my family. In rakugo, movement – for example miming eating with chopsticks with a sensu or sewing with tenugui – is more important than words. It was very difficult to explain to local staff that it is typically performed on a high platform called a kouza (stage) so that the entire body is visible. They said that it was too dangerous and I had to sign a written waiver that said I would not sue even if I were injured.
“I was worried when I visited the township of the Native Indian Navajo tribe and was told that these people rarely laugh. When I tried a kobanashi (short story) about Monument Valley, there was applause and laughter from the audience and the rakugo also got a huge laugh. I was very pleased that people who knew nothing of Japan or rakugo enjoyed it,” he continues.
Performing as part of a group, I took part in the “Edinburgh Festival,” the world’s largest drama festival, in August this year. The performance, which brought to mind a “Japanese Cirque du Soleil,” consisted of physical performances, including Japanese dance, taiko (Japanese drums), and aerial dance, combined with CGI.
“The production shows how sake is created; in the role of the touji (the person in charge of a sake brewery), I was MC for the whole performance. Before the rakugo, I appeared in front of the audience with a sake bottle in my hand and gestured for them to have a drink; I was very nervous, since it was a new experience for me.” It got the highest five star rating from the “British Theater Guide” and was highly praised by the fair and exacting local media.
With his English rakugo, Kaishi has continued to break out of the rakugo sphere, by collaborating with other art forms, including bunraku (Japanese puppet theatre). “Whether it be Japan or abroad, I’d like to go anywhere where I can give pleasure with my rakugo. I’d like my dream to study drama in London to come true, too,” he says with a radiant smile.
Text: KAWARATANI Tokiko