By Samuel L. Leiter
Rakugo is a Japanese storytelling genre going back hundreds of years. The brief description in my Historical Dictionary of Japanese Traditional Theatre says:
A narrative art in which a single reciter tells stories, often comic, while seated on a small platform and gesturing with a fan. It is usually part of a variety show (yose). Many of its stories were adapted into popular kabuki plays, especially in the 19th century.
Rakugo—like its sister narrative art, kōdan—is still popular, albeit more from its television presence than from its performances in the few remaining variety theatres that support it. Not many non-Japanese-language speakers can appreciate rakugo, however; even foreign students of Japanese may have difficulty because of its lightning-fast, idiomatic speech.
I’ve seen rakugo in Japan but never in English, which made it such a delight to visit New World Stages to see Katsura Sunshine’s often hilarious performance. I missed him at the Soho Playhouse in 2017, when Joel Benjamin covered his performance for Theater Pizzazz, but both I and my plus-one, an American scholar of Japanese drama raised in Osaka (the heart of Katsura’s artistry), were among its loudest laughers.
Ever since Japan was opened to the West in the mid-19th century, a small number of Westerners have been so enamored of Japanese theatre arts that, like Katsura Sunshine, they took lessons in performing them. Katsura Sunshine, a stage name (family name first), was born Gregory Robic in Toronto, and lived in Japan for 21 years. He fell in love with rakugo even before he knew Japanese, apprenticed with master storyteller Katsura Bunshi VI (previously, Katsura Sanshin), and became “the first ever Western Rakugo storyteller in the history of the Kamigata Rakugo tradition, based in Osaka, and only the second ever in the history of Japan.”
This unmentioned predecessor was Australian-born Henry James Black (1858-1923), known as Kairakutei Burakku. Also unacknowledged is Matthew Shores, a current-day academic/performer clips of whose work are available on YouTube (as are Katsura Sunshine’s). Shores has a roughly similar approach to Sunshine’s, warming up the audience with a lighthearted lesson about rakugo conventions.
Before the show begins, as we hear lively Western music—including “You Are My Sunshine”—we see the traditional. vertically-striped traveler curtain associated with rakugo, bunraku, and kabuki. Overhead, in Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams’s design, are paper lanterns whose characters spell out what appear to say “New World Stages” in Japanese (新世界輝演芸場).
Sunshine, a sunny 49, his head crowned with a shock of golden hair, performs on a raised platform covered by a red rug. Dressed in a black kimono and a pink haori jacket, later changed to a persimmon-colored one, he sits, Japanese-style, behind a low table, with candlesticks to either side, and an array of screens behind him.
The show serves as a comical introduction to the artist (who once wrote a long-run, musical version of Aristophanes’ The Clouds), and to rakugo, in which the narrator uses only a fan and a hand towel to represent all props. His audience-friendly act, interspersed with adlibs, ranges from 15-second jokes to extended narratives, always with an inevitable punchline. The bits generally require two characters, indicated mainly by the direction in which the narrator turns his head.
The material is often based on Sunshine’s own experiences, covering the universal comedy implicit in a foreigner’s understanding and pronunciation of Japanese. One story recalls his exasperation buying soap by asking for “seken” instead of “sekken” (hard double-k) only to be told that what he wants is “handosōpu” (hand soap).
Lots of yocks explode during his anecdotes about the hardships he suffered during his apprenticeship under a strict master (himself a major TV personality), one who rarely offered even tepid compliments, and who was particularly dismayed when Sunshine couldn’t get an uncomprehending NY cab driver to take them to the Statue of Liberty.
His explanation of cultural differences, as comical as it’s true, includes a discussion of how one must interpret elusive verbal signals by “reading the wind” (kūki o yomu), or when he explains the varying levels of honorifics, including 47 ways to express gratitude. There’s a rib-tickling story about a man who dies young and then must answer numerous questions about his reincarnation wishes, another one about Japanese drinking manners, a description of how Japanese people give and take compliments, and a pants-wetting story about what happens when a know-it-all gourmet is tricked into eating a piece of rotten tofu, forcing him to acknowledge how good it is. Just watching Sunshine’s facial and gestural contortions is worth the price of admission.
Sunshine’s repertoire changes monthly, so what I’ve mentioned will be replaced in December by ghost stories. I’m sure you won’t have to read the wind to enjoy it.
New World Stages
340 W. 50th St., NYC
Through January 4