Brit proves comic relief in Japan, abroad

by Angela Jeffs

Wearing kimono and with flowers in her hair, Diane Kichijitsu (Diane Orrett) sallies forth onto the stage of AiMesse Hall in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, before a near 100 percent Japanese audience, and within seconds has them eating out of her hand.

Famed in Kansai but less well-known in Kanto, Orrett is here on invitation, to perform a rakugo story and talk about how she came to create a place in what has been traditionally a man’s world. Rakugo, the Chinese characters for which mean “falling words,” refers to the last line of the comic monologue, which in the West more often than not means an upbeat punch line but in Japan often leaves the uninitiated in a puzzled state of anticlimax.

Connecting with her audience with consummate ease, Orrett is conversational and gossipy, poking gentle fun at Japanese culture while never stepping over the line into rudeness or criticism. In today’s story, “Wonderful Japan,” fans love her skill in pointing out all the (stereo)typical things that bemuse visitors from abroad.

Rakugo is all about word play, which is why even the most fluent foreigner often fails to totally comprehend it. The stage names of performers are also word plays. Diane sounds like daian, meaning great peace, while her stage last name, Kichijitsu, is a play on the name of an especially lucky day in the Chinese six-day calendar.

All around, the audience is laughing at the story of Jeff, who visits Japan for the first time from a small town in England. Fresh from the airport, he finds himself, starry-eyed but without a word of nihongo, dumped in Osaka’s Umeda district by his Japanese buddy Ken who has business in another part of town.

Orrett tells the story in English, but with a few phrases of Japanese to help the audience along. She then regales — with equal exuberance and in fluent Japanese, gently accented with Osaka dialect — how she came to Japan.

“After I graduated as a graphic designer in Liverpool, I went traveling,” she says later in English, her Liverpool accent still very much in evidence. Staff members have delivered her, still dressed for the stage and laden with flowers, by taxi to Himeji Station. Her progress through the Sunday afternoon crowds is a sight to behold.

“I met an American girl in New Zealand who’d spent a year in Japan and never stopped talking about it. So in Bangkok I bought a ticket — just to come and take a look.”

She hitchhiked all over Japan — an endeavor that always impresses Japanese audiences, most of whom have never even considered hitchhiking. She gravitated to Osaka because that was where her friend stayed: “She’d said I’d never be bored, people have a strong dialect like my own, and everyone’s really friendly.”

Around this time — 17 years ago — the Osaka-based performer Katsura Shijaku was doing rakugo in English to introduce the craft to wider audiences and even take it abroad.

“Shijaku-san was looking for a foreign woman to act as o-chako, meaning to set the stage. When my friend who was teaching him English asked if I was interested, I said, What’s o-chako? For that matter, what’s rakugo?”

Intrigued, Orrett went to meet him, and that was that; the job proved to be a gateway into a world that fascinated from the start.

“I’m never happier than sitting in the rakugo library researching, making costumes and learning new balloon combinations for kids shows, and being at the receiving end of so much joy when I perform.”

But first she had to learn her first story. Most are traditional (koten rakugo) but an increasing number are new (shinsaku, or sosaku, which have an even more creative image, like Orrett’s own stories). For this she approached Katsura Sanshi, the leader of one association in Osaka, asking if he would teach her.

“Sanshi-san was happy to help. He always has deshi, or apprentices. But I’ve remained independent. Even so, all the rakugo-ka (performers) know me, support me, are friends. It means I remain outside the associations, but so far no problem. I’m busy.”

So busy that she’d love to have a personal assistant. “I need time to do other things — translate my Web site into English, keep my blog up to date, meet my deadline for the monthly column I write for another paper. I want to design my own brand of clothing. And I’d like to turn all my notes scribbled over the years into a book.”

Though a clever mimic in her own home, she was painfully shy in public as a child. “It’s true. I would have died rather than stand on a stage. Isn’t that strange?” She most certainly never set out to be famous. While admitting she is ambitious, she has no apparent ego — or “side” as they say in the north of England, and rarely has time to think about the extraordinary life she is leading: living in a large house near the new rakugo theater in Chuo Ward with 98 kimono and nearly 50 obi, a packed schedule and 200 male (rakugo) drinking partners in Osaka alone. “I do drink but never the night before a performance,” she clarifies, just in case anyone gets the wrong idea.

The new theater, Temma Tenjin Hanjotei, which opened in September 2006, is the first permanent home for rakugo constructed in Osaka since WWII. Situated within the grounds of Temmangu Shrine, it draws crowds of fans and sightseers alike.

“It’s a beautiful little theater,” Orrett confirms. “I love performing there. It’s enabling more exchanges with Tokyo, and there’s an increasing number of requests from schools. Also NHK’s morning drama “Chiritechin” about a Japanese girl who becomes a rakugo performer is drawing new audiences.”

Just the day before, Diane Kichijitsu was entertaining a mixed group of hearing impaired and visually challenged: “Most definitely my greatest challenge!” She’s been learning sign language for some years now, it turns out.

Never one to do anything by half measure, she counts off any number of well-established areas of study, including ikebana and tea ceremony (with teaching licenses for both), and kimono (“if my teacher says I’m out by 2 mm, I start all over again”). She has performed in Tokyo several times, including at a national speech contest and also at the British Embassy. “I found some fab fabric in Liverpool, printed with Union Jacks (the U.K. flag), had it made into a kimono.”

She has performed in London, at a British Airways sponsored speech contest, and the Japan Foundation. No, not the Edinburgh Festival, but a good idea; hopefully sometime soon. Why does she think she is so successful, garnering such respect?

“For not giving up, perhaps. For having put the time in, and being patient and solid. I do this because I love it. Rakugo’s endlessly interesting and enables me to go here, there and everywhere to make people relax and laugh. I’m so privileged.”

As she trips lightly toward the wicket to head back to Osaka, with a trip to Nagasaki to prepare for, she still finds time to flash a smile and bow to fans calling her name. It’s fine, she insists; she only has a rucksack to pack for a monthlong break in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. “I always take February off to travel. Last year I was in Africa.”

Similarly she always finds time to go see family, normally incorporating a trip to Liverpool with an international balloon convention in Europe. But this year it will be in November, so maybe a time of change. With Liverpool the EU’s City of Culture 2008, it could well be the year to perform on her old home turf. “While I often hear myself laughing off the idea of Japan now being home, I know I live here,” she admits. “But part of me is still a traveler, passing through — telling stories and blowing up balloons — but still backpacking.”

With 98 kimono?

Home page/Web site (in Japanese but with English titles and lots of pictures): www.diane-o.com