‘Rakugo’ storyteller wows U.N. staffers with imaginative comedy

by Seana K. Magee

Kyodo News

NEW YORK — Thrilling more than 200 diplomats and other U.N. staff, Katsura Koharudanji III took his traditional comic storytelling to new heights last week by becoming the first “rakugo” comic story teller to perform at U.N. headquarters.

The 52-year-old Koharudanji has traveled throughout Europe, Asia and North America over the last decade to promote rakugo. He last performed in New York for three days in 2007.

Called “Rakugo in New York vol. 2,” his performance Friday presented a classic repertoire that included “The Valuable Cow” (“Otama-ushi”), a hilarious tale about a boy-meets-girl-meets-cow, and “Plate Mansion” (“Sarayashiki”), a popular ghost story.

The charismatic Rakugo master created a striking pose dressed in kimono seated atop a cushion at the front of a large conference room usually reserved for meetings among diplomats.

In a break from his usual pattern and for the benefit of an international audience, subtitles of his “punch line” storytelling were simultaneously provided in English, Spanish, French and Chinese, which are four of the six official U.N. languages.

With only a fan and a handkerchief as his props he single-handedly played multiple parts in the first act — ranging from an attractive farm girl to a young man who pursues her to her father who tries to teach the young man a lesson.

During the second part of the show, he played a group of young men who boldly decide to check out a beautiful ghost said to haunt the Banshu Plate mansion, as well as the spirit herself.

“I liked its simplicity and the imagination that is conjured up,” said David Fernau, who works for the U.N.’s Counter Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate.

The 44-year-old South African also said he appreciated the universal comedic themes that appeared to resonate with the responsive crowd.

Unlike other traditional forms of Japanese entertainment, including kabuki and noh, rakugo centers on the more mundane trials and tribulations of ordinary citizens. It dates back to the 17th century.

“I went in not knowing what to expect, but found that it was really funny,” said Andrew Sinn, a lawyer invited to the event through a friend working at the U.N. “The punch lines were really quite something and the audience loved it.”

Sinn also pointed out that while he was reading the English subtitles, his roommate was reading them in Spanish and they laughed together at jokes sprinkled throughout the performances.

“I loved it and liked the fact that it was really witty, which I had not associated before with traditional Japanese culture,” said Shani Ross, a 29-year-old U.N. intern who brought her friend along just to find out more about Japanese comedy.

Speaking through a translator following the show, Koharudanji explained that while he had taken Rakugo to many countries before, it was his first time to perform for such a multicultural crowd under one roof.

His objective was met and he said he was “fulfilled and happy” to be able to make so many people laugh at such a symbolic and important place. “If people laugh, then there is peace,” he added.

The rakugo master started training in 1978 and broke out onto the international scene by becoming the first Japanese comedian to participate in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2000.

Six years later, the Cultural Affairs Agency appointed him as a special adviser for cultural exchange. The following year, the Osaka native received an award for excellence for the Cultural Affairs Arts Festival.

Koharudanji was accompanied by a live quartet with a shamisen, “taiko” drum and “fue” flute players.