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Kyoto comedy theater returns — and with English subtitles

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Foreign tourists to Kyoto often end up in a bubble of tour buses and traditional culture shows (five minutes of bunraku, five minutes of flower arranging, etc.), while those looking to break out and entertain themselves like the locals can run into language barriers.

Yoshimoto Kogyo, the Osaka-based talent agency and media company that manages most of the comics on Japanese television, will soon offer those tourists another alternative: live comedy and other performances with English subtitles at the newly renamed and refurbished Yoshimoto Gion Kagetsu theater near Kyoto’s landmark Yasaka Shrine.

The 502-seat theater first opened its doors in 1958 as the Gion Kaikan and is also used for film screenings, as well as the Gion Odori (Gion Dance) in November, where generations of foreign tourists have watched performances by maiko (apprentice geisha). In its new incarnation as the Gion Kagetsu, it will first host what Yoshimoto calls “preopening” shows, beginning with nightly programs (without subtitles) from May 3 to 5 for the Golden Week holiday crowd and continuing with weekend shows from May 7 to 28.

Regular shows, with subtitles, will commence the latter part of July. The exact content of the shows, as well as the details of how they will be translated for foreign audiences, “are still being worked out,” says Yoshimoto rep Hisayuki Hoshi. “Comedy is not easy to subtitle, so we want to take our time and do it right.”

For Yoshimoto, which currently manages four theaters in Osaka, five in Tokyo and one in Hiroshima, the start of live shows at the Gion Kagetsu is less a new venture than a homecoming after a 24-year absence. From 1962 to 1987 it operated a theater under that name in Kyoto, where many of its most popular acts, including some still active, polished their routines.

“Kyoto is where culture and entertainment in Japan started,” said Yoshimoto Chairman Isao Yoshino at a press conference held last Thursday at Yasaka Shrine to announce the live shows. “It’s also a place that entertainers feel a strong attachment to. So we really wanted to have ?a theater here.”

The company will use the shows at the Gion Kagetsu to celebrate its own 100th anniversary this year — and chart a course for the future. “What we should do from now is to fulfill a new role in people’s lives,” Yoshino commented. “We’re thinking hard about how we can bring a smile back to people’s faces through comedy. We hope the Gion Kagetsu theater can play a small role in that effort.”

Nobuhiro Mizutani, the president of Yoshimoto Creative Agency, the company’s theatrical management arm in charge of putting on the shows, said that to make them attractive to foreign visitors, “We’re thinking of using subtitles and acts such as magic and juggling” that cross the language barrier.

Also present at the press conference were rakugo-ka (comic story-teller) Happo Tsukitei, magician Eri Koizumi, comic “Sakura” Saki Inagaki and veteran manzai duos Nakata Kausu-Botan and Ikuyo and Kuroyo Ima — all talents on the Yoshimoto roster who are scheduled to perform at the Gion Kagetsu shows.

“I feel as though I’ve come back home,” said Botan Nakata, who had worked at the former Gion Kagetsu.

“By appearing in this theater, young artists can preserve and learn from a tradition,” commented Tsukitei. “I’m really happy that there’s now a theater in Kyoto where they can do that kind of training.”

Ikuyo, together with her long-time partner Kuruyo, a Kyoto native, said, “Kyoto is often considered a town that doesn’t open itself easily to outsiders, but it’s really a good place with a warm heart. … I hope that foreign visitors can experience a different Kyoto through laughter.”