Storyteller broadens appeal of ‘rakugo’

Performing in English and overseas, artist just seeks to prove Japanese have a sense of humor

by Kayo Mimizuka

Kyodo

“Rakugo” artist Katsura Kaishi is trying to turn the traditional art of comic storytelling into a form of entertainment by basing his tales on daily life, and also performs in English overseas to broaden its global appeal.

“There is a stereotype that the Japanese have no sense of humor and wear business suits all the time. But I’m trying to change that with jokes,” said the 42-year-old Kaishi, whose real name is Hiroo Furuse.

“I’m hoping that rakugo, as one kind of Japanese humor, will be accepted by more people around the world as a form of entertainment rather than just as part of traditional Japanese culture.”

Clad in a pink kimono, Kaishi recently entertained about 170 students at the Shinagawa Joshi Gakuin girls’ school in Tokyo.

“There is a joke that goes like this: How would you make a Japanese person laugh on Monday? Tell him something funny on Friday,” Kaishi said in fluent English during the lead-in to the show, drawing laughter from the students.

“Well, Japanese people are said to have a poor sense of humor. But I think that’s not true,” he said.

“Recently, our tiger died,” Kaishi said, launching into a new story. His expressive movements and tone of voice were already making some of the students giggle. “He was the most popular animal here, and since then the number of visitors to the zoo has gone down,” he continued.

In the tale, which is inspired by a British short story, an unemployed man visits a zoo for a job. The manager tells him to put on a tiger suit and fight a lion in a show.

Sitting on a small cushion and using only a Japanese fan and a towel — according to rakugo tradition, only the performer and two props are allowed on stage — Kaishi acts out all the different characters that appear in the story.

The duel begins, but the jobless man suddenly becomes terrified at the thought of fighting a real lion. “The lion is coming in! Oh no, I’m going to die! Help me!”

In the end, the lion comes up to the man and delivers the punch line: “Hey, don’t worry. It’s me, the manager.”

Mari Tamura, a 16-year-old student in the audience, said: “This was the first time I had seen rakugo. I wasn’t sure if I would get the punch line, but it was hilarious.”

Kaishi made his professional rakugo debut in 1994 as a member of the famed Katsura school, and back then performed only in Japanese.

“But one day, a foreigner I met in a bar asked me to perform some rakugo there, but I didn’t really know how to convey stories in English. I couldn’t prove that Japanese humor can make people laugh,” he said.

He was so motivated by the experience that he started trying out stories in English.

After spending about a year writing stories and performing them for foreigners in English, he made his first overseas stage appearance in Colorado in 1998.

The performance was a success, and Kaishi said he was “hugely surprised” that he had managed to make people outside Japan laugh.

Ten years later, Kaishi jumped in a camper van and traveled across the United States as a government-designated cultural ambassador, performing in more than 30 cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. His wife and two daughters accompanied him on the six-month road trip.

He also visited clubs, bars, schools and even a fire department to put on shows during the trip. “(I performed at) any place where people gathered,” he said.

During a New York show, Kaishi even projected photographs onto a screen behind him — breaking rakugo’s sacred “two props only” tradition.

One story he performed was based on a train rider nodding away on another person’s shoulder, a common commuting sight in Japan that foreign visitors often find funny or bizarre.

The New York audience “absolutely loved it,” Kaishi said. “I want people to know that rakugo isn’t something difficult to understand. Everybody can see it and enjoy it.”

Kaishi also promotes his activities on Twitter and his English-language blog.

So far, he has traveled to 93 cities in 15 countries and thrilled foreign audiences with the traditional storytelling art, which dates back to the 17th century.

Articles about his English-language rakugo shows and his experiences from the U.S. road trip will be included in some English textbooks from the new school year, which starts in April.

“This makes me extremely happy. I loved English when I was a junior high school student and I memorized all the textbook contents by heart,” he said.

“Rakugo is a traditional art form, but it can also be a tool for introducing contemporary, funny Japan,” he said. “I will be happy if my performances can help people, including those overseas, to think that they can share a sense of humor with the Japanese.”