A master of the traditional Japanese art of storytelling known as “rakugo” is embarking on his first tour of Europe, where he will perform his “sit-down” comedy with subtitles to show audiences how Japan laughs.
Shunputei Ichinosuke, 35, is taking on Europe with female apprentice Pikkari from Oct. 11 to 22, performing in Austria, Slovakia, Poland, Belgium, Germany and Spain.
Rakugo was developed by the merchant class in the Edo Period (1603-1868) and tends to be more accessible for ordinary Japanese than other traditional performance arts, such as kabuki or bunraku puppet shows.
Wearing kimono and sitting on cushions, rakugo performers use their face, body, voice and simple props to portray a range of characters interacting with each other. For Ichinosuke’s European tour, the addition of projected subtitles will allow overseas audiences with no Japanese-language ability to enjoy the jokes in real time.
With a twitch of his pliable face, the father of three can transform into a no-nonsense matriarch, a precocious child or a gaggle of elderly friends.
“It’s only one person talking, so you’d think it would be quite limited, but by working listeners’ imaginations, we can create infinite possibilities,” Ichinosuke said in a recent interview.
Rakugo skits are handed down from master to apprentice, with each performer adding their own touches. Family life, relationships and public embarrassment are all fair game.
Ichinosuke began his rakugo career 13 years ago after walking into a vaudeville theater in downtown Tokyo’s Asakusa district out of boredom and falling for the craft he says rewarded his tendency to talk to himself.
He said the reward of a good show is when the audience sends him off with louder applause than when they greeted him.
Ichinosuke consumes little comedy from outside Japan, with the exception of Britain’s Monty Python. What does Monty Python have in common with rakugo?
“It’s a little cynical,” Ichinosuke said. “And you have to understand their culture to fully get it.”
He is hopeful, however, that even without a deep understanding of Japanese culture, audiences will find something to laugh about at his shows.
When asked if humor is universal, he said the things that immediately draw laughs all over the world are not all that interesting to him. It is the subtle differences between people and cultures that are funnier, even if they take a while to sink in.
“Even if the audience doesn’t get the joke immediately, if they can have a laugh after they get home, that’s fine too.”
The latest updates on the tour can be followed on Twitter at @IchinosukeinEU .