LONDON - “It was the first time I’d performed to an audience where there wasn’t a single person from Japan, and I don’t think anyone had even been there — yet their reaction was electric,” Katsura Sunshine said with a beaming smile as he talked about his first show at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival — adding that he couldn’t wait to return to Britain in November, because he felt the people “really appreciated the humor and the language.”
Born Gregory Robic, the 44-year-old Canadian may be an unlikely ambassador for rakugo, Japan’s traditional art of solo comic storytelling that’s said to have its roots in ninth-century Buddhist monks’ efforts to stop people falling asleep during their lectures.
However, after 25 performances at Edinburgh’s New Town Theatre in August, and a few more down south in England, he thought nothing of jetting straight off to Africa to introduce the joys of rakugo — which means “falling word” (as in a punchline) — to the people of Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone before making a flying visit to Japan this month and then returning to for more shows in Britain in November.
Although there are currently several amateur non-Japanese rakugo storytellers, Katsura Sunshine is the only one to have completed an apprenticeship in the art. And six years into his career, this raconteur extraordinaire who was handed the traditional rakugo-family name of Katsura by his master, popular rakugo artist and TV personality Katsura Bunshi VI, is obviously loving every minute of his hectic show-business life.
Before he left for West Africa, I caught up with him at the sold-out, cozy Forge in North London’s trendy Camden Town. There, the audience was awash with people of all different ages and sprinkled with a handful of curious Japanese — an eclectic mix that added an extra layer of enjoyment to the show.
A large portion of his opening material centered on the struggles of a foreigner stumbling through the Japanese language, yet the real highlight of his technique is his ability to make those experiences amusing even to people with no prior knowledge of Japan.
For instance, sitting there in seiza and with rakugo’s sole permitted props of a fan and a facecloth, he had people in fits at his facial expressions and movements, while explaining his surprise at finding there are at least 47 different ways to say “thank you” in Japanese — with each becoming longer through ascending levels of politeness.
Some, perhaps nonspeakers of Japanese, laughed at how each example was a much bigger mouthful than the last, while others appreciated his lively attempts to translate the phrases into English.
Then, in another skit, he outlined some problems associated with nobasu (lengthened vowels generally indicated in romaji by the use of a macron) that can completely change the meaning of a word if used incorrectly.
“Shujin means ‘husband,’ ” he began, “but shūjin means …” At that point, giggles erupted from Japanese members of the audience, building anticipation for the vast majority eager to hear the last word: “prisoner.”
After those fast-paced ice-breakers, the tempo steadied as the content moved toward the core of rakugo; stories with gradual build to the punchline. On the menu for Camden were several of the genre’s most famous yarns, including the classic “Jugemu” about a young boy with a ridiculously long name, and “Doubutsuen,” about a hapless chap who ends up working in a zoo — as a tiger.
With these stories, it became clear that Katsura Sunshine’s greatest achievement is his respect for the traditions of rakugo. Instead of modifying the formula for Western ears, he retells the comic tales in as close to the original Japanese way as possible. Though the audience isn’t spoon-fed, and no time or rhythm is lost painstakingly explain- ing every nuance or reference, everyone appeared all the happier for that.
“I came because I’m a fan of his master,” commented Tomo Burroughs, 33. “I was really impressed how he could make rakugo accessible to non-Japanese. It was exactly the same as in Japan.”
To this, sixtysomething Ivan Bachini added: “I just followed my wife here, she’s the one with an interest in Japan, but in the end I was laughing more than she was! It was a jolly nice surprise.”
And when I recounted this reaction to Sunshine, his face quite shone with delight.
Katsura Sunshine is at The Live House Chicken George in Kobe on Oct. 20. For details, including November’s U.K. tour dates, visit www.katsurasunshine.com.