Comic Shinoharu Tatekawa hopes to win over some new fans this month when he performs a rakugo set in English.
The 39-year-old knows firsthand that even locals who are unfamiliar with the traditional Japanese form of comedy can find it a bit old-fashioned. Unlike many of his peers who grew up admiring it, Tatekawa didn’t start getting into rakugo until he was an adult.
“I thought rakugo was for old people,” he says. “I had very low expectations.”
Tatekawa, whose real name is Ittetsu Kojima, lived in the United States for seven years and became a fan of 1980s comedy films — Richard Pryor was a particular favorite — and improv groups he saw while studying at Yale University.
At 25, he stumbled into the world of rakugo when he saw a live performance by his current master, Shinosuke Tatekawa (in line with tradition, Shinoharu adopted his teacher’s last name for performances).
“I was surprised at how funny it was,” he recalls. “I was laughing out loud like I never had before.”
After completing an eight-year apprenticeship in rakugo and becoming an independent performer in 2011, Tatekawa now aspires to make the art form more accessible to beginners.
This isn’t a simple task. Rakugo dates back hundreds of years and most of the classic stories are set in the Edo Period (1603-1868). Even native Japanese speakers, like Tatekawa initially, can find it a bit of a challenge.
“Describing rakugo as ‘traditional’ in of itself creates a negative image for some people,” he says. “They think they have to learn (about history) before trying to experience it.”
Tatekawa thinks translating rakugo helps shake off any impressions that it’s out of touch with the times. He also makes sure his audience, regardless of linguistic ability, will be able to appreciate the art with all its Japanese flair. His first attempt at English rakugo was at the Singapore International Storytelling Festival in 2012.
“I thought they would be more reserved, but they were all laughing,” he recalls. “It was one of my greatest performances.”
Tatekawa’s upcoming English show, however, will be his largest yet, with an expected audience of more than 200 people. He hopes to re-create the chemistry he had with his Singapore audience, stressing that rakugo’s humor can be universal.
“Some of the classical stories are more than 300 years old,” he says. “They are still very much alive, which teaches us that humans haven’t changed that much. The idea that humans make the same mistakes, no matter when or where they are from, is part of rakugo’s charm. You can jump right in and enjoy it.”
“English Rakugo by Shinoharu 2016” takes place at Fukagawa Edo Museum’s Small Theater in Koto Ward, Tokyo, on Jan. 21 (7:30 p.m. start; ¥2,500 in advance, ¥1,800 for students in advance; 03-6146-5563). For more information, visit shinoharutokyo2016.peatix.com or www.shinoharu.com.