National | Regional voices: Chubu

Japanese kamikiri performer's elaborate pieces draw interest from readers of Nagoya newspaper

Chunichi Shimbun

Hayashiya Niraku is a 51-year-old practitioner of kamikiri, a Japanese performance art that involves cutting silhouette images out of a plain piece of paper based on requests from the audience. Adding to the challenge, artists create their pieces without drawing an outline beforehand.

His performances, mainly at yose storytelling theaters and rakugo stages in Tokyo, are classified as iromono — or variety acts other than rakugo that include magic and juggling.

During a performance at a yose theater in Tokyo’s Asakusa district, Niraku takes requests from the audience while he explains kamikiri and, accompanied by the sound of shamisen music, rhythmically uses scissors to complete pieces in a couple of minutes.

He has recently attracted attention as his designs have been published on the culture page of Chunichi Shimbun’s evening editions for the past three months alongside writer Kyoko Okuyama’s essay series on the Tenshiki Cup, a student rakugo championship held every summer in the city of Gifu.

The newspaper received a lot of feedback from its readers on the humorous and surprisingly elaborate pieces, with many asking how they are made and whether there will be an exhibition. In contrast with his speedy work during performances, he says that it sometimes takes him as long as three hours to cut an image to go with an essay by Okuyama, 52, a Nagoya resident who is well-versed in Japanese performing arts. Okuyama serves as one of the judges for the Tenshiki Cup and in her essays she writes about different feelings and relationships associated with the championship, while also introducing readers to the joy of rakugo.

Niraku carefully reads over the essays to come up with designs that reproduce the scenes that are described. He says creating images for the essays is different from his performances on stage, where cutting and talking are part of the performance.

Sometimes he offers images he has produced on the stage to accompany the essays. “Since newspaper readers can’t see the process of cutting images, I want them to recognize kamikiri also as performance art,” he said.

His works include portrayals of a number of well-known rakugo performers, which Okuyama says “are immediately recognizable just by looking at the silhouettes.”

Niraku also creates images depicting rakugo works and phrases referenced in the essays. Although it is challenging to make images for a series that runs five days a week, he says he enjoys coming up with interesting designs based on his interpretations of the essays.

Having read essays on the contest, he has become interested in the differences between the state of mind of students who decide to become professional rakugo performers and those who remain amateurs.

He also said he has felt the strong passion those involved in the contest have for rakugo, including Okuyama. “I hope (the contest) will last for a long time, because I’m sure the audience is emotionally moved, too,” he said.

“I want the contest organizers to create a section for iromono acts,” he said. “That would make it more like a real yose.”

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Dec. 21.