“Rakugo is the ART of IMAGINATION.”
From Osaka, the capital of Japanese comedy, the leading man of RAKUGO landed in New York City last month. Chopsticks New York had a chance to talk with the master of this popular 300 year old Japanese tradition.
How do you define RAKUGO?
It’s a uniquely Japanese one-man comedy show. In RAKUGO, a storyteller, wearing kimono, sits on his heels and plays multiple characters. Props are minimal: only a fan and a Japanese towel. These two items can transform into books, swords, pipes, fish poles, whatever you want. It’s a minimal style that gets the audiences’ imaginations fired up.
What makes RAKUGO so intriguing? Story itself? The style of story telling? Or is it the action?
Many factors come into play in RAKUGO. Obviously the story is important, but also gestures, the faces you make, and the technique of manipulating all those elements in harmony are vital.
Is it a high culture?
Oh, no. Mainly commoners enjoy it.
You represent Kamigata (Kyoto and Osaka area) style RAKUGO. How is it different from other styles?
The language we use is unique. And we use shamisen (Japanese three-string banjo) and taiko (Japanese drum) for background music and sound effects. This is unique to the Kamigata style of RAKUGO. The instruments keep things moving and for the audience it fills out the stage and makes it sound like a real play. People call RAKUGO “the art of talks.” That’s true, however, more correctly, it’s “the art of imagination.” Also, since foreigners aren’t familiar with the Japanese instruments like shamisen and taiko, they can enjoy the unique melody and tone at the same time.
You have performed outside of Japan many times. Did you find it difficult when you brought RAKUGO to foreign countries?
Well, I started performing in foreign countries about 7 years ago. Mostly I participated in cultural events held by embassies or consulates in order to introduce Japanese culture to that country. It was like a demonstration. Now I feel that it’s time for me to step forward and bring RAKUGO to foreign countries as a real show, not just as a demonstration. That requires a lot of preparation. I came to the US as a cultural ambassador of the Japanese government this February and stayed in New York looking for a good venue for my first American show. I was here for a month, and then I had to come back in July to promote the show.
Is New York inspiring?
Yes. I think it’s possible to create a new RAKUGO story by using what I found in New York. But since the city is so multi-cultural, multi-racial, and multi-religious, I think it would be really difficult to create a story appealing to a wide audience. In Japan, my Kamigata style RAKUGO can be accepted nationwide although each region has its own culture, but I can’t find the common denominator in New York because everything is so intermingled. What is a New Yorker, first of all? Laughter is deeply rooted in the identity of the person who creates the story and I’m not a New Yorker plus I don’t even speak English. So, I doubt if I can create a good New York RAKUGO. But if I could pull it off, that would be fantastic.
What do you think about the future of RAKUGO?
Thanks to TV and movies, RAKUGO is becoming more and more popular among the younger generation in Japan. They’re starting to think of RAKUGO as their own entertainment, not just as a pastime for elderly people. On the other hand, I have personally experienced that the punch line for Japanese also works for foreigners sometimes. So, I think the generation gap is getting narrower in Japan, and the world is becoming borderless for RAKUGO. I really wish that RAKUGO would become a common word around the world, like EKIDEN and KARAOKE. It would be wonderful if people in other countries created their own version of RAKUGO by using their folklore. I don’t think it’s necessary for them to wear a kimono. They can wear their own clothes.
How can New Yorkers get access to RAKUGO? Do you have any suggestion?
You can watch it over the Internet. In Osaka, a RAKUGO venue, Tenma Tenjin Hanjo-tei, re-opened in 2006 after being closed for 60 years. It distributes a RAKUGO performance every day on the web. It requires a fee, but it’s only $10 per month.
Please pick a must see place in Osaka.
Definitely Dotonbori. A huge crab crawling across a 3-D billboard, a doll beating a drum, a shrimp thing jumping…. Once I saw a foreign guy rush to the police box in Dotonbori and ask, “Should I pay an admission fee?” He thought he’d wandered into some kind of weird theme park.
How about New York? Is there any place that attracts you?
Hmm, Times Square.
It’s somewhat similar to Dotonbori?
That’s true. But in Dotonbori, everything is analogue. Times Square is visually stunning. “Wow, this building is made of TV monitors. Oh, that window goes right through from building to building. They’re competing with Dotonbori!” The energy of the two places is similar. People in Osaka like mixing everything up – same as New Yorkers, I think.
(Interview: Noriko Komura)
Tenma Tenjin Hanjo-tei,
The comedy house, specializing in RAKUGO. It re-opened last year for the first time in 60 years, and re-ignited a RAKUGO boom in Japan.
http://www.hanjotei.jp/index.html (Japanese only)