“What’s remarkable about rakugo is it’s––what you’d say in Japanese––bankoku kyotsu. Anybody can laugh at rakugo.”
Katsura Sunshine, born Greg Robic in Toronto, is the first bilingual rakugo-ka, a traditional Japanese comic storyteller. He has often performed outside Japan and spread rakugo, a centuries-old storytelling art developed in Japan. Starting this November, he will have a series of performances bringing his unique yet authentic rakugo to Off Broadway. Chopsticks NY sat down with him to ask how he mastered this foreign, traditional art form and incorporated his own style into it.
Could you define rakugo?
Rakugo is kimono comedy. There is a guy on London live TV who called me the King of Kimono Comedy, and I thought that was a great description because, up until now, a lot of people who have done rakugo in North America and in Europe have called it “sit-down comedy” because they’re playing on “stand-up comedy.” But the thing is, you’re sitting down, but you are really kneeling, not sitting. The other thing is that there’s nothing Japanese about “sit-down comedy.” So I really love the term that he called it––kimono comedy––because in one second, you know it’s Japanese, and that the person is wearing kimono, and that it’s funny.
So, it’s a 400-year tradition of Japanese comic storytelling. The stories have been passed down from master to apprentice, master to apprentice, through the generations up until this time. In order to become a storyteller, you need to do an apprenticeship. And this apprenticeship has also been the same for the last 300 years. You go to your master’s house every day, do the laundry, do the cleaning, clear his bags, no days off, you study by watching––they say, “gei wo nusumu,” or “steal the art.” So, the master’s not teaching you so much, but you are with him from morning to night, so you are watching and learning.
But also during that time, the master takes care of you. During the apprenticeship, you don’t have to pay for your rent, you don’t have to pay for your food. The master takes care of everything. You also join your master’s family, so you receive a rakugo storyteller’s name. So my master’s name was Katsura Sanshi, and he gave me “Katsura San-” and then the Chinese character for “shine,” so “Katsura Sunshine.” So all of his twenty-one or twenty-two apprentices––I can’t remember how many we have now––have “Katsura San-something.” And then you become part of the rakugo family, and I can trace my rakugo family back––my master’s master, his master––for 200 years.
What is the difference between koten and shinsaku rakugo?
Koten are the stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. So they are 100 years old, 200 years old, 400 years old. And the sosaku rakugo or shinsaku rakugo are original rakugo stories written by someone more recently––for instance, my master. So if I do his stories, he wrote them maybe ten years ago or twenty years ago. But my master still stays very much within the tradition of rakugo, so it’s all a very traditional art form, whether you are making your own story, doing your master’s story, or doing very old stories.
What’s the difference between Kamigata rakugo and Edo rakugo?
There are two main traditions. Kamigata is Osaka, and Edo is Tokyo. Altogether there are maybe 800 professional storytellers in Japan, maybe 40 women now––so more and more women are joining every year, but it’s still a very small percentage. And as far as foreigners go, I was the only one until last year, but now two more have joined. There’s one Swedish guy and one Canadian guy now in apprenticeship.
How do you define your style?
I was in the Kamigata rakugo tradition, so I think it’s quite Osaka-style. So even a lot of people from Osaka, when they hear my English rakugo, they say, “You are speaking English, but it sounds like Osaka dialect.” That’s my favorite compliment. If they compliment me like that, I’m very, very happy. Because that’s the atmosphere I’m trying to portray. So my style of rakugo is quick, fast-talking, very energetic, concentrating on the humor, good rhythm, and the Osaka spirit.
You perform both in Japanese and English. But the spirit is the same.
Yep. The spirit is the same. The translation is direct translation. I’m not changing anything. When I put it into English, I try to keep the same rhythm––even if I was speaking Japanese, the same rhythm. You say in Japanese ma, which is timing. Also, I have a certain method of translating and of performing––I try not to use any slang or even contractions. Like, I don’t say “don’t,” I say “do not.” I don’t say “won’t,” I say “will not.” So what I’m trying to do is erase the nationality of the English. Because if I speak in my own Canadian English, then the story becomes a Canadian story. If I speak in Scottish English, it becomes a Scottish story. So I try to make it very textbook English. So if you were going to say, “Listen, Jinbei-san, I just don’t really understand what you’re talking about,” I would say, “Jinbei-san, I just do not understand what you are talking about to me right now.” Nobody speaks like that––in any country. So it becomes like a white canvas. And then if I paint the Japanese atmosphere on that, people can imagine the Japanese atmosphere. So this is a method of translating which I’ve developed over the last five to six years touring all over the world and performing for people in English. And I don’t think anybody uses this method yet, but if it’s a Japanese person performing in English, they don’t need that. I’m a white person, obviously Canadian, in a kimono, so I have to adjust my language to be––what you’d say in Japanese––mukokuseki or “not of any nationality.” But within that, it’s very direct translation. I’m not changing the stories. The performance I do in Japan in Japanese is exactly the same as what I do in English in New York.
What’s the audience reception like in other countries?
It’s great. What’s remarkable about rakugo is it’s––what you’d say in Japanese––bankoku kyotsu. Anybody can laugh at rakugo. And a lot of people in Japan are surprised. “Rakugo is traditional Japan, how can people understand it?” And it’s a very interesting question––I had to think about this a long time. Rakugo is traditional and has many traditional aspects of Japanese culture in it. But you don’t need to know the culture to laugh. The rakugo jokes and the points of laughter are not something like from the Edo period that nobody knows unless they research or something. You don’t have to know about what a nagaya is to laugh. The people living in a nagaya––tenements––there are very thin walls. They can hear their neighbor talking. So then the neighbor is talking and says something bad about me, and then I say, “Why is he saying something bad about this?” And then he answers, “Because I don’t like you.” So, oh! He heard me, too! Right? So people can laugh about that. Anybody knows what thin walls are. And I’ve heard my neighbor, and he talked about me. So you don’t have to understand nagaya to understand that joke, right? And I think rakugo is all like that. The jokes are ningen kankei––personal relationships, human stories.
Western people use many actions and gestures while speaking, but Japanese people are quieter.
For me, as a Canadian, as a foreigner, I watch myself on video. I have to be very careful because I tend to have too many actions. So you said rakugo has very many actions, but rakugo is also very controlled. My hands are out of control often, especially when I don’t know a story so well yet. Too many hand actions come naturally, and it makes my rakugo look less Japanese. This is something I have to be very, very careful about.
Is it like choreography?
Exactly. I really have to learn to choreograph everything. So I’m only moving my hands and my body when I really need to. But it makes it a big difference. I’ve had some festivals when I’m doing fifteen shows or twenty shows in a row. And as I get used to the story, I stop moving my hands because while I’m not thinking about the story anymore, then I can think about my body. And say, “Okay, just don’t move unless you need to!” But that’s a matter of controlling and rehearsing and practicing and also just getting used to––getting comfortable with––the stories and the characters. So by the time I get to Broadway, I should be okay! [laughs]
by Katsura Sunshine