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Bringing Japanese humor to the world

Tetsutaro Soe

Sep. 7, 2017

Katsura Sunshine is a Canadian who performs traditional Japanese comic storytelling called Rakugo. It is similar to stand-up comedy, but a Rakugo performer kneels down on a cushion, utilizing a format handed down over centuries. The storyteller uses 2 props: a Japanese fan and a hand towel.

Sunshine spent 3 years in apprenticeship under a master and learned the art form. He is the first professional Rakugo storyteller from outside Japan to perform in Japanese.

Sunshine has spent years developing his own style that combines English. He is now determined to use it to bring this traditional comedic art to audiences around the world.

Katsura Sunshine became a professional Rakugo performer in 2011. He's doing a classic Japanese story, but telling it with English.

He translates lines as directly as possible, trying to maintain the tone, timing and rhythm of the Japanese masters.

Born Gregory Robic in Toronto, Sunshine studied classics in university and became a playwright. He came to Japan in 1999 to learn about Kabuki and Noh. It was there that he first encountered Rakugo, a discovery that changed his life.

In 2008, He asked a great master, Katsura Bunshi the Six, to take him on as an apprentice. The master is famous for his original stories about everyday life. Sunshine believed the humor in these performances would have a universal appeal across cultures.

8 months later, the master finally agreed to the apprenticeship. He gave Robic the stage name "Sunshine". He hoped it meant Robic would brighten the world with Rakugo humor.

The master suggested Sunshine bleach his hair bright blond. He said that playing up the foreigner stereotype would actually help him be more accepted in the traditional Japanese world of Rakugo.

However, things had a rough start. He couldn't get audiences to listen, let along laugh.

During these times, his master's guidance and encouragement was indispensable. Sunshine says he wouldn't trade those 3 years in the apprenticeship for anything.

"He doesn't care about the details word for word, whether it's Japanese or English, because you have to make it your own language anyhow," Sunshine says. "But he'll say things like you don't see the scene you're trying to create. It's your eyes, and your imagination, and your heart, are you seeing this, are you believing the story that you're telling, very, very important."

Now, Sunshine is taking on a new challenge. He wants to bring the humor of Rakugo overseas. He is preparing to hold performances in New York starting this November. He is determined to make the show have a long run.

"I'll be in New York, off-Broadway. It's a huge challenge for me," he says.

Sunshine has spent the summer getting the stories ready for the big show.

He has asked Katsura Sanshiro, a senior storyteller, to check his performance, especially his body movements and use of props.

He is doing a classic story about a man with a know-it-all attitude, whose neighbors one day decide to play a prank on him. Sunshine chose it for New York because it is packed with Japanese culture, and laughs.

He is practicing a scene where one character is eating sashimi. But Sanshiro spots a problem.

"It looks like you're eating noodles, not sashimi," he tells Sunshine.

He says that Sunshine is holding the fan horizontally, and raising it too high, making it look like he's scooping up noodles from a bowl, instead of picking up a piece of sashimi.

Rakugo storytellers have to be very careful about the smallest details. Their body, hand, and even eye movements must be carefully scrutinized. If anything comes across as unnatural or unusual, it will distract the audience from the story.

"You're a professional Rakugo storyteller--that means you have to embody authentic Japanese culture," says Sanshiro. "You have to master every element."

Sunshine spends every moment trying to master these small movements as he prepares for his big opening.

On one day, Sunshine welcomes to Japan someone essential to the success of his New York project. Darren Lee Cole manages an off-Broadway theater where Sunshine will perform.

Cole has been in show business for more than 40 years. He is in Japan to discuss preparations.

"I fell in love with Rakugo, not just Sunshine, but the whole style and the art-form," says Cole. "Rakugo is really interesting match for off-Broadway."

Sunshine takes Cole to the old neighborhood of Asakusa in Tokyo. It is an area featured in many famous Rakugo stories.

Sunshine is determined to entertain his audience. But he also must make sure the show can succeed as a business.

"The percentage of the show that open off-Broadway and run for more than 2 or 3 months is extremely low," says Cole. "The success lies in word of mouth."

"It's a very important step, to a biggest goal of bringing Rakugo to more and more people in more and more places," says Sunshine. "And may be in the end, Rakugo becomes the English word."