Travel & Culture

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Japanese culture and lifestyles through the eyes of NHK WORLD personalities

March 10, 2016

English Rakugo

Katsura Sunshine / Rakugo Storyteller

Katsura Sunshine studied Classics in Canada, Noh and Kabuki in Japan, and Rakugo as an apprentice to storytelling master, Katsura Bunshi VI. On NHK WORLD, he hosts Dive into UKIYO-E.

Rakugo. Japanese traditional comic storytelling.

A lone performer in a Kimono kneels on a cushion and moves his head left to play one character and right to play another. Each story ends in a punchline.

This is one of the hidden gems of Japanese culture. A 400 year old tradition of entertainment that remains almost unknown to people outside of Japan.

Why? Because humour is almost impossible to translate, right? Particularly humour that is 400 years old!

Wrong!

Rakugo is actually eminently translatable. In the last 5 years I have traveled to almost 50 cities in 15 countries over 5 continents and performed in three languages, and Rakugo seems to get the same reaction everywhere I go.

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People laugh.

A lot.

Often more than they do in Japan!

There is something else I have observed. The more directly I translate, the less I arrange or accommodate for other cultures, the more people laugh.

At first this seems counterintuitive. Humour should be the hardest thing to translate, and if it is to be translated successfully, it has to accommodate the language and culture of the audience. This is what you would think. So we have to make Rakugo into “Rakugo for Canadians", “Rakugo for French", “Rakugo for Ghanaians". But Rakugo does not need this treatment. In fact, arranging it and changing it and trying to accommodate is simply doing a disservice to Rakugo and to the audience.

How can this be?

Actually, when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. And it is the very aspects of Rakugo (old, traditional) that one would think would make it difficult to translate, that actually make it very easy to translate. And the reason is this: we professional Rakugo storytellers have to make people laugh. That is our job. Japan today is vastly different to the Japan of 400 years ago. There are many aspects of life hundreds of years ago that make no sense to people today. But if we storytellers are not understood, nobody will laugh. We aren't doing our job. Thus Rakugo has evolved into an elegantly simple comic art form that anyone today can understand, and appeals to people of all ages. Rakugo is a comic performance art that transcends time, transcends periods - Edo, Meiji, Taisho, Showa, Heisei. So if it can transcend time, it only makes sense that it can also transcend language barriers, cultural barriers, geographic borders.

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Of course Canadian humour is different to American which is different British. But the humour of Rakugo is universal. It is rooted in situations anyone from any culture can enjoy in any language.

Another great aspect of Rakugo is that it is clean. Unlike many other comic traditions, the Rakugo storyteller does not swear, does not feature racial, political, religious humour, does not mock people, generally we don't do anything to offend or divide our audience. So you can bring your children, you can come as a family and everyone will enjoy it. Unlike many traditional storytelling arts, there is no such thing as “good vs evil", no really bad characters. Even a thief will tend to be so incompetent that the audience ends up hoping he can finally successfully steal something!

One final aspect of Rakugo that makes it unique in world performance art is its two-part structure. The first part, called “Makura" or “pillow", is much like stand-up comedy. It is a conversation with the audience, featuring jokes and humorous episodes created by the performer. It is a chance for the audience to get to know the performer and vice-versa.

The second part is the story itself which consists of conversations among characters and ends in a punch line. It is unique because there is almost no narration. It is like a sit-com set hundreds of years ago performed by one actor.

Audience members in many different countries have commented to me that it was the first time they had come to a theatre and experienced two completely different atmospheres within the same performance, that of the Makura and of the story. And they find the moment of transition between the last part of the Makura and the opening of the story a particularly unique and special moment. People not only laugh at the stories and episodes, people love how Rakugo works.

I know how they feel. I loved it so much that I made Rakugo my life.

And now we have to do something about the “hidden" part of Rakugo's status as Japan's cultural “hidden gem". That's my job.

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It is currently my honour and pleasure to be hosting a series for NHK WORLD, “Dive into UKIYO-E”. Ukiyo-e wood block prints were very much entertainment in the Edo period, and each print had a story to tell, much like you would tell a story with a series of pictures in a Manga. Since Rakugo was also born in the same period, what better way to introduce the stories behind the woodblock prints than in a Rakugo style.

I love hosting shows for NHK WORLD because of how many people all around the world watch them. I was walking in Hong Kong last year and a Scottish couple approached me and said, “Aren’t you Sunshine? We watched your show on NHK WORLD two years ago and promptly bought tickets to Japan to see the sites you were introducing!” Now that is reach!

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Katsura Sunshine / Rakugo Storyteller

Katsura Sunshine was born in Toronto, Ontario, to parents of Slovenian origin. He studied Greek and Latin at the University of Toronto. As playwright and composer, his musical “Clouds" ran for 15 months in Toronto and toured Canada.
He came to Japan in 1999 to pursue studies in Noh and Kabuki Theatre, while working as an instructor of English Language at the prestigious Daigakushorin International Language Academy (DILA).
On September 1, 2008, Sunshine was accepted as an apprentice to the great Rakugo storytelling master, Katsura Bunshi VI (then named Katsura Sanshi), and subsequently received the name Katsura Sunshine.
Sunshine is the first ever professional Western Rakugo storyteller in the history of the “Kamigata" Rakugo tradition, based in Osaka, and only the second ever in the history of Japan.

Sunshine has been appointed Cultural Ambassador for the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan, and Friendship Ambassador for Japan and the Republic of Slovenia.

QuestionHow long have you been in Japan?
16 years
QuestionWhat was your original reason for coming to Japan?
To study Kabuki and Noh Theatre
Question What's your favorite scenic spot in Japan?
I love the Saruta Hiko Shrine in Ise, where one can pay homage to the god who opens the road to the future. Many artists and performers worship there at important moments in their careers.
Question What's the one thing that's essential to your life in Japan?
Humour!
Question What is your favorite Japanese word? Please briefly describe what it means in English.
石の上にも三年。"Ishino uenimo sannen"
Three years upon a rock. Anything can be achieved through perseverance. Three years is also the length of the Rakugo apprenticeship, so this proverb is very close to my heart.

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