By Donna Herman
“I go so you know”
The invitation to review Katsura Sunshine’s Rakugo was intriguing because I’d never heard of rakugo before. The press release described it as the ancient Japanese art of comic storytelling. It turns out that’s it’s actually kind of stand-up comedy but with rules and structure – hey, it’s Japanese. Alright, it’s actually more like sit-down comedy. If you want to get technical about it, it’s really kneel-down comedy since the performers have to…yup, kneel for the entire time they’re on the stage. And did I mention that Katsura Sunshine isn’t actually Japanese? He’s from Toronto, Canada where he studied classical theater in college and then in 1999 went to Japan to study Japanese classical theater. He is one of only two westerners to ever become a rakugo master, and the first in the Osaka tradition.
As Katsura Sunshine explained to the very mixed Japanese and Western audience the night I saw it, while rakugo is a 400-year-old art form in Japan, with proscribed stories, the structure dictates that the sole performer improvises some welcome and warm up remarks before launching into the night’s main event. The classic rakugo story. The storyteller can only use two props – a fan and a hand towel. In the Osaka tradition, as opposed to the Edo (Tokyo) tradition, the storyteller kneels on a cloth with a small low table in front of them. There is no table in the Edo tradition.
Mr. Sunshine’s “improvised” opening section of the evening have been carefully thought out to engage both the Japanese and Western members of the audience. While nominally teaching us Westerners some Japanese words and concepts, by comparing say, the 47 different polite ways to say “thank you” in Japanese with the mere 15 ways to say it in English, he has both sides laughing and learning about the other culture. Mr. Sunshine has impeccable timing, and his stories and jokes about being a stranger in a strange land are mostly directed at himself and his imperfect understanding of what he’s seeing and hearing. And his imperfect ability to mimic what he hears.
His stories and jokes wind up shedding a light on what feels like a different culture when we don’t know much about it and creating some a-ha moments. As he was describing the intense obligations of a host and a guest and how you had to refuse and insist three times before accepting anything, I realized it was the exact same thing I heard from my Italian American step mother. And my Eastern European Jewish grandmother would prepare everyone’s favorite dishes and never sit down at the table to eat because she was too busy serving everyone else.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that someone like Katsura Sunshine who has attained the level of Rakugo Master – there are only 800 in the world – is an outstanding performer. In order to become one, you must apprentice yourself to a master for as long as he deems you need – this can be many years. And you have to go through three different levels to reach Master. Your readiness all determined by your teacher. Katsura Sunshine’s Rakugo is a charming, funny, and interesting evening that goes by in a flash and doesn’t require you to search your soul or make any moral decisions. What a relief!
Katsura Sunshine’s Rakugo Directed and Performed by Katsura Sunshine
Lighting Design by Yuki Nakase Link; Scenic Design by Mikiko Suzuki Macadams; Sunshine Original Song by Megahorn; Press Representative, JT Public Relations; General Manager, LDK Productions, Lisa Dozier King; Advertising and Media, Red Rising. Presented by Executive Producer, Joe Trentacosta; Marie Fukuda, Artistic Producer/ Company Sunshine. Performances at New World Theater, 340 West 50th Street, Thursdays and Saturdays at 8pm. For tickets visit: https://www.rakugo.lol/purchase-tickets