When I met Canadian performer Katsura Sunshine at Camden Lock in London, he was wearing a denim kimono and a bowler hat.
“What was your original name?” I asked.
“Gregory Conrad Robic,” he told me. “I’m a Slovenian citizen, born in Toronto.”
“So why are you doing Japanese stuff?” I asked
“In my youth,” he told me, “I was writing musicals based on Aristophanes. One musical version of The Clouds ran for 15 months in Toronto. As I was researching, I read that ancient Greek theatre and Japanese Noh and Kabuki had all these similarities yet there was no chance of cross-pollination. They were coincidental similarities. I thought that was really interesting, so I went to Japan to see Kabuki. I intended to stay for 6 months, but 18 years went by and now I live in Tokyo and London.”
“Half and half?” I asked. “You are based in Tokyo and Camden Town?”
“Yes, for the last few years. I am going to perform at the Soho Playhouse in New York in November and then I might move to New York. Nothing is planned. I might not.”
“So,” I asked, “how are ancient Greek theatre and Japanese theatre similar?”
“Use of masks,” said Sunshine. “And the same actors playing different roles. And the musical instruments are very similar.”
“And, from Noh and Kabuki,” I said, “you got interested in other styles?”
“Yes. I loved being there so, after five years, when I could actually speak some Japanese, someone introduced me to Rakugo performance, which is quite inaccessible to a non-Japanese speaker; it’s not commonly done in English. Kabuki is very visual, but Rakugo is basically kneeling on a cushion and moving your head left and right to delineate different characters.”
Sunshine is currently the only professional non-Japanese storyteller officially recognized by the Kamigata Rakugo Association.
“It’s traditional Japanese storytelling,” I said.
“So what attracts you to Rakugo?”
“The simplicity of it. All you need is a kimono, a fan and a hand towel to create a storytelling world for people. The first half is a lot like stand-up comedy, where you are just doing anecdotes and trying to feel out the audience and, while you are doing that, you are trying to figure out which story to tell… When you decide which story would suit this audience, you take off your upper kimono and launch into the story.
“The stories have been passed down for 200, 300, 400 years from master to apprentice, from master to apprentice. There is a shared pool of stories. My own master (Katsura Bunshi VI) has made up around 250 different stories.”
“The style of the stories,” I said, “is traditional but the details in them could still involve something like travelling on a metro or in an aeroplane?”
“Yeah. Stories about city life, the neighbourhood, human relations. The style of the story transcends the centuries.”
“So when you tell a story,” I asked, “are you improvising details within a template story?”
“No. You improvise in terms of the choice of material but the actual material is set. You limit yourself to two characters in conversation or, at most, three and every story ends in a punchline, as if it were one long, extended joke.”
“A funny punchline?” I asked.
“It’s either funny or it’s wordplay or it’s clever, but it’s something that ties the whole story together in a satisfying ending.”
“You said ‘wordplay’ OR ‘funny’,” I pointed out. “As if Japanese wordplay is not necessarily comedic.”
“There are so many levels,” Sunshine explained. “Japanese has a limited number of sounds so there are many levels to wordplay. Some are funny; some are beautiful. It’s not always making someone laugh with wordplay.”
“So sometimes the audience just appreciates the cleverness?”
“There are basically three types of venue,” I said. “Comedy, theatre and music venues. Which is Rakugo most suited to?”
“That’s an interesting question,” said Sunshine. “It is a theatrical form that happens to be comical.
“The first year I went to the Edinburgh Fringe, I listed myself in the Comedy section, but I think a lot of the audience were expecting guffaws from the very beginning. It is storytelling, but not laugh-a-minute and there is a through-line and I don’t think it suited that audience. The next year, I put myself in Theatre and I think it suited the audience much better.”
“How many years have you played the Edinburgh Fringe?” I asked.
“This would have been the fourth year, if I had made it. I had to cancel my whole run because, once you get out of hospital, they instruct you not to fly for a certain amount of time.”
“And you were in hospital,” I prompted, “because you had…?”
“Deep vein thrombosis and Economy Class syndrome – pulmonary embolism. I had one long flight back from New York which… I think that’s where I contracted it.”
“But you are OK now?”
Earlier this year, in March, Sunshine played one night at the Leicester Square Theatre in London, packed to its 400-seat capacity.
“You are,” I prompted, “doing ten more shows at the Leicester Square Theatre starting this Sunday and running until October 15th.”
“Yes. Rakugo is surprisingly translatable. I don’t really adapt the stories. They are directly translated into English. The points where people laugh in Japanese are generally the same points where people laugh in English. The humour of the traditional Rakugo stories is very situation-based and character-based – miscommunication; husband and wife fighting; a thief who never manages to steal anything. It doesn’t depend on the intricacies of language as much as situations which anybody in any culture can understand.”
“Comedy audiences in this country,” I said, “are maybe in the 20-35 age range. Below that, they can’t afford to go out a lot. Over that, they may be stuck at home with children. So the material is aimed at younger adult audiences.”
“Rakugo is very ‘clean’,” said Sunshine. “Very family-oriented, so the whole family come; they bring the children.”
“Is Rakugo dying out in Japan,” I asked, “with each new generation?”
“No. There are 800 professional storytellers in Japan and they all make a living from it. There’s a huge number of shows going on every day all over Japan, particularly in Tokyo and Osaka, but we travel all over the country all the time.”
“Is there storytelling on Japanese TV?”
“Not too much. Storytellers get on TV in the variety shows.”
“So it is not dying out?”
“No. No chance, though it goes in waves. Maybe every 3 or 4 years, there are TV series looking at Rakugo and that gets people interested again. In terms of the number of storytellers, it’s at its peak right now.”
“Men AND women perform?” I asked.
“It’s traditionally quite a male world, but now more and more women are joining the ranks. Out of the 800 storytellers, there are maybe 40 or 50 women. About 30 years ago there were almost none. In the Osaka Tradition of storytelling, the most senior Master is a woman and she is I think under 60 years old.”
“When you do your shows in Japan,” I asked, “do you see the audience?”
“Yes. One big difference to Western theatre is that, in Japan, we keep the house lights on. You want to see everybody in the audience. The visual communication is very important.”
“The lights will be up at the Leicester Square Theatre?”
“You have,” I said, “posters promoting the show on escalators in Leicester Square tube station.”
“And in Piccadilly Circus station,” said Sunshine. “My dream was always to perform in the West End with posters on the escalators and my face on a London taxi.”
“You have ads on taxis?” I asked.
“Well,” said Sunshine, “to really advertise effectively on a taxi, you need about 200 of them.
“We just got one taxi painted. It is about £250 to have it painted and then something like £200 per month for one taxi plus £75 for one hour with a driver.
“So we paid a driver for two hours and just took pictures all round London. So, in terms of social media, the cost to have a Sunshine taxi all over the internet was maybe £600.
“When I put the pictures up in Japan maybe six months ago – six months before these shows in Leicester Square – people were like: Man! You’ve made it! Sunshine is a big success in London!”
“And,” I said, “the name Leicester Square Theatre will impress the Americans.”
“You are a very clever man,” I said. “And it is a very nice denim kimono.”
“I designed it myself,” Sunshine told me. “The sleeves are removable so I can change them. I will wear a more traditional kimono on stage.”
I did not ask him about the bowler hat.