I first met Katsura Sunshine back in 2017. He lives in Japan, the US and Canada and currently performs an ongoing monthly rakugo (Japanese storytelling) show at the Leicester Square Theatre in London AND a regular monthly rakugo show at the New World Stages in New York.
A couple of months ago, I saw Sunshine’s London show, not for the first time. On that occasion he had, as his special guest, London-based Italian comic Luca Cupani.
They are together again at London’s Leicester Square Theatre this Sunday.
We talked on a Zoom call this week. Somewhat appropriately, given the multi-cultural and multi-national mix, Luca was in a hotel room in Milan, Sunshine was in a living room in Toronto and I was at the Soho Theatre Bar in London.
JOHN (TO SUNSHINE): How long are your monthly London and New York shows continuing?
SUNSHINE: They’re both indefinite runs at least for the next year. I’ve just been talking to the Leicester Square Theatre about next year’s dates and the New York show has also been confirmed to the end of 2023.
JOHN: Two months ago, Luca appeared in your London show. He did rakugo (for the first time) and his stand-up; and you did stand-up (for the first time) and your rakugo.
SUNSHINE: It was a lot of fun, just like ‘appreniticing’ each other. Luca is teaching me stand-up and I’m sort-of teaching him rakugo.
JOHN: So how did Luca – an Italian – get involved in performing at London’s Leicester Square Theatre with a Canadian who does traditional Japanese storytelling in New York?
LUCA: Sunshine offered me the chance to be on stage and it felt like a crazy idea so I couldn’t say No. I am enjoying being out of my comfort zone. I’m already an Italian doing comedy in English in London, so I’m all for cultural cross-over.
SUNSHINE: I met Luca eight years ago at the Edinburgh Fringe and we’ve been friends for all this time. We’ve gone to see each other’s shows. When he told me he was going back to the Edinburgh Fringe this year for the seventh time – I’ve performed there four times… Well, I know how much it costs and the producer side of me said:
“Luca, to save money, just rent a West End or Broadway theatre and add that to your resume. Or, instead of that, just join me! I’ve already got the theatre. I’ll put a kimono on you and we’ll turn it into a thing. It would be fun to do it together!”
LUCA: And it IS fun. I quite like the rules of rakugo. Okay, I cannot yet follow all of the rules but it’s fun to try to follow some of the basic rules. It’s very different from what I normally do and that’s why I like it a lot. You show yourself as being vulnerable and, even if you fail, it is still funny for the audience… I think!
JOHN: As I understand rakugo, there are set, pre-existing stories, so you are not able to script your own performance like in stand-up comedy?
SUNSHINE: Technically, you make up the first part and then you lead the theme of your made-up material into the scripted story which has been passed-down from master to apprentice through the ages. So the first part is a little bit like stand-up comedy and the big laugh is at the end. I think Luca’s perfectly comfortable with that except he has to kneel in a kimono.
JOHN: What was the most difficult thing about doing it?
LUCA: For me, kneeling down on the stage in a position which is not very comfortable, using the props in the correct way and remembering the basic rule that you look in two different directions to portray two different characters.
In stand-up, you usually talk about yourself and you are being yourself. In rakugo you have to create a story and sketch two characters very quickly and in a different style. That’s the most difficult. And the most fun.
JOHN: Sunshine, I think in the show two months ago that was the first time you had performed Western-style stand-up. What was that like for you?
SUNSHINE: At first glance, it seems like the same as the first part of a ragugo show, but the rhythm of stand-up is different: the laughs are coming much more quickly. When I was standing in front of the audience and talking in my usual Rakugo way, I sort-of felt the audience’s slight impatience more than I would have in storyteller mode.
But that sharpened me up a bit.
I cut the material down; I cut words down. I got to more of a stand-up comedy rhythm. It was a great feeling and quite different to performing rakugo.
JOHN: And in the show this coming Sunday… ?
SUNSHINE: We will both do some (solo) stand-up comedy and both do some (solo) rakugo. Exactly the same format as before.
It was SO much fun last time. To have someone in the dressing room with me and exchange ideas about comedy and the different types of both stand-up comedy and rakugo. It was brilliant.
For me, presenting rakugo alone in New York and London… There’s a formality to rakugo. You’re in the kimono, you bow – there’s a lot of formality – and people don’t want to insult the culture. I always have to get the audience on board… This is comedy! You can laugh! Relax!…
But when Luca and I walked out at the beginning of our dual show at the Leicester Square Theatre and the first half was each of us doing (solo) stand-up comedy, we had the audience going: WOOAAAHHHH!!
They knew the routine for stand-up comedy. You cheer or laugh your head off and the performers will give you all the better performance.
So leading into rakugo in the second half from a base of stand-up comedy which the audience already understood and could enjoy and relax with was a completely different experience. It was just so much more fun and easy to perform.
JOHN: Luca: did you learn anything from performing Japanese rakugo that you could use in your Western stand-up?
LUCA: The story I had was short but fun and it involved a lot of physical stuff. In rakugo, you use your face more often than I usually do when I talk. So I think it helped me to be more expressive. Also, if you know where you want to go, you can play a bit more in-between.
In stand-up, you need laughter all the way though. You ride on the energy of laughter, otherwise it doesn’t work. In a stand-up routine, you don’t always know where you’re going because you wait for the reaction from the audience. But, in rakugo, the set-up is way-way longer and you can prepare the audience, warm them up, play with pauses.
Last time what happened – and it wasn’t planned – was that, at the very beginning, when we introduced the show, we inadvertantly almost did some manzai which is another Japanese comedy form with two artists – one plays the smart guy, the other the foolish guy. Sunshine was smart; I was foolish. When we were talking to the audience and tried to warm them up, it became a sort-of improvised manzai that we hadn’t planned.
JOHN: And you will be performing together again?
SUNSHINE: I hope so. This is the last show of this year, then we’ll be starting up again next February, dates to be confirmed.
JOHN: Sunshine: how long has it taken you to get to this stage as a rakugo performer?
SUNSHINE: I’m in my 15th year. I started my apprenticeship in 2008 and it’s three-year apprenticeship – so 2008-2011. It’s basically indentured servitude.
I was with my master (Katsura Bunshi VI), no day off, for three years – cleaning his house, doing the laundry. You’re just with the master every waking hour for three years and you just watch and learn.
In 2011, I finished my apprenticeship so I’m in my 14th/15th year as a professional storyteller, which qualifies me as a master. I could take apprentices now, if I chose or if someone wanted to be my apprentice. So far, nobody’s come out of the woodwork!
JOHN: So, Luca, do you want to wash Sunshine’s laundry?
LUCA: I’m not comfortable with hair. I got rid of mine because I was tired of washing it.
SUNSHINE: (LAUGHING) He’s changing the subject!