Tag Archives: Japan

Japanese Rakugo storytelling from a Canadian in London and New York

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

I met Katsura Sunshine in Camden Lock, London

“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.”

The Kamigata Rakugo Association Hall in Osaka, Japan

Sunshine is currently the only professional non-Japanese storyteller officially recognized by the Kamigata Rakugo Association.

“It’s traditional Japanese storytelling,” I said.

“Yes.”

“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.”

“It’s either funny or it’s wordplay or it’s clever…”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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.

Sunshine at the Leicester Square Theatre, March 2017

“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?”

“Mmmmm….”

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.”

“In English.”

“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.”

The chance of Rakugo dying out is about this…

“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.”

Sunshine posters in London’s tube

“The lights will be up at the Leicester Square Theatre?”

“Yes.”

“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.

Man! You’ve made it! Sunshine is a big success in London!”

“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.”

“Yes.”

“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.

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Filed under Canada, Comedy, Japan, Performance

The sperm whale which exploded today

Beware of exploding 50-ton sperm whales

In enclosed spaces, beware of exploding 50-ton sperm whales

Look, because of the flu, I am all over the place. Normal service will be resumed soon-ish.

In the meantime, this is the 11th anniversary of the day a whale exploded in the middle of the town of Tainan in Taiwan.

For some reason, I identity with this biological incident, though I’m not quite sure if it is the whale or the town I identify with.

The sperm whale, weighing over 50 tons, died on the beach and it took three large cranes and 50 workers more than 13 hours to shift it onto the back of a truck.

According to the local Taiwan News, while the whale was being moved, “a large crowd of more than 600 local Yunlin residents and curiosity seekers, along with vendors selling snack food and hot drinks, braved the cold temperature and chilly wind to watch workmen try to haul away the dead marine leviathan”.

When it exploded, the whale was on the back of the truck, near the centre of the town, splattering blood and whale entrails over surrounding shop fronts, bystanders and cars.

There is a rather strange video on YouTube about the explosion.

I think I identify with the whale, though having had flu is obviously somewhat different, even with the addition of a late laxative for constipation.

Apparently the explosion of dead sperm whales is not unusual. It is the buildup of gas inside the decomposing body which causes them to explode.

That much I understand.

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Comedy’s future in London and what is happening in Canada, Japan and Kenya

PTOO last night - Zuma Puma as ‘The Colonel’

PTOO last night – Zuma Puma as ‘The Colonel’

Last night, I got three interesting e-mails and saw the best potential TV series not yet on TV – Vivienne & Martin Soan’s monthly live comedy show Pull The Other One in South East London.

The PTOO format is bizarre acts plus one token stand-up comedian, which I think might be the next step in the future of comedy in the UK.

Call me obsessed but, with the apparent decline of straight comedy clubs and the rise of the Cabaret Section at the Edinburgh Fringe, something feels likely to change.

Lindsay Sharman compered last night

Lindsay Sharman did it by the book last night

Last night at PTOO, the ever-TV-friendly-faced Lindsay Sharman hosted Cheekykita, who harassed the audience in a crash-helmet, then turned into a black hole… wonderfully acerbic (OK – viciously bitter) musical comedian Kate Lucas (who, last month, was crowned Mercury Comedian of the Year at the Leicester Comedy Festival)… the always wonderfully intense Zuma Puma aka Nelly Scott as a wildly OTT Russian colonel… the Greatest Show on Legs with Martin Soan as a psychotic gay sergeant major… Simon Munnery being superbly funny as the token stand-up (You know, when Simon Munnery is the token normal comedian, everything else has to be SERIOUSLY weird!)… and Darren Walsh being extraordinarily punny (last month he won the first UK Pun Championhips) with lots of surreal visual and audio gags meaning he kept well to the bizarre variety act side of normal stand-up.

Peter Morey drawing as Simon Munnery performed

Peter Morey drew; Simon Munnery performed

While all this went on, artist Peter Morey was drawing his live visual interpretation of the show on the door of the venue as he listened to the acts perform.

The audience included Comedy Store improviser Stephen Frost and new comedy entrepreneur and showman Adam Taffler.

For once in my life, I felt trendy.

Then I went home.

I have no idea who this man is

This man is in Vancouver. I do not know him.

There was an unexplained e-mail from this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent Anna Smith. She is currently working in a bookshop in Vancouver. There was no text in the e-mail, just an attached picture. The e-mail was titled Finns and Doukabors have visited the shop. I have no idea what this means.

According to Wikipedia, the Doukabors were a Russian religious sect who emigrated to Canada in the 19th century to escape persecution by the Tsarist authorities. And, according to the 2001 census, over 131,040 Canadians claim Finnish ancestry.

I have no idea what relevance either of these facts may or may not actually have to anything else.

Then I opened an e-mail from British comedian Bob Slayer who, among many other things, used to be a horse jockey (unlikely but true) and managed Japanese rock band Electric Eel Shock (who are descending on Britain next month).

They provided some of the music for the movie Killer Bitch, in which one of them got killed by having a fish rammed down his throat. One of the movie’s online samplers uses their music. (Do not view this adult material if you can ever be offended by anything and – really – NB do not buy from the website named at the end, only from reputable retailers.)

A week ago, Bob Slayer flew to Japan. I had no idea why. Last night’s e-mail explained:

The reason why we are here is our friends Kaori and Jamie are getting married. Kaori was in a London-based Japanese two-piece band called Yumi Yumi. They both helped me out lots in the early days of managing Electric Eel Shock. After that band, Kaori joined Mercury Award nominated The Go Team as guitarist, keyboardist and occasional vocalist. Jamie was the bass player.

DAY 1 – We arrive in Kumamoto after 24 hours travelling. We took a flight from London to Tokyo then several bullet trains. Some of them were even the right ones. The highlight of the wedding food is a plate of raw horse meat, a local delicacy. I will never watch the Grand National in the same way again.

Day 3 – Where did day 2 disappear? A booze and a jetlag fug?

Day 5 – Today we are in Settsu-shi, near Osaka, at the house of Aki Morimoto otherwise known as front man of Electric Eel Shock. He has produced a little boy since I saw him last and Taira (3 years old) and I bond over sword fighting and cartoons of Anpanman, Japan’s most popular anime for kids, where all the characters have heads made out of different flavoured breads. I also build a 7 foot Lego tower.

Day 6 – Osaka’s speciality food is takoyaki and okonimaki – octopus batter balls and a savoury pancake made with chopped cabbage. Both are covered in mayonnaise and Worcestershire sauce. It seems that, although Japan spent a lot of its history closed off from the outside world, some imports had a big influence 150 years ago. Barbershop poles are red and white and the Japanese word for suit is ‘Savillrow’.

After this, I opened an e-mail from comedy critic Kate Copstick, currently in Kenya. She told me:

Hoping to be boarding a plane to Britain this time next week, barring any intervening ghastliness.

I am on one crutch and reasonably mobile.

All in all it could be worse.

I think – unusually – she may be under-stating the case.

But that is another story.

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Exclusive! – Mr Methane reports from World Fart Championships in Finland

(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)

Mr Methane (left) and Championships presenter Phartman

Mr Methane (left) & Championships’ presenter Phartman

This morning, dramatic news from Finland via my professional farting chum Mr Methane.

Yesterday, at the first ever World Fart Championships in Utajärvi, Finland. the single and team events were won by two Russian friends, Vlad & Alex who had flown to Helsinki from Moscow and then made a five hour train journey to Utajärvi.

They had heard of the farting festival earlier this year on Mr Methane’s website and Vlad said to Alex: “There is a farting contest this summer in Finland. Shall we go ?”

Alex replied: “Yes we should.”

Vlad said: “There is more. Mr Methane is performing there.”

Alex is said to have replied: “Wow! I have already packed.”

Not unreasonably, they decided that the double whammy lure of a farting competition AND possibly meeting Mr Methane, their hero, was too good to miss.

“So,” Mr Methane told me this morning from Finland, “they came and won both prizes for Russia yesterday, establishing a new festival volume record in the bargain.”

Japanese fart battles of the 17th century

Documented air battles raged in Japan between 1603-1868

Admittedly, this was not difficult, as it was the first World Fart Championships, although the tradition of farting competitions goes back at least to 17th century Japan where, between 1603-1868 there were “He-gassens” – fart battles.

In the 199os, a collection of scrolls showing some of these bitterly-fought air battles was sold at Christie’s in London for $1,200.

At yesterday’s World Fart Championships in Finland, Mr Methane was not competing. He had been invited by the organisers as a farting icon and the inspiration to a generation of Finnish flatulists.

Before the event, presented by local entertainer Phartman, both Mr Methane and I had been a bit vague about how the organisers were going to make farting into a competition and how they were going to decide winners. All was revealed yesterday.

Winning Russian duo in the team event

Winning Russians Vlad (left) & Alex in the team event

“Contestants had to drop their trousers,” Mr Methane reported, “but they kept underpants on. There was a large egg timer and they had 30 seconds in which to fart. There was a decibel meter and a microphone in a pipe below the seat on which they sat. For team events, there was a double seat.

“Contestants had two attempts – not one after other – they went to the back of the queue. It was all about the volume.”

“How loud were the Russian winners?” I asked.

Mr Methane performed with backing from the local Utajärvi brass band

Mr Methane performed The Blue Danube to hushed crowds in Finland yesterday with backing from the Utajärvi brass band

“Sorry,” Mr Methane told me, “I can’t remember the exact decibel meter reading, but it was just under 90.”

“And the audience?” I asked.

“They were polite, enthusiastic and appreciative of my show which was the matinée intro to the Fart Championships themselves. I also closed the Championships with a long fart at the end.”

The Russians’ secret weapon

Russians’ secret weapon

“Did the Russians have any particular technique?” I asked.

“They told me they thought a particular Russian drink had helped them win the contest,” said Mr Methane. “It is non alcoholic but fizzy.”

It is called квас оцаковскии – kvass otsakovskii. Kvass is a fermented drink made from rye bread and is marketed in Russia as a patriotic alternative to cola.

Coca-Cola launched its own brand of kvass in Russia in 2008 and Pepsi has signed an agreement with a Russian kvass manufacturer to act as a distribution agent. So the kvass wars cannot be far off.

You read it first here.

Mr Methane tells me: “It tastes like fizzy Marmite. Vlad and Alex presented me with a bottle as a gift and then sang a couple of verses of my song Cut The Cheese (available to view on YouTube)”

“Did they get a prize?” I asked him.

The Russian winners and their prize

The Russian winners with part of their prize

“Yes,” said Mr Methane. “52 cans of nuclear pea soup, the fuel that Phartman uses. Their two straight event wins mean that they went back to Russia with 104 tins which could be a problem at the airport baggage drop. But the organisers put their prize in a wheelbarrow and gave them a lift to the station for the 11.00pm overnight train back to the south.

“The weather had looked a bit dodgy before the Championships – overcast and showers – but it brightened up once the farting started and the sun eventually shone.

“I stayed overnight in a disused mental asylum in middle of a forest with Phartman who turns out to be a psychiatric nurse. It is very Soviet Union. The mosquitoes in the woods around the mental hospital have bitten me nearly to death. I am now off to catch a plane. There are strong winds here at the moment.”

Mr Methane will be talking about his life farting around the world in his own full-length show at the Edinburgh Fringe in August and, unless discovered by Hollywood, will be performing at the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards Show on 23rd August.

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Eggs acting standards: yesterday I was beaten by Simon Cowell’s stand-in

(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)

andydunlop_30june2013_cut2

Andy – out standing in his own field

Yesterday, I went to the 8th annual World Egg Throwing Championships at Swaton in Lincolnshire.

When I arrived, World Egg Throwing Federation President Andy Dunlop told me there was room for me in the Russian Egg Roulette Championship. Last year, I acquitted myself well – I was runner-up. Not bad for a first attempt.

Russian Egg Roulette is the internationally-recognised sport in which two competitors sit facing each other across a table on which lie six eggs – five hard-boiled; one raw. Each competitor then takes it in turn to smash an egg of his or her forehead. The one who smashes the raw egg on their forehead – with explosive results – loses.

“All the spots for competitors (over 30 of them) are already filled up,” Andy told me when I arrived, “but we have left a couple of spaces for Simon Cowell and for Natalie Holt, the woman who threw eggs at Simon on Britain’s Got Talent. We’ve invited both of them but we’re not totally certain if they will turn up. If Simon Cowell does not turn up, then we have a man called Mark Heselwood prepared to stand in for him.”

Sadly, Simon Cowell did not turn up and, even more sadly, I was beaten by Mark Heselwood in the first round of the Russian Egg Roulette. The only fact which slightly mended my crushed ego was that Mark went on to actually win the over-all title of World Russian Egg Roulette Champion.

At Swaton yesterday, there were egg teams from Brazil, the Czech Republic, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Japan, Slovenia and South Africa competing not just in Russian Egg Roulette but in the main Egg Throwing event and the Egg Throwing Static Relay contest and the World Egg Trebuchet Challenge, in which catapults based on medieval siege engines propel eggs set distances to be caught by plucky teams. All the eggs are rejects or outdated, so no food is wasted.

The Japanese gained face - and eggs -and a gold medal title

The Japanese gained face – and eggs – and a gold medal title

“There’s a team from Japanese national TV,” Andy told me when I arrived. “They have six cameras, one sound man, a make-up guy, a team of four, two directors and a producer,. They flew in specially for this last week.

“The team consists of two Japanese baseball players who can throw a good distance, one eggspert who runs a chicken farm and one manager who, before he became a serious actor, was a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger on TV. They’re making a one-hour documentary. What they do on their programme is take ordinary people with some skills and send them across the world trying to bring back gold medals to Japan. They’ve been here for a week and they’re here for another week.

“As a result of this, we’re hoping to set up an annual Japanese Egg Throwing Championship. We’ve just confirmed the first national Australian Egg Throwing Championships on 5th August

“When are the English Championships?” I asked.

“July 13th in Surrey. Then there’s the Dutch national Championships. The Belgian national championships are on 14th August…”

Russian Egg Roulette at last year's Edinburgh Fringe

Russian Egg Roulette at last year’s Malcolm Hardee Show

“And I’m very proud,” I interrupted, “that the Scottish national open Russian Egg Roulette Championships are taking place during the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show at the Edinburgh Fringe on 23rd August.”

“Indeed,” said Andy.

“It will look good in my blog if I say that,” I said.

“Indeed,” said Andy. “And, next May, we’ve got the Finnish national Russian Egg Roulette Championship.”

“Whatever happened,” I asked, “to that Australian children’s TV show who were going to to be filming Australian competitors egg throwing at the Fringe?”

“They are going to be filming here on 11th September,” replied Andy. “They couldn’t fit their shooting in with the Edinburgh Fringe times.”

“So they’re doing it in Swaton?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Andy, “at the special training course we’ve set up. It’s a long field with a mown strip down it. The Japanese, the Irish and the German teams have been all using it in the last few days at separate times so they don’t have to scramble for facilities.

Not catching an egg yesterday

Not catching an egg yesterday

“It’s a proper course. When you see Wild Willie O’Donovan, the Irish guy, watch how he throws the egg compared to anyone else. He is the Irish Road Bowling champion. You know road bowling? A 28 ounce steel ball over a three mile course in the least number of throws. Wild Willie’s unusual technique in egg-throwing is an under-arm lob which is peculiar to road bowling. He’s now successfully brought that technique across to British egg throwing and he’s the World Record Holder for Egg Throwing, set at the Irish national Egg Throwing Championships in Connacht four weeks ago – 71.2 metres.”

“You are a man who lives for egg statistics,” I suggested.

“I was interviewed on TalkSport Radio the other day,” admitted Andy. “I gave them all these statistics and no puns and they said You should be on Mastermind with your knowledge of Egg Throwing. But, of course, the only person who could set the questions would be me. That’s a bit of a problem.

“The good story, though,” added Andy, “is us raising – we hope – over £10,000 for charity today.”

Proceeds will go to leukaemia research, the local air ambulance and the emergency response organisation Lives.

“Japanese TV have given us a lot of money,” said Andy. “They were going to give us a donation but we’ve been so good to them over the last 3 or 4 days – organising and setting up things for them – that they’ve more than tripled their donation.”

“How did they fit that into their budget?” I asked.

“They’ve put it down as provision, organisation and facilitation fees.”

“Which, indeed, it is,” I said.

“Indeed,” said Andy.

“How did your Indian trip go?” I asked. (I blogged about it back in March.)

“Four guys from Sleaford went across there and kicked India’s arse,” said Andy. “We won the series 4-3 and beat 1.2 billion Indians at Russian Egg Roulette. But, while we were over there, we were also inoculating 300 million under-5-year-olds in a Weekend For Polio. In the last 20 years, every kid under 5 has been inoculated. The Rotary Club raised and spent £300 million on it. And the much-maligned Bill Gates gave us £300 million as well. We think polio has now gone in India. We were over there three years ago and we’ve been inoculating twice a year since then and polio is now only left in bits of the north west frontier in Pakistan and the south east frontier of Afghanistan.”

“And that’s because it’s too dangerous to go in?” I asked.

Even armour-wearing competitors lost out yesterday

Even armour-wearing roulette competitors lost out yesterday

“Well, it was,” said Andy. “The fundamentalists were slaughtering the people who were doing it – they killed 30 at the beginning of this year –  young nurses, young girls who were doing it. But the Taliban have now been persuaded that it’s not a plot of the Americans to sterilise all the kids and it’s actually stopping polio and they’ve actually come on side and are now actually protecting the polio inoculators.”

At that point, Andy was called away to be interviewed by Reuters.

The good news at the end of the day was that the Japanese won the World Egg Trebuchet Challenge, got their gold medal and may be back next year to defend their title.

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Beijing – Waltzing in the headlights of a fast-coming future in the new Tokyo

The future is bright and dazzling in Beijing - the new Tokyo.

I am sitting in my hotel room on the 13th (top) floor of a 4-star hotel in Beijing.

I was in Beijing in 1984, 1985 and 1986.

My memory of Beijing in 1984 is of almost everyone wearing green or blue Mao suits – a uniformity of dull colours. The next year, some lighter pastel colours were creeping in and I stumbled on a fashion shoot by the lake in Beihai Park where the glamorous model was wearing a mini skirt.

Back then, I remember a rather dusty, occasionally misty city with Dickensian factory chimneys, streets swamped with tsunamis of bicycles and building sites each with hundreds of workers instead of machines. This was not – and is not – a country with a labour shortage.

Today, on the 45-60 minute drive to the city centre from the giant fuck-off-and-die airport (built for the 2008 Olympics), we passed through a new city with giant, often very well-designed buildings and loads of cars on busy four and five lane carriageways.

Then we hit Tiananmen Square with its new monument to distract and disguise where the demonstrators were in 1989. It now also has an apparently permanent visible police presence plus parked police cars and vans.

Once past Tiananmen Square, we hit the more crowded, narrow streets with jumbled shops and narrow, greyish, busy alleyways I remembered.

The TV in my hotel seems to cater mostly for Chinese, not English-speaking, businessmen – a not insignificant point. And the BBC World news channel is reporting that Sony has announced a whacking $6 billion loss.

The Japanese are on their way out.

The Chinese are on their way up.

More surprisingly, the BBC still has a TV reporter inside North Korea. Why has this man not been thrown out of the country? He is still telling and showing the truth about what life is like there. He was invited in to show the glorious start to the celebrations of the 100th birthday of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung – and to report on the ‘fact’ that the North Koreans’ upcoming rocket launch is to put a satellite into space, not to test an ICBM capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

Fat chance. He is making it clear North Korea is a fantasy land of literally incredible facades.

The North Koreans have said their rocket will be launched “by 16th April”. As the late Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday is on the 15th April, guessing which day it will actually be launched does not seem like, err, rocket science.

Back on the TV in Beijing, BBC World is reporting that someone called (as far as I can figure phonetically) Nee-lu-yang, disabled and on crutches after being beaten up by the police, has been sentenced to three years imprisonment – and her husband to two years – for “provoking trouble” by campaigning against the eviction of people from their homes to make way for new building developments by the Chinese authorities.

In China, rapid modernisation comes at a price which would be unacceptably high in the UK.

I took a walk out tonight and, over the course of an hour, I passed nine people walking their pet dogs. In the mid 1980s, a friend of mine went into Canton free market a meat-eater and came out a vegetarian: “It was the live dogs and cats and owls that did it,” she told me. “All in small cages, ready for eating. It was the owls that really got to me, with their big eyes staring out at me.”

Now dogs are kept by some as pets. The sign of an increasingly moneyed society and probably the sign of an increasingly something else society which I can’t put my finger on.

People were still doing that deep, throaty Chinese spitting in the street back in 1984.

Things have advanced at an amazing rate.

And yet… And yet…

There is still that protester disabled and on crutches after being beaten up by the police, sentenced to three years imprisonment for “provoking trouble”.

Some might argue that 2012 in China is more like Nineteen Eighty-Four than it was in 1984. But with a glittering veneer.

On my walk tonight, in a darkened open space about 20 feet from one of Beijing’s busy ring roads, I heard the faint sound of traditional Chinese music and saw about thirty people of various ages dancing in slow motion. Some were waltzing; some appeared to be practising slow-motion line-dancing.

Perhaps this is a new 2012 version of tai-chi.

In 1968, Country Joe and The Fish recorded a song called Waltzing in the Moonlight. In Beijing, they are waltzing in the headlights of a fast-coming future.

China is the new Japan… with Japan, like Atlantis, cut down to size by the Gods with a national catastrophe.

It only took water to overwhelm Atlantis.

Japan, a more advanced civilisation, had visited on it by the Gods the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. Japan has stumbled if not yet been humbled..

The road signs in Beijing – and many local shop signs – are in both Chinese and English. The government is preparing for and has already entered an international future.

And yet… And yet…

The girl in this 4-star hotel’s Business Centre not only does not speak English, she does not know how to print off text from the computer she supervises onto the printer sitting beside it.

And the BBC World channel reports that the wife of prominent Chinese politician Bo Xilai has been arrested on suspicion of killing a British businessman last year. No motive is given; the businessman seems to have been a friend of the anti-corruption Mr Bo and his wife; and the Chinese leadership is changing this year.

Now, presumably, Mr Bo has been knocked out of the running.

Don’t mess with the Chinese.

*****

Here is the sound of Country Joe and The Fish Waltzing in the Moonlight

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Filed under China, Japan, North Korea, Politics

Mr Methane: the man who put the art into fart-a-dart on blowing not sucking

Yesterday, I blogged about Bob Slayer and Mr Methane’s predilection for including darts in their stage shows: Bob Slayer encourages people to throw darts at him and Mr Methane – the world’s only professionally performing flatulist – a farter to you and me  – blows darts out of his bottom to burst balloons attached to the heads of audience members.

Bob Slayer now tells me the current showbiz obsession with darts goes further than I knew:

Dave Gorman,” he tells me, “is a big fan of darts and carries his ‘arrows’ everywhere in case he has time to kill and can nip into a boozer to chuck them at a board.”

Mr Methane, meanwhile, has been telling me how his fart-a-dart routine started.

“It was when I was touring with Bobby Davro back in the 1990s,” he tells me. “Bobby used to tell me that any show needs a good start, an at-least average middle and a memorable finish.

“I figured that farting a dart into a large balloon attached on top of someone’s head in a William Tell manner would provide that finish. But, at first, I could not figure out the correct type of dart, in terms of weight and velocity etc.

“I was using 2.2 air rifle darts and they were too heavy so, consequently, they were too slow and did not straighten up enough to impact the balloon properly. Then, one day, a Japanese TV show wanted me to ‘Fart The Dart’ into a balloon, so they studied my equipment and also videos of me farting a dart. Then they did what the Japanese do best – they improved the design and solved the problem

“When I arrived in Tokyo, I was ceremonially presented with a custom-made, MK2 balloon-piercing darts kit and we had a test run followed by green tea and sushi. Needless to say, the test run and the recording were both successful and, on taking the darts home with me to the UK, I took a leaf from the post-war Japanese Engineering Handbook and I ‘back engineered’ the product to unravel the manufacturing secrets of the darts so I could construct them myself.

“It is always a very tense moment during a live stage show when I fart-a-dart, as I like to burst the balloon first time. I suppose it is similar to the emotions that an England football player feels during the penalty shoot-out at the end of an England v Germany game in the World Cup when the pressure is really is on.

“I think my own worst time for nerves was during the semi-finals of the TV show Das Supertalent (Germany’s Got Talent).

“I was representing the United Kingdom on Germany’s No 1 prime time Saturday night entertainment show, so I had my nation’s and Her Majesty’s honour to uphold and – because it was going out live – there could be no room for any mistakes.

“The relief when I nailed the balloon first time was immense.

“It is all in the technique…

“I find it is best to grip the end of the blow pipe with your sphincter muscle in the same way you would use your lips if blowing a dart with your mouth.

“You have to be very careful not to discharge even the slightest amount of air from your colon once you are gripping the blowpipe with your buttocks and going for the countdown otherwise the dart will rise up and fall out the end with no velocity.

“Once you count zero, you blow-off big time and, hopefully, it will be a bulls-eye.

“The time lapse between the dart leaving the blowpipe and piercing the balloon in reality is very short but, for me, lying there on my back with my legs up in the air, it seems to be in slow motion, rather like events appear to be when you in a car accident or similar.

“On a Health & Safety note, I have a small filter at the end of the blowpipe which touches my bottom. This is like a filter-tip of dart-farting and is there for safety reasons – to stop the dart going any further in an inward direction, for obvious reasons.

“When farting a dart, it is important not to suck but to blow.”

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Filed under Comedy, Sport, Television, Theatre