You would think that being the apprentice to a Japanese storyteller would be easier than being the apprentice to say, a carpenter or an electrician. Not so. According to Katsura Sunshine, a Toronto native who has spent more than twenty years in Japan, the job entails seven day a week training, often doing menial tasks such as washing dishes, cooking meals or taking the Master’s kimonos to the cleaners. Nor is this a short term assignment; an apprenticeship to a Rakugo storyteller can take three years before one is ready to leave the nest. Fortunately for us all, Katsura Sunshine learned his craft well and is now proving it here in New York.
Rakugo means ‘fallen words’ and is a tradition of comic storytelling in Japan which goes back 400 years, which means that when there was Shakespeare there was also Rakugo. The storyteller sits on a stage (called a kōza), and regales the audience with tales. Katsura Sunshine was born Gregory Robic in Canada but in 1999 he went to japan to study Japanese theater. In 2008 he became a disciple of the legendary Katsura Bunshi VI, a Rakugo storytelling master whose television show “Shinkon-san Irasshai” (“Welcome, Newlyweds”) has been on the air for almost fifty years and set a Guinness World Record for the longest running talk show in the world to be hosted by the same person. Katsura Bunshi gave Robic the name Katsura Sunshine and he’s never looked back.
Stamina is surely needed to be a Rakugo storyteller. Whereas most one person shows at least have the flexibility and freedom of movement, to do Rakugo one must sit on the stage by themselves, with very few props, kneeling with their legs underneath them for an hour, an hour and a half, sometimes two hours, while engaging an audience the entire time. Once a pupil, Katsura Sunshine is decidedly a master now, and the ninety minute show playing at the New World Stages is a delight for audiences from any culture. The evening is spent alternating between Sunshine regaling the audience with fascinating tidbits of Japanese customs and manners and two longer, more traditional comic stories. According to the Playbill, Sunshine is the first ever Western Rakugo storyteller in the history of the Kamigata Rakugo tradition, which is based in Osaka. Besides the U.S. and Canada he has performed all over the world, including Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa, as well as all over Japan. This last one is interesting because at least half of the fun of last night’s performance is learning insight into the ways the Japanese culture differs from a Western one. For example, there are about half a dozen ways to say ‘thank you’ in English. In Japan, there are 47. We learn that unlike at JFK or La Guardia, going through Customs in Osaka can take all of fifteen minutes. We also discover the correct way to ask for hand soap in a Japanese pharmacy, which is not what you may think. One of the highlights of the evening comes when Katsura Sunshine details the almost excruciating way one must learn to pour sake for one’s friends, which apparently involves a tremendous amount of timing and forced reluctance.
As wonderful as the actual storytelling is, these seemingly off the cuff forays into the minutia of Japanese living are equally delightful, told with warmth, humor and reverence for an ancient culture. One wonders how Katsura Sunshine fills up the time when he is doing his Rakugo in Japan. Perhaps he tells them the quirks of the Westerners (of which, God knows, there are many). Not to worry too much, however. There seemed to be a large Asian presence in the audience last night and they were enjoying it as much, if not more so, than their American counterparts.
When it gets to the actual telling of the stories, Katsura Sunshine is in his element. A very engaging personality with a moon sort of face and expressive eyes, a body which is not quite in shape (this actually comes into play during the show), Sunshine treats the audience as if they were guests in his own home. There were two stories last night, one on reincarnation and the other about a man’s birthday. The stories change constantly so that going to the show in November may be very different from going to a show in September. They are told in a rapid manner, the words spilling out of Katsura Sunshine’s mouth almost like a faucet, but at the same time our host is in no particular hurry to get to the end. As with most great storytellers the fun is all in the journey, not the destination. Katsura Sunshine is a wonderful tour guide for the evening, and the characters he portrays are each unique and special in their own way. The man who unexpectedly dies and must now choose what form to be reincarnated as and the man whose birthday always brings with it a particularly unpleasant guest are both people you’d like to get to know. Sunshine keeps us in the palm of his hand until he decides that he has (in the great Japanese tradition), taken up too much of our time and couldn’t possibly think of detaining us even a minute longer.
Katsura Sunshine’s Rakugo is a gift from Japan to American audiences and appropriate for most ages. Like all gifts it should be received humbly and graciously, treasured for both the content inside and the generous thought put behind it.
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