An Interview with Katsura Sunshine
Date: Sunday November 12th 2017 [9:43] | Posted By: Joe
Japan is a place with many traditions and art forms. It even has its own traditional form of comedy rakugo. The performer sits down on stage and tells an amusing story using only two props a fan and hand towel. Katsura Sunshine is one such performer, a Canadian who discovered the art form while in Japan. You may have caught his show Dive into Ukiyo-e on NHK World.
We caught up with Sunshine over a coffee in London on a warm day in May to discover more about rakugo and his performances.
He's just recently completed a set of shows at the Leicester Square Theatre. He'll be performing at Hyper Japan in November 2017, and then have an off Broadway show at the Soho Playhouse in New York for a year.
This article interview is one of those relaxing long reads, we could have split it into many parts, but felt it's best to keep it as one whole article, so you too can imagine you're having coffee with Sunshine. Apart from those interested in Japanese culture, we think this article will also be interesting to people following stage performances, improv or stand-up comedy.
Thank you very much for coming from a faraway place at a busy time in your life!
How does a Canadian guy end up as a traditional rakugo comic storyteller? Even for someone who's Japanese it's a very specialist form of performance!
That goes back why I came to Japan in the first place. I was writing musicals in Toronto. They were based on an ancient Greek Aristophanes, The Clouds, Lysistrata, that kind of thing. I read during some of my research that ancient Greek tragedy and comedy and Japanese Noh and Kabuki had all these coincidental similarities. That's what brought me to Japan in the first place. Then on my second day in Japan I think I'm never going back to Canada again! it's too interesting here and why didn't anyone tell me about this country 10 years ago!
So I stayed. I'd been living there for 5 years, I learnt a bit of Japanese. The owner of a Yakitori Shop in Yokohama (I used to go everyday), said
"We're having a rakugo performance upstairs on Sunday on the tatami mats when the restaurant is closed. Do you want to come?"
And I said "Oh, OK maybe if I have time, I'll come".
You never know when these life changing events are going to happen! Then I went and it was just two young story tellers on their own. They're probably in their 5th or 6th year of doing it and only about 30 people in the audience. They were just crammed in. It just blew me away!
They did 2 stories each, so 4 stories. They were wearing a kimono, kneeling on a cushion. They had the lanterns up. They came on to shamisen music. Then they tell a little comic routine, a lot like stand-up comedy and everybody's laughing. Then that comic routine leads into this certain theme and the theme turn out to be the theme of the story they're going to tell, which is the traditional story. Then it all ends in a punch line!
Once you've seen it 4 times, you only need to see one show to realise what the pattern is.
So I said this is the artform! It's incredible and everybody's just laughing. Even though I can't understand all the jokes, especially when they got into the traditional story, I couldn't understand too much, but the prologue, the comedy bit I did understand. I decided this is it! I was born to do this! So I decided that day, I'm doing it! No matter what!
Had you done any stand up comedy before then?
No, but I was writing comedy and I performed in my own shows up to university. Then I went into the directing part of it. So I've never done any stand up comedy. I've tried some since. It's very similar, it uses the same material.
I don't know if you've seen my YouTube channel? The rakugo style, the first half is like stand up comedy, it's just introduction and observational humour and it also includes some explanations, because inevitably even in Japan there are people who are experiencing rakugo for the first time.
It's never a dry explanation, you're always making people laugh while you're explaining.
So for instance:
"With a rakugo story, I turn my head to the left, I turn my head to the right, I'm playing different characters".
*Knocks on table*
(turns head to left)
I say "Hello! Anybody home?"
(turns head to the right)
Hello, oh I'm wondering who it is? It's you! Come on over".
Some people don't understand what's going on. I was performing for some children the other day. I was telling some jokes. They were laughing. So lean forward and go
Suddenly 250 grade school students lean forward and go
So here it's a joke and the audience will laugh, but it serves a purpose, it gives the audience one tip, if I turn my head to the left or the right that those are going to be characters. You can tell anyway, but the more you prepare your audience the better it is thought to be.
I think in the west a lot of people like these unexpected things, so you probably don't even need it, but still any explanation is going to be humorous. We could say, that this is not for you, but when I was telling another audience another time about this and this is what happened, you make them laugh, some people in the audience benefit from that explanation.
Western stand-up comedians do something similar when they're walking about, they face one way, they're one character and they turn the other way, they're another character replying. They don't even explain it, it's a very conventional stand up thing.
Yeah, it's a very natural thing to do. I don't think it needs an explanation.
It gets the audience warmed up?
It does. In that first half you're totally trying to set it up. You're also getting a feel for the audience. We often choose the story while we're talking. You tell a couple of jokes, then you think OK, I think the audience will like this story, I think the audience would like that story. We don't decide the story a lot of the time before we go on. So it serves a lot of purposes. That's called makura and that means pillow. The thought is in my story I'm going to take you into a world of imagination, into a dream world and before you go into the dream world I'm going to warm you up, by putting your head under the pillow. Some people make the mistake that it's a real pillow and they go to sleep during my performance and I don't appreciate that! But the Japanese people are great at complements because on their way out Mr Takahashi who went to sleep and enjoyed my show would say:
"Good show Sunshine!" and I'd say "You went to sleep!" and he's say "Yes, that is because the rhythm of your speech was so good it put me so sleep. Not many story tellers have the skill to put their audience to sleep. You've really gone up a notch!"
What's the training like?
It's 3 to 4 years. You have to get a master to take you. I went to my masters house every day first thing in the morning, did the laundry, did the cleaning, did the housework and menial chores. If the master goes out, you carry his bags. I guess the most important thing is help him prepare for his shows. He's doing rakugo everyday. The apprentices under his apprenticeships are responsible for his dressing room, they set up his dressing room, set up his kimono so he can choose them, set up his makeup because he plays very big theatres my master is very famous so he does 1,500 seat theatres. So he's doing light make up. If it's a TV shoot that's heavier make-up, we get out, we get that all arranged. We do the sound, we do the lighting. We help him dress in his kimono, which is a really cool ritual. He's looking in the mirror going through which ever story he's going to do, or he might be talking to one of his friends in the dressing room and we're dressing him. There's the undergarments and then there's the zubon which is a silk undergarment, then there's the kimono. Then there's the robe and the obi belt and the haori that goes over it. It's like your dressing a prize fighter before they're going out to box. The first time I saw one of my senior apprentices doing that, I thought that this world is too cool!
You're always with him. He's very strict. He doesn't give you many compliments. He doesn't teach you much, as you're expected to watch and learn. You're with him from morning to night. It's so much different than paying someone and taking lessons, which you do for an hour a week or two hours a week when you're taking violin lessons or whatever. You don't pay anything. He pays for your life for that three years, even your apartment, there's a kind of dormitory apartment that he owns for two apprentices. He pays for all your food, everything. Even for the rest of your life whenever you want to learn a story, you can go to him and he'll listen to it and give you tips and give you permission to do it. He never accepts any money. No money travels upwards, everything goes down. So your responsibility as a storyteller is to payback your master is to get good enough so you can teach the next generation.
Would you that then?
I'll do it. I'm ready if anyone you know is prepared to clean my house for three years I'll teach them rakugo!
Were there any other aspects of him being a strict master?
Yes, he was very strict. You receive everything from your master. When you leave dust on a table or something like that, at the time I thought he was being a stickler for detail, but it's kind of everything. Considering everything you receive from your master, the fact that you can't clean his house properly is pretty pathetic. You don't get upset that he's upset with you, you get upset that you can't even do this right.
My master was very strict with language too, especially with me. In Japan a foreigner would be forgiven for mistakes or not using the correct polite language perhaps, but once I signed up to be a professional storyteller there's no real excuse not to speak the language properly. So he was very strict. So he told me until you learn properly, don't talk because you'll embarrass me somewhere!
That's true, because if you don't use the proper honorifics and the proper polite language to people of the master class then it's pretty rude. So it's embarrassing for master for me to be talking to someone. So I had to get up to speed pretty quickly as far as language goes. But I appreciated that. I didn't want to be treated differently. I wanted to be much as possible, not the exception be treated just like a Japanese apprentice. My master lived up to that, more than I even wanted him to! Sometimes I was like "I don't mind being the exception sometimes".
How's it feel being the only professional foreign rakugo storyteller?
Here's the thing. I'm the second in history. The first one was a hundred years ago and he was in the Tokyo tradition from Australia. I'm the first one in the Osaka tradition - the Kamigata tradition for Osaka/Kyoto. I'm the first one in history for that tradition. Those are the two main traditions.
But now last year two more non-Japanese have joined one Swedish guy in Tokyo and one more Canadian guy in Osaka. So I'm not technically the only foreigner there and I'm happy about this for a few reasons. First of all up until I joined a lot of foreigners and a lot of Japanese too thought of it as a hobby doing rakugo and stuff like that. There are a few that give themselves a name and pass themselves off as professionals. They didn't go through apprenticeship, they didn't get a name from their master. They're not in any of the associations. They're not part of the family tree that goes back generations. You become part of a family. Katsura is my master that was his master’s name too, I'm part of that Katsura family tree that goes back 200 hundred years. There have been a few foreigners too that have just done it and started making money doing it, getting on TV doing it and the general public doesn't know the niceties of if their professional or not. I don't blame them, just to know what rakugo is enough. Sometimes it gives me pain, because you explain to people there's a lot of foreigners recently and you explain actually I'm the only one, it's like your bragging or something it's very un-rakugo to do that. It's kind of a pain in the ass.
Now there are two other guys, the true professionals are this guy and that guy too and I can deflect it, I really appreciate those guys joining. That's one selfish reason.
I also appreciate that these guys also want to do something right and go through the apprenticeship and call themselves a professional. There's so much to learn in those three years. It's not just learning stories. It's like sumo wrestling is not just knocking the other guy over. The Mongolian Yokozuna got into a lot of trouble because it was mostly etiquette, he was the perfect champion in the ring, but he stuff outside of the ring that was not becoming of a sumo wrestler. Football players have the same thing, because they're famous, but they'd have to go pretty far to be suspended for off field practices. In sumo and Japanese arts, that bar is to be exemplary. It's the same thing with rakugo, it's not just telling a story, its how you behave in the dressing room and how you speak towards your masters and all of those things. Having all of that etiquette and traditions grilled into you it affects the way you tell a story, the way you address the audience, the way you bow your head as you tell the story. All of these things it's part of the story telling. You can see it. I saw Japanese actors, professional actors whose hobby was rakugo. They did rakugo, they told the story. It was great, but you can see that they're not trained rakugo storytellers, it's just different. The way they hold their body is different, the whole thing is different. Not better or worse, he said, this isn't my job, it's just my hobby. It's all great, but you can see it.
Did doing the training teach you a lot about Japanese culture?
Oh yeah! Certain language, etiquette. Also there's these things called omoiyari and kizukai, that's very much part of Japanese culture, noticing how the other person's feeling and noticing what they're thinking without being told is a huge part of Japanese culture. The tea ceremony is all about this. You walk in you look for something to complement, number one, "Your house prepared a flower arrangement", notice the flowers, "These are seasonal flowers, can you explain it?" and hostess has to explain it. It's not just traditional Japanese arts, it permeates Japanese communication every day. This was training by fire! That kind of etiquette, you don't wait for the master to tell you what he needs, you notice. You notice that you should be putting out the tea now, or you notice that he's getting ready to go and have his stuff ready, whatever it is you have to notice a lot.
Has it changed the way you interact with other people?
Certainly it's change the way I perform. People say with rakugo your job is talking. My job isn't talking, being on stage and talking is the same thing, apparently it should be automatic. My job is watching, listening, watching the audience seeing how much are paying attention, seeing what kind of stories they might like, just constantly noticing, noticing, noticing every one of their reactions, figuring out where I should take this performance.
How do you tell what they're interested in?
It's not something you can even explain, you just start to do it. I'm only in my tenth year. I've performed with guys who are 15, 20 years into it, it's just another level. Your master doesn't even teach you that. They don't teach you that. They can't. You go up in front of people and do it again.
I saw a David Mamet quote on facebook, you know those master classes? David Mamet will teach you theatre. The quote goes something like "You cannot become a playwright until you write plays have them performed in front of people and feel like an idiot". At the beginning you go out and you fail, you go up again and you fail. Then the guy after you goes up, and you think it's a hard audience today and the first one minute it'll be hard for him then he turns it around. You'll look at it and think he did the same thing he did yesterday, he'll say he didn't change much, and there was this and this and this so I kind of did this way. That's a very subtle change. They're not big changes, you have to feel it.
Your master gave you your name. Is that part of your training?
You receive your name your first month or two into your apprenticeship. The master gets to know you and figure out what kind of name would be good for you then gives you a name.
The name consists of part of his name. Katsura Sunshine.
Katsura is my last name, its last name first in Japanese. San means 3, then the last kanji means shine. So a Japanese person if they didn't know me would read it as Kastura San-gi, but they have something in Japanese called ateji. An ateji is giving an alternative reading to a kanji. Japanese people's names also contain ateji. The kanji might have a different reading, the name could have a deeper meaning. Like having this reading, but with this kanji, it could be some play on words, or something like that. That's what my master did. He gave me the English reading for this kanji as its meaning is shine. So san is the proper reading for this, but shine only has changed, so it becomes san shine. It's a play on words in Japanese. This doesn't mean sunshine in Japanese. All Japanese people know the song you are my sunshine, so the English word sunshine is something that they know. So when I say my name is Katsura Sunshine and people see this they love it!
Now people know me and I'm on the poster I'm doing my own shows, but before people knew me I would go up and went to explain my name. Every storyteller explains their name at the beginning of the show. They say this is my master, this is my name, this is how I got it, there's always a story behind it. When I explain it now and you pronounced it Sunshine, people just erupted in laughter, they love it. His master's a genius! They really love it. It's a great name.
My master's meaning for my name, he wanted to give me a name that people knew all around the world because he thought I'd be doing rakugo around the world, so anybody in any culture would understand it. HIs image for it, just like the sun never sets around the world, that I would be doing rakugo all around the world in the same way. That's one the things I would never forget, the day I received that name.
Are there any challenges translating a traditional Japanese art form into English?
The biggest challenge was realising it's not as challenging as I expected it to be. Myself and also other people who have done it, the Japanese guys who have also done it in English. When I started translating them my master was saying we've got to arrange it, not just translate it, but translate culture too and make sure that everybody understood rakugo 100%. So you had to arrange certain things, things that Japanese people understand, you have to adapt them and that was a huge mistake! I realised later word for word translation, even if they were a little elements that people don't understand are actually much better, much funnier. People want the real thing. If you go to eat sushi, you want the sushi that people are eating in Japan, you want to get a taste of Japan! Of course California roll is also fun but for the experience you hope that it's a real sushi chief or as close as possible. It's the same thing, if I'm going out doing rakugo people are coming out to see a Japanese performance. If they don't understand stuff they'll look it up after or I can explain it in the notes. Really the direct translation is the best. My job got a lot easier once I realised that.
Are some things untranslatable such as the word puns?
That's a really good point. The image of rakugo is that there's a lot of word play, but there's not as much as you'd think there is. It also depends on the story, if it's got a lot of puns in it you can just ignore them. There are a few stories that are just top to bottom puns, they're pun stories, so those are not going to be translatable obliviously. We're talking about a canon of a few hundred. I think there's thousands of stories if you really want to research it. Of the ones that are popular there's a couple of hundred. Most of them translate fine. For you as performer what do you really need? If you're going around performing? I don't think I have ten stories that I do on a regular basis. When I go to New York and perform for a year I think I need more. If I have 20 to 30 stories and a proper introduction for them that's plenty. I think there's probably hundred stories that would go into English if you tried. Not only traditional stories, but then there's my masters stories that are incredible and I do my masters stories in English and they're great.
There's no barrier really, if you loved the pun story, you might say aawh, I wish I could do it in English. There's no way to get those stories in English.
Can you explain the concept of ochi? Does it easily work in English?
Ochi is written as the kanji for fall. Rakugo is written with the same kanji, but the reading is different. It means falling word. An ochi is a punch line! Rakugo is literally a story with a punch line! In English we're a little more violent. If I want you to laugh I punch you with the line. If I'm doing really good, I killed! Or knock 'em dead they say. Or I have the audience rolling in the aisles. It's all very violent. Japanese is more refined. They have the courtesy to fall down. It's the same feeling. The story has lots of jokes in it, or funny situations, but it all ends in a punch line that drives the story together.
So if you think of the story with the introduction, one story would be 45 minutes! I do two halves, each 45 minutes. My buddy in Toronto when he first saw rakugo, he said "Sunshine! Those were the longest two jokes I have ever heard in my entire life!"
A lot of our readers would have discovered your work through the NHK Show Dive into Ukiyo-e. Was it a fun show to do? How did you get the opportunity to do it?
It was a lot of fun! Ukiyo-e and rakugo were sort of born at the same time, they blossomed at the same Edo period. It was the longest period of peace in Japanese history. It was hundreds of years of peace and prosperity, but also some strict governance that didn't like too many shows of luxury or wealth or going too crazy. You had this spirit in Edo of a merchant class and a middle rich class, for example they wanted to wear a really flowerily kimono, but that wasn't allowed, so what would happen over the kowari there's a haori you know the one they tie up? Men had to wear more subdued colours, navy, grey, on the inside of this lining they'd have a really glorious picture of Mount Fuji or something outrageously flamboyant. So nobody could see it, but maybe in the dressing room or at the tea house with the geisha a little bit would be seen. You'd show it, but only a little bit would be seen. This was hiding it from the authorities, this became an ethos in Edo known as Eki. Eki is a hidden cool or a cleverness, something you don't notice at first. This kind of thing was born in Edo. So rakugo and ukiyo-e contain a lot of the spirit of eki.
Ukiyo-e wood block prints are one picture, but each of them contained a hidden story somewhere in there. Did you see the one about the cat? It's by Utagawa Hiroshige, Asakusa Ricefields and Torinomachi Festival from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 1857 also known as The Angry Cat. The whole story is that the owner is a geisha, who's with a customer and the cat is jealous, with the customers hand towel in view, so you'd know exactly who it was!
For us we need someone to explain that to us, but in Edo they'd understand it instantly. Today's political cartoons are the same thing. There's a little bit of that.
NHK World had the idea of finding the story in each of these ukiyo-e prints then doing a kind of rakugo style combing two storytelling arts.
I'm not the one finding the stories around these prints. There's an expert who studies really hard and knows all this stuff and he lectures me on each and every print. He spends 10 to 15 minutes on each print and explains what's behind each one then I go and write a script from that. Then we redo it together and end up with a script. I love people who think I know all this about ukiyo-e, I'm learning a lot, but this guy just blows you away. He's great!
Was it something you were interested in before hand?
I loved it, but I've never studied it. I've looked at it. I liked it on a regular level, like Hokusai's Wave off Kanagawa and those. They look so cool. I have jeans with Ukiyo-e copies on! It was one of those things I've wanted to study further.
The thing is, if you go to Japan, it doesn't matter what gets you into Japanese culture, once you start looking into it, you want to study it at one point. Kabuki! I can't get enough of it, or this or that. There's so much in Japan you just can't get your head around it. A lot of my Japanese friends said
"I went aboard to study English and people ask me about kabuki and I was embarrassed as everybody else was able to talk about their culture, but we Japanese don't know anything about our culture. "
So I reply
"No you're wrong! The problem is, and this is how you should answer from now on, Japanese has too much culture for any one human being to get their head around! They have like 50 times more culture than the next ranking country. You couldn't talk about kabuki, but they could have asked you about Noh or Kyogen or Taishu engeki (which is the little bit more modern version of kabuki). There's like 6 or 7 more performance styles or they might have asked you about rakugo or Manzai (that's two person comedy), or manga. Then in the comedy realm there's about 10 of them! Or they might have asked you about judo or sumo or karate! Or they might have asked you about kimono and kimono culture or kimono dying or about the proper patterns or seasonal looks. There's no possible way you could be prepared even as a Japanese person to answer someone's question about all this. We just pick our one spot and we study it. So don't be embarrassed that you can't get an answer. Take it as a point of pride!"
Do you have any theory on why it's like that?
That's a great question! I don't know. That's a really good question. That's a PhD question! You could get a PhD just answering that question. They were closed off. I think its tradition and the social organisation.
If you think about how comedy works, we all need some set of shared experiences in order to laugh at something. My Japanese friend who was good at English when he went to the UK and couldn't understand the stand up comedy. I told him it wasn't an English language problem, I don't understand a lot of the UK stand-up as I didn't grow up in the UK. When UK comedians go to Canada to perform, they get rid of that stuff because Canadians won't understand it, they'll do other material, they'll rearrange it. It's not a language problem, it's a shared experience problem.
I think maybe in Japan there was this concentrated time of peace and shared experience. Kabuki is now high culture, it was very regular entertainment at the time. Rakugo will never be high culture! Noh, I'm not sure! It's been around a long time.
Do you enjoy being a foreigner?
The first foreign rakugo story teller was British, but of Australian birth from Adelaide. I forget that I'm foreign, sometimes people will say something. Now that I live in London it's a little bit different.
Do you have a favourite woodblock print?
I have to say the expert Mr Makino, who explained all the prints to me, explained the cat one, that was the first thing that was before we decided to do the show. They invited me to the studio, explained the idea for the show, here's three prints and this guy lectured for 45 minutes, when he said here's the cat one and he told the story behind it, that made it my favourite print for life! It's just too cool!
It's a really obvious one, but I love The Wave off Kanagawa, there's a reason that one became so famous, it's incredible. There's a new Hokusai Museum that's just opened in Tokyo. It's a small but four story building of just Hokusai and they have recreated the woodblocks of that print. So they have them on display. Each block is a separate colour, they have the block and the paper beneath the block, just putting the imprint of that block on paper. That to me is so cool. There's one colour a tinge of red I think, it's tiny on the print only in two sections, barely noticeable, but they had to carve out the rest of it to leave those tiny bits remaining! The detail! The Japanese have an eye for detail that is ridiculous.
For us for foreigners, when we go there, we don't notice anything at first. Even if they bring out a cup, it's just a cup, whatever. Then there's a moment for all of us and Japanese people aren't necessarily like "Hey look at this! Hey look at that!", they're not the best at PR for their own culture. Japanese people will say that, we don't brag about our culture. I think it's good, we should work to notice it. Whatever it is, then finally you'll notice. Someone will explain it to you. You thought it was really simple, but to make this cup it took two decades of training, you can tell it's by a master because of this and that. You look at that, and you go "You've got to be kidding me!" That all that effort made it into a cup. Then you start to notice it. That is the moment where I think people get hooked on Japanese culture! You start to notice things yourself. It's a moment where there's that ethos in Japan called kiwameru, which means take one thing to its furthest extreme. Study that, and develop this one particular skill. It turns into amazing things in Japan, culture, art!
Think about sashimi. Literally cutting fish! But they train for years and years and years to cut it properly. The knives they use for sashimi are incredibly expensive (about $3,000 USD). I was talking to my buddy who runs a Japanese restaurant in London, he was telling me the real art form of the chief is dying out. The guys who are making these knives are starting to go out of business because people aren't buying the $3,000 knives anymore.
Can you tell us about the show you're doing in London?
The show that I do is rakugo, I do story stories for the one show. I have a set of stories from which I'm picking. I have the stories in mind. I'm doing 10 shows at the Leicester Square Theatre starting September 30th (2017), it's a three week run until October 15th 2017. I've got two special shows planned, one will be on a Sunday afternoon, that'll be a special family rakugo geared towards kids. Even with standard rakugo you can bring your children, what I really love about it is that there's no swearing, there's no politics, not religion, usually there's kids in the audience in any rakugo show. So I think it has a really special place maybe in Western comedy as there's an opportunity there. With stand-up comedy there's stuff you don't want kids there for, especially if you have a few comedians there in one night, one of them's going to be swearing. Which I don't mind, I like that too, but I tell my friends that they can bring their family as there's nothing untowards for their kids to hear.
That being said, there are certain stories that kids just love! So I'm going to have a special family show. Then one of my shows happens to land on Friday the 13th! So I've got a special story called The God of Death, it's not really scary! But it's Friday the 13th themed!
I hope we get some repeaters, people who come to the normal show will come to the Friday the 13th showing, or the family show.
I'll be in Edinburgh for 18 shows at the Edinburgh Festival. Then 10 shows here in London at the Leicester Square Theatre. Then we move to New York, off Broadway. We've rented the Soho Playhouse. The owner is really behind this show, he said let's renovate the theatre into a traditional Japanese yosai theatre. Leicester Square's more like the fringe system, where once I've finished I've got to get rid of my set, there's another show coming in. So you only rent the timeslot. In New York we're renting the entire theatre. We'll hopefully be there for a year.
What are you going to do at the Edinburgh Festival? Have you done it before?
This will be my fifth year. The first year was horrible! Everybody has a bad year the first year! I didn't know anything. The theatre owner, I tried to rent his 40 seat space, and he said "No, Sunshine! I've seen your storytelling, you're going to be famous! You'll have lines outside the door." He convinced me to rent his 80 seat space. He didn't say you might want to take a day off. I rented it for 25 shows, not one day off. So I get to the first show and there's 5 people in the audience! Which is not bad for a fringe show. I think that's an average audience. Second show, zero people came, so we set it up, then we taw it down. third show two people came. By the end I had a couple of 15, 20 people shows, but for an 80 seat theatre, that's ridiculous. So I learnt my lesson. Next year I had a 30 seat space, that was OK. My third year, I found the venue I'm sticking to now. It's called Sweet Venues. They're amazing. The space I rented last year was 30 seats. We sold out every show, I was really happy. So I've learned my lesson the hard way. The shows I'm doing there will be developing the stories for the West End.
How does the Edinburgh Festival compare to other shows you do?
Edinburgh Fringe and Brighton Fringe are the two I do. They're great because it's a run in a small theatre, but it's the exact same place every night. Same time every night, only the audience is different. So it's very concentrated and it's great for developing material. Whatever you learn from today's audience you can put into practice tomorrow, because so many variable are eliminated you learn in a much more focused way about yourself and your performance.
Right now I'm doing the Brighton Festival, no Japanese people come. This is huge because Japanese people are laughing at the Japanese stuff, so people are waiting for me to translate it, but they see that the Japanese people are laughing and they think it's going to be funny so there's a whole different dynamic. When there's no Japanese people it's a lot different dynamic that I have to deal with. That's been really good, this time at the Brighton Festival I've had full houses without any Japanese people. There's been a lot to adapt, it hasn't happened anywhere else, even in Edinburgh there's always Japanese people at the show. London and New York it's irrelevant because the audience is normally about half Japanese, which is great, but it's so good to have this experience and to be able to concentrate and learn in this environment. There's that freedom for experimentation, it's like a second apprenticeship.
With Edinburgh, when you're not doing shows you're giving out flyers, it's the most exhausting one month of the year. By then end of it, you never want to do it again. Then day the run ends - "Next year this is what we're going to do!". It's like you're sick! You have a disease! The Edinburgh Addiction Disease! It's amazing, I love it and hate it at the same time.
So what sort of things do you refine when you do these stories?
It's not big changes. It's little points, little subtleties in the way you're translating something. It could be something as subtle as using cannot instead of can't. You don't want too many idioms in your language. If I used idioms it sounds too native English it sort of dilutes the Japaneseness.
One of the techniques I've developed over the last 5 years, I've noticed to get rid of as much idiomatic English as I can to make it textbook English. Then you can't put your finger on that this is Canadian English or this is American English or British English. If it's English from no country then people are free to imagine Japan. These are very subtle things. I can tell by the way people laugh. It's funny it should get a laugh and then not, there's this little idiomatic expression I didn't realise I was saying. I put it in much more text book English and it works.
Some things for Japanese rhythm for comedy is a little bit different than us. The Japanese have something called boke and tsukkomi. In manzai, two person comedy there's one person who's the clown and one person who's the straight man. The clown says something stupid and the straight man says "What the hell are you talking about?!" or "That was ridiculous" or something. It's not even funny, it's just the acknowledgement of the stupid thing. In Osaka people are waiting for that moment to laugh. So they won't necessarily laugh at the funny part because they're waiting for that reaction. That's just the rhythm of the comedy. They know it's funny, but that's just the rhythm, you wait for the guy to go "What the hell are you talking about?!" and boom! People laugh!
For rakugo we put on our own extra phrase. Japanese people are used to that rhythm. They'll laugh at the punch line and they'll laugh again at the extra phrase and then you go on. The extra phrase is something to lead you onto the next joke or the next story or whatever. I'll give you an example. In Japan when you begin a performance you normally begin with a polite greeting to the audience. In Japanese (Goraijoitadaki arigatougozaimasu. Asuku onrei wo moushiagemasu. Douzo yoroshiku onegaiitashimasu!). In English ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming. Sometimes English is longer. In Japan, people a laugh at both of those. If there are Japanese people in the audience they'll laugh at both of those. In the UK when I do the short version people laugh at that. When I say sometimes English is shorter, nobody laughs. You don't need that. Now obliviously, I'm looking for a laugh that sometimes English is shorter. Nobody's laughing. You repeat this 3 or 4 times suddenly people think, what's wrong with this guy?! Why is he putting in these obvious statements?! This happened to me last week in Brighton, I thought I lost my audience as people stopped laughing at me because I said too many of those, so I started cutting them, but this is part of the rhythm of my entire show! Once you get into the story proper this isn't a concern. Where I'm looking to get them I'm losing them. It's hard to do it with all your material to get into a rhythm, just go to the next one, forget about that extra phrase, just go to the next one. The show was tight, but it was hard to keep the audience, it's different.
What would you do with an audience that half Japanese and half non-Japanese then?
You know it doesn't matter. I don't care if everybody is laughing, as long as some people are laughing. It doesn't destroy the atmosphere. If I say Ladies and gentlemen thank you for coming, sometimes the English is shorter! Half the people break out into laughter. Nobody notices, unless the whole theatre is silent. You made 3 people laugh, at least their laughing at something an audience can relax. You're not falling, that joke appealed to 3 people. It's the same for stand up. Unless it goes on and on, and only the same 3 people are laughing at everything. Then it's a bit different! Then people will think I'm paying them to laugh! It's all about the atmosphere. It's better when some Japanese people are in the audience.
Maybe I have one advantage over a Japanese storyteller, it's that English is my native language. So I can preserve the rhythm of the Japanese, where as a Japanese person may have a hard time. There's one Japanese storyteller now, he graduated from Yale with a degree in history of Chinese literature, his English is better than mine, it's an English ability thing he's great!
The Japanese guys who do it in English, who have toured North America and Europe, they're incredible, with a foreign audience I get to see a Japanese person do it. If it's a Japanese art, I'd want to see a Japanese person do it. So I'm battling against that. If it's an all foreign audience I have to be very careful because there's all kinds of things that they'll be looking at. Is this authentic?! How much is he filtering? How much is he exaggerating? Is he making fun of Japanese people?! There's all these things. But if there's a few Japanese people in the audience laughing and going "yeah!", that's all I need as proof to what I'm doing is authentic. Especially now, you've got a lot of political correctness and cultural misappropriation. People are worried about all these kinds of different things. I've learnt how to handle this. A lot of that is focused on telling funny stories about my apprenticeship, so then people know I've spent 3 years as a servant to a master to get to do this. So then people understand that's one measure of authenticity. It's all about letting the audience relax and enjoy the humour for what it is and if they can, they usually do.
I joke to the Japanese people, if there are only two in the audience that I'm buying them a drink after the show for all the work they're doing, because people around them ask "Do you really say that?" And they go "Yeah! We do!", "OK thank you!"
Can you tell us about the work you do at The Forge as the artist in residence in Camden?
The Forge just closed about a month ago (April 2017), so I was Artist in residence there until about a week ago. I was actually living above there. The Forge was built by my friends Adam and Charlotte, so I was living there. I think they gave me title not because I was doing something artistic, but because I was in residence up there!
I had a regular show there. I also MC'd some other shows. I was doing regular artist in residence stuff. I was part of the community there. It was more of a music venue, but it was perfect for storytelling. It had to be sold. If I wasn't going to Off-Broadway, I'd be trying to find investors, I'd love to take it over. I'm heartbroken that it's going to be turned into something else, but what can you do?
Did you expect to have sell-out shows for such a specialist form of performance?
I don't expect anything these days, but anything's possible. No. I've spent my life in theatre, you have to develop your audience. I have no allusions about that. I know how hard it is to do it. I built my audience person by person in London. Last week we did a media show at the Leicester Square Theatre, it was packed with 400 people. Literally half Japanese half non-Japanese. I ticked off boxes and used a spreadsheet! It was literally 50%!
I know how hard it is to sell tickets. I know how hard it is to sell out. I will say one thing, that doing a specialist show is not a disadvantage. Japanese stuff is really popular right now. I find that people might not have heard of rakugo, but they might like anime or manga or they might just love Japanese food or fashion or something. So this is Japanese and they might go see it. There's an immediate connection. If this was the Sunshine show you wouldn't know what that is, but it's a Japanese comic storyteller, it's not a hard sell.
The other thing is because it's targeted it makes my job of promoting the show a lot easier because if it's Facebook or Adwords there's a targeted audience. I can target people who like Japanese food or Japanese culture or anime, whatever it is you have those keywords. Those ads go to people who are likely to respond to Japanese Comedy Shows.
We can advertise to Japanese restaurants. Japanese restaurateurs are very supportive of people bringing Japanese culture to the city. There are magazines, there's a magazine called Zoom Japan, or websites like Otaku News, which are geared towards people reading in English who like Japanese stuff. So to take out an ad, two pages full colour in Zoom Japan for two months, for the same money what can I get in The Times or The Independent or Time out? I'll get something tiny, and the people that are reading it, what percentage are actually interested in Japanese stuff? It's a completely different ballgame!
I'm not saying I expect to sell out, but there are real advantages to doing what I'm doing, some unexpected advantages. The other thing is how many Japanese people living in London? Let's say 50 to 60 thousand, just about as much in New York. Over the last couple of years performing here at first a lot of people who came were Japanese. Then a lot of the Japanese people who saw rakugo in English went along saying I can't believe someone's going to do this in English, but OK I'll go see it. Then a lot of Japanese people who are in relationships with non-Japanese people realised they should have brought their partner along too, they'd love it. Then the next time they do! Or their neighbour or friend or colleague or something like that. Little by little the audience has grown because non-Japanese people are being invited by Japanese people. They're my great word of mouth. It's great to do it that way.
Leicester Square Theatre I think will be well attended. New York is going to be a different story. Here it's ten shows, so it's limited, it is 4,000 seats (400 seats over 10 shows) which is a lot, but still that's the number. New York is going to be unlimited, it's 5 shows a week or 6 shows a week or whatever maybe for a year. I'll be starting from zero, building up the audience dealing with small houses at first, trying to get the word of mouth out there. Let's see where it goes!
What's your favourite element of rakugo?
I love the two very distinct performance styles that are rolled into one. The first half being very conversational, the second half being very traditional. So the first half you're making your own material, each storyteller makes their own material. The second half is a story that has been passed down for generations. I love that moment when you've gone from just joking around with the audience to suddenly (knock, knock, knock), you're into the story and the audience senses you've been brought into a world here. That one moment when I was a rakugo fan I loved it. That's the one thing people tell me about, in the UK too. They love that moment when you go into the story. It's so cool.
Are you area of the anime and manga series Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju? Have you seen / read any of it?
I've seen the anime. It's amazing.
Would you say it's accurate?
Accurate, but I would say, the rakugo elements are ones they're actually performing. I was talking with my company master Marie, we were watching a bit of it, I said this is great, but what's different? She said you can tell it's a professional seiyu (voice actor), you can tell it's a voice actor doing rakugo.
Shinigami, the god of death was a rakugo performance they did on the show. If you watch a rakugo story teller do it, it's different. It's the same story, but different. A lot of people have been finding my YouTube because of that.
I'm thrilled. Rakugo audiences go up and down in Japan usually every 4 years there's a TV programme whose theme is rakugo and lots of people rediscover rakugo. Anything that's dealing with rakugo we love. It brings people to the theatre.
Otaku News would like to thank Katsura Sunshine for coming from a faraway place at a busy time in his life to do an interview with us.
We were lucky enough to see Sunshine perform live in London. We had a great time and enjoyed master story teller doing his thing. His performance style is energetic, entertaining and full of laugher. We suggest you catch his show while you can. He'll be at the Soho Playhouse in New York from November 2017 for about a year. London based readers can catch him at Hyper Japan in November 2017 too. You can also check out his very own YouTube Channel, or visit his website to find out if he'll be near you soon.