The Japan Studies program at the University of Washington hosted the Japanese Rakugo (traditional comic storytelling) event “Rakugo! An evening with Katsura Sunshine,” sponsored by the Mitsubishi Corporation and NHK World on November 1 and 2, 2016. The event took place at the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center at UW. It was a live taping for NHK World’s TV program “Dive into Ukiyo-E” series and included a Rakugo one-man show. Professor Akiko Iwata served as the Master of Ceremonies and Department Chair, Professor Paul Atkins gave the opening remarks and conducted an interview with Katsura on stage to close out the show. Admission was free, and in total about 190 people attended over two nights.
Rakugo is one form of Japanese traditional entertainment. A lone storyteller sits on stage and tells a story with only a small cloth and a paper fan as props. The storyteller plays multiple roles with different tones of voice and gestures. Rakugo started in the Edo period (in the 17th – 19th century) and was very popular among the common people. Nowadays, Japanese or English Rakugo is performed worldwide.
Katsura Sunshine was born in Toronto, Canada. He learned of Rakugo when he first visited Japan in 1999. He completed his three-year Rakugo apprenticeship in 2012 with the great Rakugo storytelling master Katsura Bunshi VI (then named Katsura Sanshi), and received the name “Katsura Sunshine” from the master. He is the first Western Rakugo storyteller in the history of the Osaka-based Kamigata Rakugo, and only the second Western Rakugo storyteller in the history of Japan.
In the “Dive into Ukiyo-e” series, the world of Ukiyo-e (traditional Japanese woodblock prints) was presented in Rakugo-style storytelling. Ukiyo-e flourished during the Edo period in the 18th-19thcentury and colorfully depicts the manners and customs of the Edo era. In this show, Katsura Sunshine introduced six Ukiyo-e that are preserved in the Spaulding Collection of the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. These were painted by famous Ukiyo-e artists such as Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige. The six episodes were “Warding Off Bad Luck,” “Sticky Potatoes,” “A Turtle is Ten Thousand Years,” “Rain Keeps Falling,” “Chrysanthemums,” and “Fireworks.” The “Dive into Ukiyo-e” series will be broadcast from December 25 to January 1 on NHK World in the Puget Sound area.
The performances were mostly in English but some Japanese was included. The show was lighthearted and full of laughter from the audience as they were introduced to the intriguing cultural aspects of the Edo people. We hope that this may encourage UW students to dive into Japanese performance arts as non-native speakers, following the example of Katsura Sunshine.