Monday, January 24, 2005

(T) September 12, 2003 - Rakugo - Laughing With The Japanese

IF the Japanese can export cars, technology and electrical appliances, why not humour?

In the recent Rakugo (in English) performance at The Actors Studio Bangsar in Kuala Lumpur, the audience must abide by two rules as commissioned by emcee and producer Dr Oshima Kimie: first, laugh when funny; and second, which is even harder to follow, laugh when not funny. We don’t have much choice but to enjoy the show do we? The funny bones of the Japanese people lie somewhere in the monodrama of Rakugo, a Japanese traditional comedy acted out by a single person. The art form originated in the 16th century and was established during the Edo era (17th -18th century). It became the country’s favourite pastime in the late 1940s.

Rakugo can be best described as Japanese “sit-down” comedy. The most obvious difference between Rakugo and the western “stand-up” comedy is that the Rakugo performer, also called Rakugo-ka, sits on a cushion when he performs, and acts out funny stories with a comic style and structure.

In fact, you would have heard most of the stories before – some were awfully familiar e-mail forwards, whilst others were classical Japanese stories passed down from generation to generation. Thus, in the art of storytelling, it is more important how the story is being told rather than what is being told.

In Rakugo, the performer is both narrator and actor – he first sets the stage of the story and then acts out the various characters by very fluidly changing from one character to another. The performers’ behaviour is mimetic of human personality in exaggeration, making fun of society’s shortcomings and inadequacies.

The audience were not allowed to be passive as their participation was required, either physically or mentally. Throughout the performance we were posed questions, invited to perform on stage, and most importantly, challenged to use our imagination, which is the very key to Rakugo.

There are usually no props in Rakugo so the artistes would employ only a folding fan and hand towel to capture the audience’s imagination. These items, which are common objects that people carried with them in the old days, helped the performer express and act out the story.

For example, in the story Time Noodle, the folding fan was used to depict a pair of chopsticks, and in another, a pipe, the tail of a bull, and so on. The towel could be a book, bills, or an actual towel.

There are 650 Rakugo performers to date but only three can perform Rakugo in English – they are Shofukutei Kakusho, Katsura Kaishi and Katsura Asakichi. They did manage to deliver their jab of laughter although their English were slightly broken.

Initially, it was difficult to hear what Asakichi was saying as his Japanese “accent” was very thick. As a result, some may not get his jokes. However, by the time he got to telling Time Noodle, we have conditioned our ear to his accent and managed to enjoy the story which was accompanied by very real slurping noises when he imitated the act of eating noodles.

Kaishi introduced a fair amount of audience interaction in his performance. We all felt like tourists (and not him) when he took out his Polaroid and took pictures of us. He then delivers several short stories including one where he criticises the Japanese’s English education.

This was followed by a very interesting Bamboo Blinds performance, a kind of Japanese street performance, where he transformed the bamboo blinds into various shapes and sizes. He took the audience around the world with his simplistic creation of the Eiffel Tower, London Bridge, and Statue of Liberty. When it came to Malaysia, he invited a young audience to join him in creating the Twin Towers and the Penang Bridge.

The crowd’s favourite item was the puppet Rakugo dished out by Kakusho. His original style of puppetry was not well-received in Japan because it is not conventional of the Rakugo storytelling tradition. However, he earned his reputation abroad and is very well reputed at major Comedy Festivals worldwide.

His visual perception of size, height and distance credits his imagination rather than the audiences’. His puppets “grew” bigger or smaller depending on where they are and what they were doing – some were as small as toothpicks while some were as big as half his body. It was absolutely hilarious to see how he manipulated the puppets with his fingers, knees, and even his legs. The effective use of lots of colourful and childish-looking props made his punch line all the more potent.

What is the role of humour in a homogeneous society where one does not have to exercise humour to break the ice? The threat of such a society comes ironically, with having so much in common with one another that it compels the society to live in a box of comfort risking exclusion of those that are outside of it.

That is why Dr Oshima is using Rakugo as an expression of Japanese society and culture to help introduce Japan to other cultures and present a form of Japanese humour, and the Japanese society and people in a different light. So far, the troupe has performed in countries such as the United States, Singapore, Australia and Thailand. This is their sixth international tour. Rakugo completed its Malaysian tour by playing two days at The Actors Studio Greenhall, Penang, last week and two days at The Actors Studio Bangsar, KL, last weekend. The performance was supported by The Actors Studio, The Japan Foundation (Kuala Lumpur), the Consulate-General of Japan (in Penang), and the Embassy of Japan.

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