Diving into Ukiyo-e with Rakugo Storyteller Katsura Sunshine

The Wave (here, in miniature, a refrigerator magnet purchased at Narita Airport, Japan) is a well-known example of Japanese woodblock prints known as Ukiyo-e. On the walls of art museums worldwide, as well as refrigerators and dormitories, what was created as amusement for the common people in Japan during the Edo Era is appreciated as fine art today.

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“The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Hokusai

Rakugo, a humorous style of storytelling, was another art form for the masses in Japan during the same period.

Until now, the art of Rakugo remained little known outside Japan because the stories were written and told – in Japanese.

Katsura Sunshine, a Canadian playwright, discovered Rakugo when he went to Japan three decades ago. He has become one among 700 Rakugo storytellers in Japan today, and one of only 70 performers who have borne the name Katsura.

And this Katsura performs in English!

His repertoire ranges from the Abbot and Costello “Who’s on First” comedy classic arranged Rakugo-style to dozens of traditional Japanese versions of  “The Carp Streamer,” “Edo Tokyo Fashion,” and “Mt. Fuji Tour Guide,” among others.

Katsura was in New York recently, taping new episodes for his TV series, Dive into UKIYO-E, which can now be seen on cable TV through NHK, the Japanese broadcast network. (Check NHK online to find your station.)

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Katsura Sunshine

Ukiyo-e will never be the same, once brought into Katsura’s world. In his taping at Japan Society for an audience of Japanese and non-Japanese, Ukiyo-e became an intimate view of Japan during the Edo era. This month, May, is the season of Koinobori in Japan, and Katsura explained that the giant carp, which dominates the print, is only a fraction of the story being told. Besides explaining about this Boys’ Day festival in Japan, Katsura made the audience take note of the Samurai houses in the background, the distance between the elite and the common people in that day, rather than the large black-and-white carp in the foreground.

In “Edo-Tokyo Fashion,” we look closely at the footwear of the figures: Straw sandals and high, lacquered geta sandals.

Katsura, a Canadian with bleached blond hair, brings the spirit of old Japan with him to TV screens, and in 2017 his one-man show is opening at London’s Leister Square.