How a Canadian Playwright Became a Japanese Rakugo Storyteller

When NHK Television was given the opportunity to take high-resolution pictures of a pristine collection of Ukiyo-e prints at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, a producer at Japan’s national public broadcasting organization developed the idea of a television program that would re-introduce the historic art form to English-language audiences by combining it with Rakugo, a traditional Japanese comedic storytelling art form. Thus, the show Dive into UKIYO-E was born.

NHK tapped Canadian Rakugo storyteller Katsura Sunshine to host the show, which recently had live tapings at Japan Society in New York and the Japan Information and Cultural Center at the Embassy of Japan in Washington, D.C. The recorded performances will be edited into eight episodes of Dive into UKIYO-E and will be broadcast on NHK WORLD TV from June through October.

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Katsura Sunshine enacts a traditional Rakugo style comic story at Japan Society in New York City, Wednesday, May 11, 2016, during the filming of NHK WORLD’s “Dive into UKIYO-E” television series. (Photo Stuart Ramson/AP Images for NHK WORLD)

Centuries of Tradition

Rakugo has a 400-year history that developed during the Edo Era, during the same time period in which Ukiyo-e was popular. Combining the two traditions is a wonderful way of educating audiences about both disciplines, giving them a taste of the meanings behind the prints while using the Rakugo style, which consists of a conversation between two or more people – played by one storyteller – that ends with a punchline.

“As soon as I heard this, I couldn’t believe that someone had this idea,” says Katsura Sunshine. “And I was glad that I was around to do this.”

From Toronto to Tokyo

So, exactly how was a gregarious, blond Canadian even around to become a Japanese Rakugo storyteller who hosts a show on NHK?

Originally from Toronto, Katsura Sunshine has spent sixteen years in Japan, nine years as a Rakugo storyteller. A musical playwright by trade, he arrived in Japan to study Noh and Kabuki, but he became so fascinated by Rakugo that he delved into that art form instead.

“Rakugo is very much a continuum of what I was doing before,” says Sunshine during an interview the day after his Japan Society taping. “I was writing musical comedy, and it was based on ancient material – Aristophanes, ancient Greek material. And so when I saw Rakugo: It’s traditional, it’s comic, it has elements of theater. It seemed like I was waiting to meet Rakugo.”

Sunshine, whose real name is Gregory Robic, didn’t suddenly become a Rakugo storyteller. After befriending other storytellers and expressing his desire to join them on stage, he was advised not to go the traditional route of becoming an apprentice and was instead told to memorize stories and break into the Rakugo world that way.

“Just memorizing stories and doing it is not really doing it,” says Sunshine. “I couldn’t put my finger on it, but when I was watching Rakugo, each storyteller’s style is their own, and yet they have something in common that if someone had not done the apprenticeship and training – just doing it as a hobby, even if they’re funny and good – there’s just something not there . . . I knew there was something you got from the apprenticeship that you couldn’t get any other way.”

The Apprenticeship

In 2008 Sunshine was accepted as an apprentice to the great Rakugo master Katsura Bunshi VI (then named Kastura Sanshi), a process he describes as “not fun.”

“You spend every waking hour for three years with your master,” he says of the apprenticeship, which has had the same structure for hundreds of years. “You have to be at your master’s house every day. Do his laundry, carry his bags, other chores . . . You can’t go too far because the master may call you. I got a call, and he said ‘I can’t find my glasses, come over.’ And it was one in the morning.”

There was no drinking, no smoking, and no dating. There was also no vacation time or breaks to visit family during the holidays. Luckily, six months into Sunshine’s apprenticeship, his master had a show in Toronto, which allowed him to see his parents and perform for them.

As strict as the apprenticeship was, he learned a great deal of discipline in his three years with Katsura Bunshi, saying, “It taught me a lot about how to behave in Japanese society.”

Before his apprenticeship, Sunshine says he “was fluent in very broken Japanese,” and he didn’t have the Japanese system of using keigo, or polite language, down to a science yet. Katsura Bunshi was strict from the beginning so that Sunshine would learn to speak properly to him and other Rakugo masters.

“It’s really actually very efficient,” Sunshine says of the hierarchical world of Rakugo. “You can go into a dressing room, never having met any of the other performers, and just by knowing you’re the least senior person there, I know I have to get the tea, I know I have to hold the kimonos, I know I’d better be on the drums when the first person goes out, and help them get dressed and then undressed, and I know that when we go out after, I’m not going to have to pay a thing. It’s all very organized.”

Rakugo and Jazz

Sunshine likens Rakugo storytellers to jazz musicians in terms of creating a show right before going out on stage. “We could have a ten-minute meeting and provide two hours of entertainment for an audience, never having met,” says Sunshine. “In Rakugo, you’re never on stage with the other person, but if we’re Rakugo storytellers, I’ll say, ‘Okay, I’m going to do a story about a thief,’ and you’ll say, ‘Okay, I’ll do a story about a fighting couple,’ and the other storyteller will say, ‘I’ll do something about a samurai.’ For the audience this is two hours of very fulfilling entertainment that has a kind of trajectory.”

These days that trajectory is moving toward more modern language.

“Unlike Kabuki theater and Noh theater, Rakugo is a living art form, so we have to entertain,” says Sunshine. “So if things become too archaic for people to understand, they’re not going to laugh. So our masters are constantly updating stories.”

Rakugo master Katsura Beicho, a Living National Treasure who died last March at the age of 89, updated traditional stories from Osaka. “He changed them just enough so that people could understand them and laugh,” says Sunshine. “He basically revived a whole body of work.”

While hundreds of works have been revived, with 700 storytellers in Japan, Rakugo is not in danger of losing craftsmen in the same sense that kimono and urushi lacquerware are.

“Rakugo has never been more alive,” says Sunshine.

Still, many Westerners may not be familiar with the comedic storytelling art form.

“If you took a survey of New Yorkers and said to random people, ‘Have you ever heard of Rakugo,’ I think you’d get one out of a thousand or one out of ten thousand,” says Sunshine. “It hasn’t even entered the consciousness yet. So I think people watching the show [at Japan Society] might be seeing it for the first time . . . Rakugo as a verbal comedic art form has not yet really been exported. Of course, there are some Japanese Rakugo storytellers who do it in English and other languages and do tours, but up until now it’s been kind of a cultural artifact.”

When Sunshine performed for the first time six years ago in Canada, the audience’s reaction gave him the feeling that Rakugo has potential outside of Japan. Combining it with Ukiyo-e on NHK will give the comedic form a broader audience.

“Because Rakugo is also from the same era [as Ukiyo-e], the atmosphere really works,” says Sunshine. “Each print has so much more to it than meets the eye. It’s not a show about the technique; the show is about the story that’s behind the print.”

Sunshine has been writing original Rakugo stories to fit the prints, and he performed them here and in D.C.

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Katsura Sunshine at Japan Society in New York City, Wednesday, May 11, 2016, during the filming of NHK WORLD’’s ““Dive into UKIYO-E”” television series. (Photo Stuart Ramson/AP Images for NHK WORLD)

As the only foreign Rakugo storyteller currently performing, Sunshine has a great deal of respect for the history and tradition of Rakugo and is the new face of an old art form. The name Sunshine is derived from his master’s former name Sanshi, with “san” meaning “three” and “shain” meaning “shine” or “bright.” Together, “Sanshain” sounds like “Sunshine.” Oh, and his hair is not his natural color, by the way. His master told him to dye it bleach blond because he didn’t look “foreign enough.”

Next year Sunshine, who currently lives in London as Artist in Residence at The Forge Venue, will perform Rakugo on the West End, and he has hopes of bringing his show to Off Broadway within the year.

“The interesting thing is that my dream when I was a musical theater writer was to have my show in New York and London,” says Sunshine. “I put that away, but now Rakugo has brought me to New York and London.”

It’s a path he didn’t originally expect to take, but Katsura Sunshine has become a shining star of Rakugo.