Judit Kawaguchi

Others: Funny Japanese storytellers, singers, performers In Stitches at Suehirotei

By Judit Kawaguchi

Still, I always feel better after a visit to Suehirotei, the beautiful old theater for traditional Japanese acts in Tokyo’s Shinjuku area. Here the brilliant performers treat me to a total mental, emotional and physical workout. Mine is a set menu: I get a delicious bento (lunchbox) and a drink in Isetan department store, cross the street and get lost in the realm of the senses.

Suehirotei’s facade is fully covered with the fantastic handiwork of Tachibana Sakon, the grand master of rakugo calligraphy, depicting the names of the rakugoka in black ink. All other acts, such as jugglers, singers, paper artists, who are called iromono, are painted in red ink. He explained how these characters differed from other types of letterings, such as those used for sumo or kabuki. “For rakugo, each stroke should be wide and with as little space between the strokes as possible, as each line depicts a row of seats and we surely don’t want any empty seats in the theater! These characters bring good luck and used only on happy occasions. I’ve been at them for 40 years!“

Japanese calligraphy artist Tachibana Sakon and journalist Judit Kawaguchi in front of Tokyo's Suehirotei theater.
Japanese calligraphy artist Tachibana Sakon and journalist Judit Kawaguchi in front of Tokyo’s Suehirotei theater.

Mr. Kitamura Ikuo, Suehirotei Theater’s owner has just spent 120 million yen on restoring the 1947 building to its former glory while putting in larger, more comfy seats and new toilets. “This is the only theater in Tokyo that has both chairs and tatami seating. I keep it as authentic as possible and also as free as it gets. The performers can make fun of just about anything and in the heavily censored Japanese media, our place is special!” he says. I totally agree!

Rakugo is funny storytelling, performed by a rakugoka, who is dressed in kimono and sits on stage on a zabuton (pillow).There are two types of stories: koten, or classical, some of which are 400 years old, and shinsaku, or contemporary pieces. One thing is for sure: all are hilarious! The performer is always introduced by his or her own theme song, played by three ladies on shamisen behind the shoji screen backstage.

I met with Kitamura Masumi, who has been the head of the Rakugo Association for the past 20 years and is in charge of scheduling 270 different artists who take turns performing in the four theaters dedicated to these art forms that are left in Tokyo. “230 are rakugoka and 40 are iromono. The beauty of these art forms is that none has an age limit. We have storytellers as young as teenagers and they continue till their deaths, many in their 80’s, and 90’s. This world is very different, as the young are hanging out with the old masters and learning from them, so the art goes literally from generation to generation, unchanged by technology. “

Rakugoka Katsura Bunshou has been telling funny stories for 40 years. “I always talk about my own family in the makura part (funny warm-up to the actual story ) as this way the audience doesn’t get offended. People have no interest in hearing some happy story of me taking a luxurious trip around the world, but if I talk about how I stopped traffic and was practically kicked out of the Buenos Aires airport, and why the JCB card is not welcomed everywhere, although my wife said it would be, and how I almost choked to death at a restaurant, well, people can laugh about these kinds of troubles.” I certainly did! I also had tears running down my cheeks as I listened to him at Suehirotei give the Japanese education system, and parents, a few kicks. Later I asked him about his own youth.“I never leaned on my parents, and once I decided to be a storyteller at age 18, I moved out from my parents’ house into a little apartment, worked my butt off at a shoestore and at a gas station while running around to rakugokas to learn the trade. Students never pay any money to a teacher but we always bring gifts, a box of sweets, a sixpack, whatever he likes. I spent all my money on gifts but I was happy to as they taught me so much and I am still living off that treasure.” Now he has four students but he says a rakugoka never refuses a serious hopeful. “I can’t tell you how many ways I had to approach some of the big rakugokas to ask them to teach me, and if I was persuasive, they sooner or later accepted me. So I learnt from many, many master storytellers.“

Another master rakugoka, Katsura Nankyou adds: ”The younger storyteller has the right to learn from any of us, so if we are asked to teach someone, we never refuse. We, elders have the duty to pass the stories on and it has been done this way for 400 years.“

With each performer having only 15 or so minutes of limelight, and tickets running at 3000 yen for a whole afternoon or evening of 20 or so acts, I wonder how these artists survive.

Mr. Kitamura, the theater’s owner says:“ Going on stage and being in front of a live audience is a challenge and pleasure for them, so they don’t mind doing it for free. They get maybe 1000 yen or so for transportation expenses, that is all. This is their practice ground! ” So how do they make ends meet? “ They get paid for special shows in the countryside so they can make a living that way or they have other incomes. “ Akashi Suzue, the great singer, agrees: ”I really don’t need money. I have a small income form teaching and that is enough for me to live on.”

Rakugoka Katsura Bunsho adds: ”I guess out of the 600 storytellers in Japan, about 50 make a living on rakugo. The rest are taking on odd jobs or their wives support their storytelling habits. Of course, we make money at weddings, festivals, private parties but not on stage, that is for fun and practice, a place we sharpen our skills and keep in touch with our audience.“

Katsura Nankyou, a brilliant veteran rakugoka also celebrating his 40th year on stage, knows over 200 stories by heart. “Most are koten because I just love the characters, the little shop owners, the typical Edokkos (people born and raised in Edo, Tokyo’s former name). Back then Japanese were a lot kinder, they had to, as they lived in nagayas (long housing block with small units for each family) and they treated their neighbors like they were from the very same family. I just dig kind folks, but it is hard to find such people nowadays.”

How do they get this funny? Another veteran rakugoka, Katsura Nankyou laughs:”Practice!”

Yanagawa Fumio, the Osaka Bunraku Theater’s young PR manager loves rakugo, too: “Rakugo is fascinating because one person alone, without a set and with really minimal props can conjure up a whole scenery. It is magical how the unseen is visualized in rakugo.” Veteran rakugoka, Katsura Nankyo agrees:” I tell the same story to 100 people and they all see it from a different angle. Rakugo’s world is very deep and extremely wide and the understanding of a story really depends on the listener’s character.”

All the performers have great stage presence and Akashi Suzue is no exception. “I was 40 when I first put the shamisen on my lap. Now I am 45.” The audience is already rolling in laughter but once her ethereal voice, accompanied by the shamisen, fills the theater, every single person, even those suddenly woken up from their delicious little naps, are mesmerized by her happy little songs. She gives an intro to each one. “This is called Shinonomi Bushi and and it’s about how around 1920-30 the geishas went on strike in Kyushu because they were treated badly by their employers. Imagine?“ She is not kidding, she actually knows the geisha world.“For fifteen years I was a singer, drummer and shamisen player in the most famous dinner theatre called Matsubaya, in Tokyo’s Yoshiwara district.“ On stage she also talks about her time in the USA, way back in 1955, arriving in Lubbock, Texas, with just a day bag and going from door to door, looking for a job. “Be brave and do what you want!” is her motto and she has been sticking by it.

Funny folk singer , storyteller Suzue Akashi on stage at Suehirotei in Tokyo's Shinjuku district. Photo by Judit Kawaguchi
Funny folk singer , storyteller Suzue Akashi on stage at Suehirotei in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. Photo by Judit Kawaguchi

Another amazing performer at Suehirotei is Yanagiya Toshimatsu, who has been spinning koma (wooden tops) for over 45 years, placing them on fans, parasols, his own face, head, and just about anything he finds. How can his wildly spinning koma gently slide down the thin edges of a Japanese fan? “That takes a lot of practice. Maybe 5 years.” he says. He learnt the trade from his father and now he himself is in the teacher’s role at the National Theater, where his new three-year course is beginning next spring. “We study together five days a week so in three years the students get pretty good.“ Those interested in mastering the koma, should call the National Theatre as this art form is really a disappearing act! Learn from the masters while they are around to teach!

The incredible kamikiri artist (paper cutting), Hayashiya Niraku, is only 36 years old but has been chopping up everything in sights since he was a little kid. ”My father was a kamikiri artist so I was born with paper and scissors in hand, but I only began to seriously study from my father once I turned 20.” His fingers surely do the talking and he finishes the most elaborate images in less than one minute, while keeping us suspended in thin air with hilarious stories.

“Understanding Japanese is key for enjoying rakugo. Of course the rakugokas are all talented so they can change their voices for each character and use the fan and the handtowel to signify many things, so I guess even someone who can’t speak a word of Japanese, can appreciate that but to get the ochi, the punch line, for that one needs to speak good Japanese.” says Mr. Kitamura, Suehirotei’s owner. “Rakugo on TV is still great but definetely loses a lot of its appeal as it is very watered down and made into a more sophisticated form than what it is really intended to be. “ This sentiment seems to be shared by most artists, who feel they are truly free only in a live house, where no TV cameras are allowed. Katsura Nankyou, a grandmaster with 40 years on stage put it this way:“ Japanese TV has way too many rules. We can’t make fun of this or that, we can’t use words that are essential and of curse hilarious, partly because they are a bit edgy. So you gotta go to a live rakugo performance to really have a good time!“

Yes, go!!! These performers all do the circuit of the four Tokyo theaters that showcase their traditional art forms. Check them out at either Shinjuku’s Suehirotei, Ueno’s Suzuki Engeijou, Asakakusa’s Engei Hall, or the Ikebukuro Engeijou. Go get hooked as rakugo, shamisen, koma and the rest are all really good for you!

This Quote

Laughter is the best medicine and we don’t have to be sick to get some! — In Stitches at Suehirotei