The human experience is fodder for rakugo.
Kennedy Theatre photo

Rakugo: universal laughter

By Tim Ryan

Rakugo is Japan's humorous approach to fundamental human experiences. Employing only a folding fan and hand towel, the rakugo artist sits on a cushion in the middle of a stage and tries to capture the audience's imagination with pantomimes, facial expressions, and funny stories.

Rakugo artist Shijaku Katsura performs here Sunday. He was born in Hyogo Prefecture and began studying under Beicho Katsura in 1961. He made his public debut in 1962. He appears in this performance with two other Rakugo artists, Kujaku Katsura and Bill Crowley.

These questions were submitted to Katsura and translated by Peter Tanaka, director of International Programs at the University of Hawaii.

QUESTION: What does rakugo mean?

ANSWER: "Falling word," as in punchline.

Q: What is the usual reaction by United States audiences to rakugo?

A: Humor is basically a release from stress or tension ... you have tension, then release, tension, then release. Humor can differ from country to country (in that) stresses have to do with politics, or the economy, etc. But rakugo deals with human nature, the universal - a man wants to associate with a woman, someone gets sleepy, one's reaction to the smile of a baby - humans respond to universal themes, no matter where they are from.

Q: Why is rakugo funny?

A: The base level is this notion of tension and release. You tell the story, people become involved with the story, they empathize, then there's a sudden release or shift or switch in the story and the surprise element creates the humor.

On the intellectual level - there are high values and low values - differences which allow us to look at a character through our value judgments. We can feel superior to this character and his predicament. On the emotional level, it's interesting to see someone in a difficult position, to laugh at their predicament but basically to identify with it and be able to laugh because we are watching it and it is close to home.

It's funny because there is the surprise element, the unexpected, whether intellectually, a switch in our ideals or expectations, or emotionally, our emotions are toyed with or manipulated by the artist in an unpredictable way. On the physical level, the artist switched back and forth seamlessly between characters. This sudden switching on all levels, this tension and release, creates the humor.

Q: Why are the folding fan and hand towel important to the rakugo?

A: These are common objects that people carried with them in the old days. In rakugo, the skill is all in the imagination in the artist's skill in drawing on the imagination of the audience. So in a regular play production you would have other props. In rakugo, the props and makeup are spare: the towel and fan are for symbolic use. The towel represents a flat object, like paper; a fan conveys an object such as a stick.

Q: How is rakugo different in content and delivery than western style comedy?

A: Western style often has a narrator, someone who tells the story, does the set up, etc. In rakugo, one can be a narrator but also become the character in the story. You are that person, without the narrator coming in between, and you are all the characters in the story and switch very fluidly and seamlessly from one character to the other from one side of the story to the other with great skill. You play a number of roles, going back and forth without saying you are this character or that character, without identifying who you are. It's in the skill that draws on the audience's imagination like in the free association of a dream.

Playing for laughs

What: Shijaku Katsura performs Rakugo
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Kennedy Theatre mainstage
Cost: $16 general; $13 students and senior citizens, UHM faculty and staff
Call: 956-7655

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