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Be Here Asia

Postcards from the Road — 026 — October 2019
Over the summer I had guests that writes for a late-night comedy show in America. They were curious about the manifestations of comedy in Japan. I loved that question, because previously when I would have described ways to experience a culture, I defaulted to food, visual arts, local festivals, etc, but I hadn’t been encouraging guests to interact with the comedy scene in Japan. I think comedy requires a grasp of the language that other art forms don’t. But once you’ve reached a certain level of proficiency, comedy is an amazing lens into the personality and collective psyche of a group of people. I love that comedy differs greatly depending on the culture—British humor is different than Mexican, which is different than Japanese, which is different than Indian, etc.

Around the same time that the guest asked me about comedy, I picked up a hobby called Kirie (papercutting). I’m obsessed, I do it every day, below is my latest piece.
One of Elizabeth's Kiri-e pieces. 

When I was explaining to my friend, Shu, my new-found love of kirie, he told me about comedians that can SIMULTANEOUSLY cut paper and tell jokes, and that the image they cut into the paper is part of the punch line. The idea of that blew my mind, and so I went to Google it and learned about one of the oldest forms of comedy in Japan, Rakugo

Ragukoka (performer) doing kirie (papercutting) during the performance. 
Rakugo has been around since the Edo Era (17th century). The performance consists of a lone-storyteller, dressed in a kimono, seated on a cushion in the center of the stage, using minimal prompts, and many different voices to tell a story with multiple characters involved. 

As it happened that same week that I was asked about comedy, then learned about kirie, I was at an exhibition about the Kagawa region of Japan, and learned that they would be hosting a Kagawa related Rakugo event! It was a perfectly timed opportunity to continue my exploration of comedy in Japan. 

The performance I saw was done by, Yanagiya Karoku, who teamed up with the publishing company, D&Department, to do a comedy show about each of the 47 prefectures of Japan. Kagawa is his 22nd performance in the series. 
Yanagiya Karoku

The evening's performance was broken up into three parts, introduction, traditional storytelling, and original material. The introduction section was just to warm up the crowd. 

The stories told during the 'koten' (traditional storytelling) section have been the same for generations but the audience doesn't mind, they love hearing something familiar delivered in the comedian's unique way. Based on the performance I saw, and videos from Youtube, I feel like every one of the koten stories has a scene where a character is slurping noodles. The performers have perfected that mimicry, it sounds just like being in a ramen restaurant. 

After koten, there was an intermission. Which was much needed, because for the first 45 minutes Yanagiya was seated in seiza, a traditional posture with your legs folded underneath you. I've practiced yoga for years and know how painful seiza can be. Sitting in that position for the performance adds a physical challenge to the already challenging act of making an audience laugh!

After the break, Yanagiya came out dressed in modern clothes (no longer kimono), and he resumed his position on the stage, this time in a chair, a signal that we'd transitioned from tradition to modernity. For the third act, called shinsaku (new stories) he told original material. Yanagiya created a fictitious scenario where a famous inventor from Kagawa, Hiraga Gennai (1728-1780), came back to life in modern times and had the potential to become the next Steve Jobs, but chose to go back to his time and suffer his fate (he was jailed and died in jail). It was so clever, and even as an individual with Japanese as their second language, I was able to grasp the humor in the story. 

At the end of the performance, I learned that rakugo is an art form, just like woodblock printing or kimono manufacturing, which is created via teams. The team consists of a performer and a writer. Yanagiya’s writer is named Seidō Fujii and he is the one making the trips around the country to different prefectures to find locally relevant material to turn into jokes. 

I’m really looking forward to seeing Yanagiya in his next prefecture performance—March 26th and 27th, 2020—about the prefecture of Ehime on the island of Shikoku! Mark your calendars, it's perfectly timed for visitors coming over for cherry blossoms. I even picked up a stamp card, so I could keep track of the performances I see. 

But if you aren’t here for that performance, no worries, rakugo is performed regularly and you can see it almost every day of the week at the theaters across Tokyo from Asakusa to Ikebukuro to Shinjuku. For those interested in seeing it performed in English, there are performers focusing on that as well. 
Shinjuku Suehirotei Rakugo Theater

It’s hard to say exactly what is the unifying factor between the different forms of Japanese comedy—mandan (one comedian), manzai (two comedians), konto (group comedy), rakugo (traditional storytelling). But, this yearly Halloween tradition, where participants compete to have the most mundane Halloween costume is a good example. The comedy is subtle, self-deprecating, something that everyone can participate in, situational, and observational.
guy who face-swapped with a Starbucks cup (@dailyportalz)[spoon and tamago]
woman who forgot to take out the trash (@oni_red) [spoon and tamago
photo assistant whose only job it is to make child laugh (@dailyportalz) [spoon and tamago]
Banksy, remote-controlling his shredder at the auction (@dailyportalz) [spoon and tamago

Here’s to having a good laugh during your next visit to Japan. 

Happy Halloween to all! 

Elizabeth Mueller
Be Here Asia
P.S. To leave you with a laugh, this is a funny TV program where participants are given objects and have to bite into them to see if they are candy/chocolate or not….
Chocolate or not chocolate
Email sent lovingly from Tokyo, Japan.

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