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Cultural Dialogue podcast

The HKTDC Hong Kong Book Fair 2015, in July, attracted more than one million visitors and over 580 exhibitors. But it was not only about books. Among the 360 cultural events on offer was traditional Japanese Rakugo comic storytelling, performed by Katsura Sunshine. The Canadian-born performer explains what it’s all about.

Is Rakugo different from other kinds of humour?
It’s not, and certainly the Rakugo style of humour – this form of comic storytelling – is very universal. So the performance that I just did in English is word-for-word the same performance I do in Japanese; same rhythm, direct translation, and because it’s story-based, anybody can understand it in any culture.

The Japanese Pavilion at the HKTDC Hong Kong Book Fair 2015 featured Canadian-born rakugo (comic storytelling) artist Katsura Sunshine, who entertained audiences kneeling on a cushion with only a fan and hand towel for props

What is your background and how did you end up learning Rakugo?
I was originally a playwright and composer, and I was doing musicals in Toronto. As part of my research, I focused on ancient Greek comedy – of [comic playwright] Aristophanes – and I read an article by a scholar who wrote that the ancient Greek tragedies and comedies had coincidental similarities to Japanese noh and kabuki [dramas], so that was what took me to Japan. If I had seen Rakugo comic storytelling then, I would not have understood a word, because it is long storytelling, kneeling on a cushion; there is not much action. I don’t think I would have appreciated it then. It was only in my fifth year in Japan that I happened upon Rakugo, and at that point I could speak Japanese. It struck me like a tonne of bricks. I said: “This is what I am going to do.”

You have lived in Japan for 15 years and speak Japanese like a native speaker, but are you able to switch back and forth between Japanese and English?
A few weeks ago, I performed for sponsors of my world tour and there were business men and women, some of whom understood only Japanese and some of whom understood only English, and so that was a completely bilingual performance.

The humour that you perform is rather “scat” – if you could put it that way. For example, one of your humorous asides was about a boy who had an extremely long name; but this also went along with a story as well. That is humour in Japanese as well as in English?
Exactly, that’s a great example. That’s a very traditional Japanese story; almost every Japanese person knows that name and the storyline of Jugemu, the kid with the long name.

What is that long name?

The name is:  Jugemu Jugemu Gokō-no surikire Kaijarisuigyo-no Suigyōmatsu Unraimatsu Fūraimatsu Kuunerutokoro-ni Sumutokoro Yaburakōji-no burakōji Paipopaipo Paipo-no-shūringan Shūringan-no Gūrindai Gūrindai-no Ponpokopī-no Ponpokonā-no Chōkyūmei-no Chōsuke

And translated into English, it means?
Jugemu Jugemu Gokō-no surikire Kaijarisuigyo-no…(laughs) .. better not to translate some things!

What made you decide to come to this book fair when your act is a performance rather than a book?
I think the organisers of the Book Fair were really interested in not just books, but the cultural dialogue. That’s why one of the biggest exhibits was manga and anime, all about Japanese culture. Certainly, what attracted me was when the organisers said they were transmitting Japanese culture: this is a 400-year-old tradition of Japanese storytelling that has been passed along verbally, so I think it is just a different kind of book.

What is your impressions of the Hong Kong Book Fair?
When I hear of book fairs, I think of a little county fair, so I was unprepared for the sheer scale of this event. Just to walk through it seemed endless and so many countries are participating. But I really feel that the Hong Kong audience is an ideal audience for me and my kind of storytelling, because it’s a very verbal art and there is a lot of play on words and talking about language.

I heard that one in seven people in Hong Kong come to the Book Fair, people buying books and putting them in suitcases and taking them home and reading them. When I am performing in Hong Kong, I really feel that love of language.

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