January 28, 2007
Funny old man: A night out at rakugo
The Parco theater is an unlikely setting for a centuries-old entertainment form: it sits atop a mall at the center of hip, ultra-modern Shibuya, minutes away from the busy crossing of "Lost in Translation" fame.
But rakugo comedian Shinosuke Tatekawa returns to Parco every year for a month-long run of "Rakugo" shows, part of his drive to bring 18th-century merrymaking to a younger generation more used to chuckling at YouTube clips.
Saturday's show kicked off to a tune on traditional drums and flute, with a single zabuton mattress at the center of the stage. The audience erupted in cheers as Shiosuke shuffled in -- after 10 years of performances here, he has become a Shibuya favorite.
The zabuton is an important element in rakugo, seemingly allowing the rakugo-ka, or comedian, to lean back and forth for emphasis. That might seem subtle, but subtlety is at the heart of a rakugo performance: the rakugo-ka weaves together comic tales using just his voice, facial expressions, a hand towel and foldable fan, which he might use to imitate talking on the phone, or to point at the audience.
The audience is an important rakugo element, too, and Shinosuke slipped back and forth between a conversation with the crowd, and the imaginary world of his stories.
One story was about a modern-age young man visited by Japan's mythical seven lucky gods. Japan's young have forgotten the ancient deities, who must peddle their services as door-to-door salesmen, Shinosuke said. The tale, and how he told it, was hilarious.
Shinosuke also quipped about a recent scandal at the Japanese confectioner, Fujiya, which was found to have routinely sold cream puffs made from old milk. Kabuki has long served as an outlet for social commentary and satire, albeit in veiled form.
Parco presents Shinosuke Rakugo runs most days in January.
Shinosuke Tatekawa's home page (Japanese)
What Makes the Japanese Laugh? The Art of Wordplay and Storytelling, Asia Society
Rakugo: universal laughter, Honolulu Star Bulletin