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Funny business

Katsura Sunshine performs at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August 2014   © Courtesy of Dokachin

Humor is hard to translate, but Canadian Gregory Robic, who performs under the stage name Katsura Sunshine, is bringing down the house with his take on Japan's art of comic storytelling: rakugo. "It's so different from stand-up comedy," he said. "I think I've found a niche." Indeed, this cross-border comic is the first professional Western rakugo performer of this kind, tickling audiences worldwide in English and fluent Japanese.

A Sunshine performance sparks laughter.   © Courtesy of Dokachin

     Rakugo is no easy act. A Westerner aspiring to this 400-year-old tradition is, well, almost laughable. All professional rakugo performers must undergo a rigorous three- to four-year apprenticeship. During Sunshine's training, from 2008 to 2011, he was given no special treatment as a foreigner. "The reason there are no other foreigners is because of the apprenticeship," Sunshine explained.

     He would begin early every day at his master's house, preparing and folding his kimono. He would then clean, cook, and do the laundry and other chores. He wasn't allowed to drink, smoke or go on dates, and had no days off. He also wasn't able to go home until his master said so, and that was often close to midnight. "It was kind of like being a slave for three years," Sunshine said, "but the master pays for everything."

     Sunshine also learned the workings of Japan's social hierarchy, in which traditional arts such as rakugo are steeped. "I learned so much about proper manners and how to treat my seniors," he said. "I poured a lot of tea." He also learned polite keigo Japanese -- a requirement for all rakugo professionals. "The hierarchy is the reason why the shows run so smoothly."

     During the shows, he was essentially a stage manager, setting up the props, lights and sound equipment. There, he watched and learned the storytelling techniques of his master, the famous rakugo performer Katsura Bunshi VI, who gave Sunshine his stage name in 2008.

     Bunshi is known for his repertoire of more than 230 stories adapted from traditional forms. "He's been a popular stage and television personality for over four decades," said Sunshine.

     Sunshine, 44, performs rakugo in the Osaka-based kamigata tradition. Australian Kairakutei Black I (1858-1923) was the first Westerner to perform in the Tokyo-based Edo tradition. There are now over 700 professional rakugo storytellers performing in the kamigata or Edo styles. While men dominate the rakugo stage, the number of professional women performers is now about 40, and steadily growing.

     Sunshine's journey to Japan's rakugo stage began at the University of Toronto, where he was introduced to the works of Aristophanes, the ancient Greek comic playwright. Aristophanes' comedies became the focus of his work as a playwright and composer of musicals. His 1995 musical adaptation of Aristophanes' "The Clouds" was a smash hit and toured widely in Canada.

     During his studies he discovered writings by a scholar exploring the similarities between ancient Greek comedies and tragedies, and the Japanese Noh and Kabuki theaters. They were similar in "the use of masks, the instruments they used and the similarities in declaration -- speaking, chanting, singing," Sunshine explained. Since it was no longer possible to see the original Greek theater, he decided in 1999, at the age of 29, to go to Tokyo. "In a word, I came to see Kabuki," he said with a laugh. "I planned to return home, but I got really hooked on Japan. I thought this place was too interesting for words."

     In fact, his fascination with words was a major pull during his first, eight-year sojourn. He had already studied Latin, Greek, Russian and French. Why not Japanese? The stars aligned during his fifth year in Japan, at a small yakitori restaurant he frequented near his apartment in Yokohama. "The owner used to put on little rakugo shows in the restaurant every couple of months. When I saw those performances I thought, 'I was born for this. This is it.'"

     The owner encouraged Sunshine to put together an accordion comedy routine after learning he'd been playing the instrument since childhood. He could then do his shtick between rakugo performances as an iro-mono, or variety act. He gained an insider's view of the world of Japanese comedy. "The formal greetings and the way the junior person takes care of things were so cool to see," he said. "It was like the samurai world was still in existence."

     Rakugo's wide appeal lies in its clean humor, he explained. There are no vulgar words. "It's family entertainment," he said. "Very different from stand-up comedy, where you try to show your confidence and make fun of people in the audience. In rakugo, you try to get the audience to like you." Humility is key.

     "It's also about keeping an eye on the next performer," he explained. A rakugo lineup typically includes several performers, who take to the stage in order of seniority. The headliner goes last as the most senior person. "You never want to go overtime, and you never want to make the audience laugh so hard they're tired for the next performer," he said. "Half of your mission is to make things easy for the next person. It's an individual art form but because of the way it's structured you create an overarching show for the audience as if the storytellers perform together all the time. It's kind of like being a jazz musician. You come with your standards and then you plan the show with the other players."

     Sunshine's professional rakugo debut was in 2009 in Singapore. Ever since, this 182cm tall, blond raconteur with the mile-wide smile has been wowing audiences worldwide with his high-octane, one-of-a-kind performances. Dressed in kimono and kneeling in the traditional seiza style on a zabuton cushion, he plucks laughter, giggles and guffaws from audiences with the rhythm, timing and energy of an athlete. Rakugo performances are a workout. His props include a fan and a handkerchief that he uses to wipe sweat from his face.

     Accolades are mounting. Sunshine has been widely praised in the press and featured on TV in Japan and abroad. In 2013, he was appointed the cultural ambassador for the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan, which backed his North American tour of 20 cities that year. The CCCJ also supported his 2014 world tour from July through December, gaining the savvy chamber some major cultural mileage from his performances in the U.K. (Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Oxford, London); Ljubljana, Slovenia; and Paris.

     Sunshine is setting his sights high, but in keeping with Japanese tradition, he never forgets who helped launch his career. "I'd like to become an international star ... bringing my master's rakugo to the world in English and other languages. This is my dream," he said. Indeed, humor can be translated successfully -- with the right kind of language.

Lucy Birmingham is a Tokyo-based journalist, scriptwriter, author and former photo journalist.

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