#34 Katsura Sunshine
Katsura Sunshine is a Canadian Rakugo performer who trained in Japan and has performed in New York, London, and Japan. This interview looks at his Rakugo career path and his dream, held at Sardi's, the birthplace of the Tony Awards and a sacred place on Broadway.
J-collabo Interview: Rakugo performer Katsura Sunshine
- First of all, please tell us about your recent activities.
I have three projects going on at the same time right now. One is New World Stage, which is in its fourth year on that Broadway. So far it's once a month, and this one is in its fourth year (as of 2023); I've been doing it since September of 2019. I will be entering our 5th year in a little while.
Secondly, in New York City, there are 40 theaters concentrated in one place called Broadway, right? In London, there is a similar concentration of 39 large theaters in the West End. Musicals performed there are similar to those in New York, such as Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Les Miserables, and so on, forever. But of course there are places where different things are being done. I am now in our second year of performing in the West End.
The third thing I am working on is comedy special content for Netflix for Rakugo. I hope to make it by the end of this year or the beginning of next year. The first performance will be at that Suehiro-tei in Shinjuku, which is probably the closest thing to an Edo-era Yose (a popular performing arts hall for Japanese classical arts).
That's all there are to it.
- Why did you become a Rakugo performer?
When I was first in Japan, I was interested in Kabuki and the Noh play. My love of Japanese culture brought me to Japan, but it wasn't until I had lived here for five years that I saw Rakugo for the first time. It wasn't a theater or Yose, but a monthly rakugo performance in the tatami room of a small yakitori restaurant.
The owner of the restaurant was a Rakugo maniac, and he was also a Rakugo producer. He told me, "Well, it's Japanese culture, so come see it," and I did, and that's when I fell in love with Rakugo at first sight.
Originally, I was a playwright, composer, and comedy writer, and I translated classical Greek comedies and made them into musicals and so on. I have lived in Japan all my life, and I love Japan, and in Rakugo I have found everything I have ever loved and studied, such as comedy, traditional elements, theatrical performance, Japanese culture, and so on.
- From your point of view, what is the charm of Rakugo?
The stories that I tell in the latter part of the performance after Makura are all-purpose, ranging from old stories that have existed since Shakespeare's time to new stories, and I think they are very attractive.
- What was the story behind your love of Rakugo until you actually studied under Master Bunshi?
Basically, up until then I was a playwright and composer. Then I was working with Broadway in mind all the time. Also, I was a producer, the head behind the scenes. I knew the process of how to make a long run on Broadway, and I also knew the good things that happen when a show runs for many years.
But actually, I gave up my dream of Broadway when I became a Rakugo performer. It was my dream to have my work performed on Broadway, but when I became a Rakugo performer, I didn't think I would be that active overseas. I thought it would be enough to go overseas a little bit, or to give demonstrations to promote Japanese culture. I chose to work as a rakugo performer in Japan rather than on Broadway because it was so much more interesting.
This wasn't a fork in the road after all, but at the time I had no idea that this Rakugo would lead me to Broadway. After I became a Rakugo performer, I spent three years learning a lot under a master, and soon after that, I decided to try Rakugo overseas for a bit. Then I went abroad to perform rakugo, and wherever I went, people actually laughed a lot! Plus, no matter what country I went to, everyone laughed at the same points as the Japanese. Comedies are usually related to national characteristics, culture, and language, but this Rakugo can be performed in English or French. I was so moved by this that I decided to go to Broadway, and, well, it took me a long time, but I made it this far.
- How did you practice many parts in Japanese at first while you were training under your master?
I practiced by speaking again and again and again. My Japanese was so bad at the time of my training that it took me half a year to learn a single story. Even after six months of hard work, when I performed in front of my master, he would say, "Your Japanese is not good enough. But I worked hard and persisted.
- How much time did you spend with your master?
During my training, I worked with my master from morning till night every day. I lived in a dormitory, and my master might call me even late at night, for 3 years.
- How did you yourself get to this Broadway?
I was producing myself, as I still am. I don't think there is any producer in the world who would consider doing Rakugo on Broadway. Yet I could envision that goal. I knew Broadway well enough to know that a lot of time (8 years) and money (100 million) would already be used up. I would have to turn down jobs in Japan while I was abroad. With the support and encouragement of many investors, I finally got there. Self-promotion alone was not enough; I had to create my own business plan and work with a budget.
The system I used for fundraising is a system that has been in place for every musical on Broadway show for 100 years. It is quite different from the Japanese entertainment system. If you want to do a big show in Japan, it usually lasts about 6 months, and you basically get sponsors from big companies. And the media involved get a lot of benefits from the promotion. But on Broadway, it's usually individuals who invest their own money, and that's how the musicals are made. I have investors who invested because they didn't think they would be able to invest in a life like this anymore, so they are investing because of this experience and this learning.
- You are from Canada and perform Rakugo in English.
There is a part in Rakugo called "Makura," in which the performer speaks before going into the main story, right? There is a self-introduction, and then a bit of self-deprecation. For example, in a Japanese talk, I might say, "I perform rakugo all over the world, and I want to become a living national treasure someday. My dream is to become a living national treasure in Japan, but at the moment I think I have a better chance of being deported than of becoming a national treasure. and so on. Well, I talk about what is unique about Japan from a foreigner's point of view, and also about what is difficult or culturally different in that part of my stories.
But basically, I don't change my material from Japanese Rakugo. One thing I learned early on in my career as a Rakugo performer is that I don't have to arrange my performances that much for foreign audiences. For instance, I once changed the cranes in a story to flamingos to suit overseas audiences. Sound-wise, flamingos are more interesting than cranes. But it wasn't that well received, because when people say flamingo, it reminds them of Florida, which is different from Japan.
Still, I am changing the way the language is spoken. I try not to make the customers feel as if they are being spoken by a white person. So sometimes when people who were born in Osaka come to see my performances on Broadway or in London, I am very happy when they say, "Sunshine, your English sounded just like Osaka dialect! because I was able to convey the atmosphere of an Osaka person to them. That is sometimes said to me, and I consider it the highest compliment.
- How do you decide what story to tell at each performance?
The first priority is to decide on the mood. However, about 80% of the audience is newcomers each month, so I need to have some introductory material. But there are also repeaters, so I try to keep a balance so that if possible, those who came last month and those who came this month can hear a slightly different story each time. Also, sometimes I tell a story that matches the season, for example, in February we have Valentine's Day, so I tell a romantic story. In December, Christmas and other family festivals are in full swing, so I try to tell a rakugo story that children will enjoy. Also...sometimes I do adult rakugo, in which I ask the audience not to bring their children along because it is a bit for adults.
- By the way, do you have a favorite story?
For example, the story "Peach Boy" and the story "Chiritotechin," in which a man who thinks he knows everything is made to eat rotten tofu, which is a very rare delicacy. The reason why I like telling these stories is because they are so full of unique Japanese culture. Japanese people have a different manner of drinking sake than Western people, for example, they fill the top of the glass to the very top. In the first part of the show, I can talk about a lot of interesting aspects of Japanese culture to the audience. And I love it because all of these elements are in my favorite story. I hope you all enjoy watching the show!
- Do you have any plans to take on an apprentice in the future?
If a sincere person comes to me, I will take that person. If a Japanese apprentice comes in, for instance, I will teach him or her English so that he or she can perform Rakugo in English.
- What is your ultimate goal?
I want Rakugo, the Japanese language, to become English, like karaoke or sushi. I want to work hard so that Rakugo will be an option on Broadway along with musicals, and like "Let's go see Rakugo!".
- What is Japan like from your point of view?
It is a place where there are so many living traditions. I have many friends who are involved in Japanese traditions as a hobby or job. I think it's great that everyone is doing something traditional in a natural way. There are now more than 1,000 professional storytellers called Rakugo performers. I don't think there is any other country in the world where such a tradition has been going on for 400 years. I think Japan is really wonderful.
Interviewer: Mari Kakizawa