the sit­ting ‘stand-up’ comic

Kat­sura Utazo may not be con­ver­sant in English but that does not stop the Ja­panese sto­ry­telling comic from spin­ning a good old yarn in English.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By KHAIRIE TAU­FIK

BE­FORE I be­gin my per­for­mance,” says the smil­ing man dressed in a yukata, “let me tell you how to en­joy rakugo. You must learn to use your imag­i­na­tion,” he says in English, with a firm nod. As he is say­ing this, he is on bended knees on a small rec­tan­gu­lar plat­form, with just a paper fan, a towel, and a small mi­cro­phone in front of him.

“Be­cause I can­not stand or move around, and I can only use two items in my per­form-per­for­mance,” he says, rais­ing the towel and paper fan, “you must use your imag­i­na­tion to un­der­stand my ac­tions. For ex­am­ple,ex­am­ple, this is a man run­ning in the rain!” he con­tin­ues, as he rhyth­mi­cally raises his waist up and down and swings his hands to mimic a char­ac­ter run­ning through the rain, as the au­di­ence laughs.

At a per­for­mance at the Malaysia Tourism Cen­tre in Kuala Lumpur last Sun­day, Kat­sura Utazo, 46, demon­strated the art of rakugo, the tra­di­tional Ja­panese comic sto­ry­telling, or monodrama, es­tab­lished dur­ing the Edo era of Ja­pan be­tween the 17th and the 18th cen­turies.

To put it sim­ply, rakugo is to an­cient Ja­pan what stand-up com­edy is to the mod­ern au­di­ence – ex­cept that rakugo is passed down and adapted from an­cient times, rather than jokes writ­ten by per­form- ers to re­flect cur­rent trends. Also, un­like stand-up com­edy, raku­goka, or per­form­ers of rakugo, don’t walk around and dish out mono­logues and per­sonal opin­ions; rather, per­for­mance, with Utazo vividly bring­ing out the man­ner­isms and id­ioms of an­cient Ja­pan.

With his en­thu­si­as­tic act­ing, tra­di­tional props and cloth­ing, you re­ally feel as though you’ve been trans­ported to a by­gone era, stand­ing right next to the vil­lage id­iot who is try­ing to cheat the udon ven­dor out of pay­ing the full price. All of this with a lit­tle imag­i­na­tion, of course.

But will fu­ture au­di­ences still lis­ten to the same sto­ries over and over again? For Ja­panese rakugo at least, Kat­sura be­lieves they will. “Peo­ple in Ja­pan asked 10 years ago whether rakugo will change, and it hasn’t. Peo­ple still ask if, 10 years from now, it will, but I don’t think so,” Utazo says dur­ing an in­ter­view af­ter his show or­gan­ised by the Ja­pan Foun­da­tion, Kuala Lumpur. (It was his sec­ond show here; the first, in Ja­panese, was on Satur­day.)

“As for English rakugo, I think there’s a lot of po­ten­tial there.”

In­deed, Utazo il­lus­trates this point with his own recorded rakugo that’s rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent from his per­for­mance on­stage. It isn’t just a record­ing of him sit­ting down and act­ing out a story; it is a com­plete sub­ti­tled mon­tage of him rap­ping his story to the beats of rock ’n’ roll. Think less the­atre and more MTV mu­sic video. It is a lit­tle ex­per­i­ment that he says grew out of his love of rock and rakugo.

“I wanted to be a mu­si­cian ini­tially,” he quips, with a lit­tle laugh. “I like rock, and I think it’s a dy­namic el­e­ment that goes with rakugo, so I try to mix it to­gether.”

But per­haps what is most im­pres­sive about Utazo is that be­cause he doesn’t speak English, the en­tire act was scripted and mem­o­rised, and his per­for­mance re­lies on body lan­guage cues to make his au­di­ence laugh. It would be eas­ier, of course, for Utazo to tar­get Ja­panese-speak­ing au­di­ences, but in or­der to ful­fil his love of en­ter­tain­ing peo­ple, Utazo is will­ing to go the ex­tra mile.

“While I find per­form­ing in English dif­fi­cult, I hope peo­ple can un­der­stand my rakugo and repli­cate it in their own re­spec­tive coun­tries,” he says.

“Who knows, per­haps here in Malaysia you might even have a rakugo in Ba­hasa Malaysia!” he fin­ishes with a smile.

Utazo is glad that per­form­ing in Malaysia has been a good ex­pe­ri­ence for him, and that it was well re­ceived by the au­di­ence. He hopes to im­prove his craft in English and Ja­panese rakugo within the next five years, and also pur­sue his pas­sion for writ­ing. they sit down and act out a story in­volv­ing two or more char­ac­ters, il­lus­trat­ing the dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters merely by changes in pitch, tone and slight turns of the head.

The sto­ries Utazo tells are sim­ple tales, nei­ther overly witty nor sar­cas­tic, most of them re­volv­ing around the Quixote-like fig­ures back in the Ja­panese era. While the story it­self is funny, the true en­ter­tain­ment value of the show lies in its

One-man show: In his no-frills act, Kat­sura Utazo re­lies solely on his sto­ry­telling skills to trans­port his au­di­ence to the scenes of an Edo-era Ja­pan. – Shaari Chemat/ The Star

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