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.
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