＜This article has been translated using DeepL so there may be inconsistencies with the translation due to this.＞
Table of contents
Before and after the corona disaster
What’s the first thing that comes to mind before and after?
For example, before Corona, it was a kind of status for a rakugo performer to draw such a large audience that you couldn’t get a ticket, but with the current ruckus, it’s like “don’t draw people”, isn’t it?
Around February, the Diamond Princess became a hot topic of conversation, but at that time the rakugo world was still fine. Some masters were making stories about the ship. From the second half of the year, rakugo performances gradually began to be cancelled. Even in the dressing room of the Rakugo performances, people were saying, “Huh? This is a bit odd, isn’t it?” By March, this was getting to be a really tough situation, with more and more Rakugo events being cancelled.
The rakugo boom created a good trend, and the yose was a nice touch. In February, a storyteller, Hakuzan Kanda, was putting on a headliner show. The number of young audience members was rapidly increasing and I was thinking, “The entertainment world is going to get better and the Yose will thrive,” when all this commotion happened.
The daytime seating, which used to be full of people, became completely empty.
I became a rakugo performer in 1996. Back then, rakugo was called the winter time of the year. Not many people came to the vaudeville theater. There were days when the performance was delayed until no one came in. Young people thought rakugo was tacky and old-fashioned.
I remember that scene in my mind. In the dressing room, the masters said, “It’s just like going back to the old entertainment hall. I was the last performer at Shinjuku Suehirotei from April 11. To be honest, I was really worried about what would happen if I continued to perform and the audience and the performers got corona. I didn’t want even one person to get infected with the corona. I wanted a theater to be a place where no one would get hurt. If a performer makes a mistake and gets hurt, that’s fine (laughs).
Finally, in April, the state of emergency was declared. Yose performances were held even during the war. So it was impossible for the vaudeville theater to be closed. Yonemaru Katsura, the 95-year-old master of Utamaru, said it is the first time he had ever done something like this. The entertainment hall and vaudeville theater, which used to be open even during the war, are closed. This is when I realized the gravity of the situation.
That’s why all the performers were bored. To be honest, at first I was relieved and thought, “That’s a nice break. We could get our stories straightened out and write thank-you letters and such. But as the days go by, I’m getting more and more impatient. Of course, I don’t know what’s going to happen to me at this point, but some reports say that I won’t be back to normal for at least two years, so I’m still very worried about what’s going to happen to me. I practice Rakugo as much as I can, but I can’t help but feel uneasy if I don’t speak in front of an audience.
It was a rakugo party of about 10 people who kept a real social distance, as if the audience was about 8 meters away from each other. But this was my first rakugo performance in 40 days, and I was really moved by it. I usually practice in a jersey for my own rehearsals, so when I wore a kimono for the first time in 40 days, I didn’t know how to put it on, so I went the other way. I wore it the other way around (laughs). I hurriedly put it on again, thinking, “Oh, that’s not it!
The moment I heard the music and walked towards the zabuton, I had an indescribable feeling. I felt nervous, emotional, and nostalgic. It’s normal when you practice at home, but there’s no laughter. My wife is also cold (laughs). When I spoke rakugo and burst into laughter, I thought, “Wow, I’m back! I thought to myself, “
How precious it is to do something I used to take for granted. I already felt like crying.
I did it every day without thinking about it, and on busy days I would do it three or four times a day, and I realized how precious it was. I was extremely grateful for the days I’ve had. I didn’t know how I had done such a precarious job for the last almost 20 years.
A schedule that had been held up for a year would be cancelled with one phone call, “It’s been cancelled (by Corona)”. No compensation or anything.
Not just me, but all rakugo actors, all rakugo comedians do this, but when I started as an apprentice, my master told me, “You can’t make a living in this world,” so I took up rakugo as a new apprentice with determination. This reminded me of something I had forgotten. Oh, I didn’t realize that I was working in such an unstable world.
The everyday things I used to do as a matter of course before the corona disaster, but I wondered how much of a tightrope job I’d been walking, how much of a floating family business I’d been doing up until now. I’m grateful for the days I’ve had.
Storytelling is hypnosis.
In rakugo, the way you feel about it changes just by putting one screen in front of another, doesn’t it?
The realism of Rakugo is different. To be honest, it’s hard to convey the fun of Rakugo on TV. I wonder how it would be if Rakugo were delivered without an audience, which is more inorganic
I’m not quite sure why that’s the case.
As Master Danzhi Tatekawa said, rakugo is a form of hypnosis. The best thing for rakugo is to put the audience in a small space and hypnotize them. That’s how you can hypnotize a courtesan, a townsman, or a lord into coming to life. The worst place for Rakugo is outdoors. In an open space, it’s hard to come up with a picture. If the moment the ambulance passed in the middle of a rakugo performance, you lose your concentration the moment you see it. Even when my cell phone rings, I lose my concentration. I’m suddenly pulled back to reality. It’s a very weak art form that relies on the imagination of the audience.
It’s the worst environment for coronas because the best environment for rakugo is a place where it’s dense. You can squeeze a lot of people into a small space, which is the space where you can get the most out of Rakugo, but it’s a bad environment for Corona. Considering that, how are you going to fight against Corona in the future?
I think this is probably the biggest crisis since the Edo period, when rakugo originated. During the war, it was called “forbidden rakugo” and you weren’t allowed to do hanakagan (flower-dressing) stories, but this time it’s more than that because you can’t get people together. I think this is the biggest crisis in the history of rakugo since it began.
I think the mission of the current living rakugo actors is how to overcome this crisis. I’m not joking, but if this continues, rakugo will die.
There are a lot of masters who don’t use social networking sites or YouTube, and they are starting to do it. The fact that people who didn’t do it before are starting to do it makes it even more critical. In May, while I was restraining myself, In May, during the period of self-restraint, Master Shinosuke Tachikawa called me out of the blue and said, “This is the first time in my life as a rakugo storyteller that I’ve ever done something like this.” We all have to do something to overcome this crisis.
I think the good thing about rakugo and yoshiki is the teamwork. There are people who are good at it and people who are not so good at it, people who are interesting, people who are boring, people who are flamboyant, people who are plain, older people, younger people, and so on, and I think teamwork is the good point of a yose, the good point of a rakugo performance. I’m really thinking that we can’t stream webcast individually like we do now, but rather we can do it together like a live yose. I think it would be sad if the rakugo world became like a YouTuber world. I think rakugo is not a world where only people who are good, successful, and flashy can make money.
Before and after the Great East Japan Earthquake
Even before and after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, I was completely different. Before the Great East Japan Earthquake, I thought I could just do what I wanted with Rakugo. Then the Great East Japan Earthquake happened, and I was from Iwate Prefecture, so I went there because I was worried about my friends in Yamada-machi. I was going to help remove debris and help in the soup kitchen, but someone there who knew me as a rakugo artist asked me to do a rakugo performance at a gymnasium in Otsuchi Town, which was used as a shelter.
I did a rakugo show called “Vine”. Everyone in the refugee center’s gymnasium was sleeping in small groups. But I was happy to see a child in the front row laughing at me. I felt the amazing power of Rakugo. Everyone from the elderly to the children can laugh at Rakugo, and you can do it for hours on your own. One of the children who laughed at me said, “I haven’t laughed in a long time,” when we were leaving. That was the first time I thought it was a good thing that I had chosen rakugo as a career.
How long after the Great East Japan Earthquake?
That was about two weeks after the earthquake. when highway buses started to run to the area. After I did rakugo, I received an email to the office saying, “Thank you for that time. Thank you very much for what you did then. We will definitely revive the area, so please come back again.” I was very happy.
Just before I left for Iwate, my teacher, Utamaru, asked me if I could give him a message for him, so I blasted his comments into the tape. I played it in the gymnasium of the shelter after my rakugo performance was over.
“ I’m Utamaru Katsura. If there’s anything I can do to help, please let me know. I’ll be there after the recovery.”
Everyone cried, and when it was over, there was a round of applause.
Before the earthquake, I thought that I should just do what I wanted to do, but when I saw that scene, I realized that selling well was such a powerful thing to do. But when I saw that scene, I realized how powerful it is to be a successful artist. I just said, “This is Utamaru. good luck with that” Just by saying those words on that tape, people shed tears. Utamaru voice can be empowered. That’s why at that time I thought I had to sell. That’s why I thought I had to sell. Since then, my stance on rakugo has changed.
To be honest, before the earthquake, I used to turn down jobs that were a bother. I thought, “Well, I’m not in such a hurry to make a living” (laughs). I thought that I wanted to do whatever job I could, including interviews, with heartfelt gratitude for what I was given.
For example, when I went to visit people in the evacuation shelters and temporary housing units to comfort them after the earthquake, they would say, “I remember you used to come here, Edataro. It made me realize how precious it is for people to be happy.
Before the earthquake, I was a bit of a maniac with my stories. It was just the kind of narrow, erotic nonsense that I wanted to use, and I would think, “I don’t care if people don’t laugh. After the earthquake, I didn’t want to do too much black humor or gory material. It’s the same with Corona, but since reality is so tragic now, I want to do a rakugo that will make everyone from children to the elderly laugh and have a happy ending, so that the audience will be energized for tomorrow.
I have a new rakugo piece called “Yugiyanagi,” which is based on a true story that happened in Rikuzentakata, and I was actually going to stop performing it 10 years after the earthquake. But with the current situation, it will take a long time for the area to recover, so I have to keep the story alive so that it doesn’t fade away. I thought I had to make it into a classic rakugo.
After the death of his master Utamaru
Did things change after Master Utamaru’s death?
It’s changed quite a bit. It’s quite a lot when you think about it. To be honest, when my master was alive, there was a time when I wanted to leave him. After I was mastered. In short, it was a period of rebellion, wasn’t it? Everywhere I went, I was called “Utamaru-san’s disciple”. I guess it’s a feeling similar to that of a second-generation celebrity. It’s not surprising when you are in the first or second troupe, but even if you are a master, you are recognized as a disciple of Mr. Utamaru rather than as Edataro Katsura. If it’s done poorly, they won’t even remember my name and call me “Utamaru-san’s disciple” (laughs).
Honestly, I’m like, “No, no, no, I’m doing my best! That’s how I felt. I was doing my own rakugo performances, and I had been the headliner at a yose, and was a regular on a TV show. But everywhere I went, I was told that I was Utamaru-san’s disciple. When I would go on location, the director would introduce me to the location, saying, “This is a disciple of Mr. Utamaru. I had a hazy feeling in my heart at that time.
Before my master died, I was doing the rakugo that he didn’t do, on purpose. When I did his stories, people compared me to him and said, “I think Utamaru’s is better than mine. That’s natural, isn’t it? That’s why I didn’t do master’s favorites like “Take no Suisen”, “Nezumi”, and “Osuwa-don”. If master is called “Konya Takao”, I will do “Ikuyo Mochi”. If my master switched from new rakugo to classical rakugo, I would do new rakugo as hard as I could.
That was my way of rebelling against the label “Utamaru-san’s disciple” that followed me everywhere I went. I’m not very mature, am I?
On the otherside, after he passed away, I started learning mainly his stories. I thought that I would focus on his stories for a while in classical rakugo.
I think I have to carry on the rakugo of Utamaru. Of course, I can’t inherit his art and style completely because they are different, but I hope I can pass on his spirit and aspiration, even if it’s only to a small extent. So until I’m 50, I’m going to focus on the stories that Master is doing.
Eventually I would like to try my hand at telling a ghost story written by Master Sanyutei Encho, which was Utamaru’s life’s work. As the years go by, the number of people who don’t know Utamaru increases, so we need to preserve the story.
If people who knew Master Utamaru didn’t say anything, it would be gone.
They say that people die twice: the first time from physical death and the second time from memory. For example, I think some young people today don’t know Master Danzhi Tachikawa. But they know Master Danzhi Tatekawa as the master of Master Shiraku, Master Danshun, and Master Shinosuke. Even if you don’t know Master Shunputei Ryusho, you know that Ryusho is the master of Master Shota. Even the younger generation who don’t know Master Konpei knows that he is the master of Taihei.
I think the reason why masters Tsurube and Shiraku talk about their own masters’ stories is because they want to preserve their masters’ names. There was a time in the past when I wouldn’t dare to tell Utamaru’s stories and episodes, now I speaks insistently of my master.
Disciple of Utamaru, including myself, must play an active role and leave Katsura Utamaru to the people of Reiwa era. I really felt the need to leave Katsura Utamaru in the world. Before he passed away, there was a time when I didn’t go around my master, but now I make sure to visit his grave every month. I’m happy to be called “Utamaru’s disciple” now. Before Master’s death, whenever I appeared in the media, I was always referred to as “Utamaru’s last disciple”, but now I’m happier with that. It’s very reassuring to feel that I’m on TV with my master.
I was given a book of stories with the stories that my master has written in it. When he went up to the stage, he put it between his handkerchiefs and carried it in his pocket. So for very important performances, I do the same thing.
I have more moments now when I feel closer to my master than ever before. There are only five members of the Utamaru clan, and they don’t have any grandchildren. In that sense, we have to preserve the direct lineage of Utamaru. I’m still young and inexperienced now, but someday I have to take a disciple or keep the lineage of Utamaru and make a second Katsura Utamaru. I don’t know if it will be my brothers disciple and sisters disciple, or if it will be from the generation of our own apprentice’s grandchildren of Utamaru, but I don’t know yet. In that sense, I think we have a lot of work to do.
At the beginning of this year, I had my first rakugo performance at Laughing Point. It was a strange feeling for me. I felt as if my master was on stage with me. No one will believe me, but my master was right next to me when I was doing rakugo. He was right next to me. He was mad at me the whole time (laughs).
Interviewer/Editing/Writing: Mochizuki Daisaku