“Karakusa” Pattern and the Art of Stealing Your Heart

Here is a pop quiz.

The design above, the white squiggles with the green background, is called the “karakusa pattern” (唐草模様 からくさもよう).

Q: What is the first thing that comes to a Japanese person’s mind when s/he sees this pattern?

If a “furoshiki” (風呂敷 ふろしき) or a Japanese traditional wrapping cloth came to your mind, you know a lot about the Japanese culture.

It was the most common patterns used for furoshiki.

Furoshiki, Japanese traditional wrapping cloth

However, many Japanese people would also think of burglars.

In the olden days, furoshiki with this pattern was so common that most families owned at least one at home.

When a burglar broke into a house, s/he just grabbed a furoshiki sitting around in the room, wrapped his/ her new acquisitions, and ran away. They didn’t even have to take their own furoshiki as they were literally everywhere.

So the answer to the question is a furoshiki or a burglar.

But did you know that stories about burglars are considered auspicious in the rakugo world?

This is because burglars are good at stealing.

Rakugo performers also wish to be good at stealing audience’s hearts just like burglars.

Recently, an anonymous person sent me a generous donation for my rakugo work (by the way, here is the link if you have a burning desire to support me).

As I was very moved by his/ her kindness, I decided to use a small portion of the donation to buy something to remember him/ her.

This is what I bought.

It’s a pouch for my rakugo fan.

A fan to a rakugo performer is like a sword to a samurai. It is something that encapsulates the essence of what we do. So a pouch for my rakugo fan is a very significant item for me.

You know why I chose the one with the “karakusa” pattern.

I will keep polishing my skills so I can be better at stealing people’s hearts with my stories.

My 15 Years in Comedy!

About a week ago, I randomly realised that I had been performing comedy in New Zealand for almost 15 years.

Time flies, indeed…

Though I have changed the forms of my comedic expression, I have been pretty consistently involved in comedy until today. It’s nothing to do with my suitability or will power, but it’s like a bad addiction that I can’t get rid of.

I started my comedy career as a stand-up comedian.

I don’t remember the exact date I did my first open mic, but it was in the first week of November in 2004. The MC of the night was my favourite comedian, Mark Scott.

I was pretty average as a stand-up comedian (just good enough to make tens and tens of dollars), but stand-up taught me the basic of the western comedy like its timing, delivery, and the Kiwi sense of humour, which was the hardest for me to pick up.

There were some highlights and lowlights just like in any old career.

I disappeared from the stand-up scene when my wife and I decided to start a family. It was my attempt to become a responsible adult… but it wasn’t quite successful.

Remember? I’m an addict.

As the lure of comedy was too strong, I soon started getting involved in improv comedy with a hope that I wouldn’t have to spend hours writing materials anymore.

I was wrong.

I still had to practice quite a bit. There were heaps of workshops to attend.

I did some awesome scenes and devastatingly awful scenes along the way.

Again, I was quite an average improviser. I still have so much respect for good improvisers. If you master improv, you can pretty much accomplish most things in your life.

In 2016, when I was just about to turn 40, I questioned myself what I really wanted to do with my life. It was clear that I wanted to do rakugo, the Japanese traditional comedy I learned when I was a teenager.

Rakugo has been a big part of my life since I was around 10. When I was at university, I loved rakugo so much that I attempted to become an official apprentice of a rakugo performer.

I chickened out at the last minute because I didn’t have confidence to survive the traditional, feudalistic training. I gave up the traditional pathway to learn the art and instead decided to study theatre in America where I spent the next 5 years of my life.

I was very lucky to meet my English rakugo master Kanariya Eiraku, who was willing to teach the art to me in a long distance relationship. I am very delighted and proud that his art has been receiving international recognition in recent years. I am very excited that I will possibly perform with him next year both in New Zealand and Australia!!!

After all these years of performing comedy (4 years in Japan, 5 years in US, and 15 years in NZ), I eventually went back to rakugo where I started.

This reminds me of the parable in Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist”.

I already had the treasure when I started out.

Many years later, I finally realised that I had been carrying the treasure all along!!!

Now I know what my real treasure is.

If you are reading this paragraph, you must be either my family, close friend, hardcore fan, or stalker. Thank you very much for your continued support!!! I still do what I do because of the people like you!!!

Doumo arigatou gozaimasu!!!

Enough reminiscing.

Now get back to work!

ALL Stories Were Once Brand New

『本来の落語は古典ではなく全てが新作だった。』

There was originally no classical rakugo, but all the stories were newly written.

『やさしい落語』柳家花緑 (“Easy Rakugo” by Yanagiya Karoku)

Today, rakugo stories are divided into two groups: “classical rakugo” (古典落語) and “new rakugo” (新作落語=newly written rakugo).

But I just learned today that this classification hadn’t existed until the beginning of the Showa period (1926-1989).

Throughout the three previous periods i.e. Edo, Meiji, and Taisho periods, rakugo performers simply talked about the now. *

As you may know, a rakugo performer (落語家) is also known as a “hanashika” (噺家) or a storyteller. The kanji “噺” used in this expression, in fact, means “saying something new”.

Rakugo performers, then, were NOT some defenders of a traditional art but trendy entertainers and social commentators who were ahead of the time and dealt with the current events.

At the beginning of the Showa period, it is said that they performed stories from the Edo period (1603-1868) by replacing the old expressions and contexts to the new.

They told them as new stories.

It is fascinating that since the term “classical rakugo” was invented, those “old” stories were suddenly put on a pedestal and became something that had to be protected dearly.

Of course, I love classical rakugo and would like to learn and perform it as authentically as possible. However, I have to also remember that rakugo performers must stay ahead of the time and speak of the now.

* During these eras, people were either born during the Edo period themselves or had family members who had been born in Edo. Edo was still very much a part of people’s lives, so Edo rakugo still belonged to the now. Early Showa was the time when the remnants of Edo started disappearing.

Rakugo Retold: The Art of Latin American, Maori, and British Rakugo

Stories are universal.

As long as they are told by humans, they inevitably carry human truths regardless of their cultural origins.

They encapsulate our love, hate, joy, despair, greed, lust, wisdom, stupidity… No matter how different we think we are from “them”, we are really not that different.

Rakugo specialises in our imperfect nature, being full of flaws and mistakes (a perfect format for someone like me!). In fact, rakugo was defined as the “acceptance of human nature/ karma” (業の肯定) by the rakugo legend, Tatekawa Danshi V (technically VII).

About a month ago, I did a little experiment with Babel Theatre to prove that the essence of rakugo is universal.

I am a bit of a rebel, but as a rakugo performer and an actor, I could not resist this experiment. It was too tempting.

Here is the rather unconventional approach I took in my experiment:

  1. Participants externally explored the stock characters from rakugo through “shigusa” (set movements), postures, hand positions, etc. while sitting down in the seiza position
  2. Participants internally experienced and processed these characters in the sitting position
  3. When the characters were fully internalised, actors stood up and performed improvised scenes as rakugo characters
  4. Using characters developed in 1-3, actors reenacted 3 folktales from New Zealand, England, and Latin America

The result of the experiment?

Look at the photos, and decide for yourself.

But I am personally very pleased with it!!!

“A Fortune Teller” is Born!!!

I have just finished writing a new rakugo story called “A Fortune Teller”.

It involves “karoshi” (death from overwork or work-related exhaustion), two fortune tellers, and a superhero.

Rakugo is both a traditional art and a popular art at the same time, which gives it a very unique status among the Japanese traditional arts.

It is something to protect as a cultural heritage and also something to evolve so it stays relevant now and in the future.

I’ve always wanted to write something that reflects the early 21st century, and this is it!

It is really absurd (it’s my work after all) and lacks depth at this stage, but I hope it will eventually evolve into something that other English Rakugo performers would want to perform.

As an experiment, I will perform it at my next public performance in December.

As usual, I’ll appreciate your feedback!

(I’m writing this as I wait for my turn at a barbershop. Hope my new haircut will be OK!)

(祝) Rakugo Club Is Born. Finally!!!

I did it!

After 3 years of planning, I have finally launched the first rakugo club in the history of New Zealand!!! (*Please contact me if you want to contest this claim.)

As far as I know, I had been the only rakugo performer permanently based in New Zealand as of 5 October 2019. But this tragic statistics changed in a matter of a day.

Three brave people, two from New Zealand and one from Japan, joined this movement to make this world a better place by the power of stories. I am pretty sure they had no intention whatsoever other than having fun learning rakugo, but hey 🙂 I am infamous for exaggerating things a bit- I must be a rakugo performer or something.

We learned the basic of rakugo such as “kamishimo” (the technique to distinguish characters), stock characters (Hachi, Kuma, Inkyo, etc.), and some protocols. They even got to learn and perform a “kobanashi” (short stories).

Thus, the rakugo population of New Zealand quadrupled overnight on 6 Oct. I now proclaim 6 October as the National Rakugo Day©! (Someone is exaggerating again…)

You are still welcome to join the club, and you don’t have to participate in the “movement” per se…

Just come have fun with us!

The next meeting will be held 2:00-4:00PM, 20 October at a venue to be confirmed 🙂

Contact me via the “contact” page if you are interested!