Japanese minimal comedy

Japanese minimal comedy
Japanese comedian Shinoharu Tatekawa is attracted to the minimalistic set-up of rakugo.

In rakugo, a man or woman narrates a comical story - sometimes with the help of a fan or handkerchief as a prop - while sitting on a bare stage.

The minimalistic set-up, which allows room for imagination, was what attracted Japanese comedian Shinoharu Tatekawa to rakugo, a form of Japanese verbal entertainment which dates back to the 18th century.

"At my first rakugo show, the characters came alive in my mind, as if I had read a great novel. But unlike a good book, rakugo is special because it is found only in Japan," Shinoharu, who is usually referred to by his first name, tells Life! in fluent English.

The 37-year-old is staging a two-day show at YMCA Singapore on Thursday and June 20, performing rakugo in Japanese on the first night and in English the next.

A show usually consists of three or four stories which make fun of ordinary people and their flaws, such as those who are greedy, easily jealous or like to pretend to be someone they are not, says Shinoharu.

They are told as a dialogue involving two or more characters, differentiated by the storyteller with a slight turn of the head and change in pitch and tone.

A Yale University graduate who majored in East Asian studies, he quit a job in marketing at Japanese general trading company Mitsui & Co to pursue a career in rakugo about 12 years ago. He spent eight years training under rakugo master Shinosuke Tatekawa.

"My parents were angry at first because they believed it wasn't a stable job, and it was impossible for me to become a professional at 26," recalls Shinoharu, whose real name is Ittetsu Kojima.

His stage name Shinoharu, which means spirit of spring, was given to him by his master. He adopted his master's last name, like his peers.

He explains that many aspiring performers started performing in high school rakugo clubs. He adds that he did not expect the apprenticeship to be so long.

"I had to do chores such as cleaning, cooking, driving and picking up my master's laundry," he says. "He doesn't teach. The idea is to go to his performances and learn or steal his techniques by watching."

However, Shinoharu was convinced that performing rakugo was his calling and his patience has paid off.

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