Riding Through the Pandemic—Searching New Forms of Entertainment
Interview with Katsura Sunshine.
(This is story #4 of a four-part series. Related stories: #1, #2, and #3.)
– We’re in the middle of the COVID pandemic. What are the impacts to your daily activities?
Sunshine: Well, I had to stop the shows on Broadway. That was about it. My main work is performing live, so I couldn’t do that. That was the negative impact.
But there’s so many things you can do. It gave me time to prepare for the next run that starts next month. I started doing some things online, like Zoom performances. I’m doing a lot of YouTube videos, starting to get into TikTok. There is so much potential for online stuff, progressing much faster with the pandemic.
I want to graduate from YouTube to Netflix and make rakugo into a Netflix Comedy Special. That would bring rakugo to millions and millions of people. That’s why I’m doing rakugo on Broadway in the first place. Of course, I want to make the Netflix Special with an audience, so we have to wait until they don’t need to wear masks.
I also started a denim kimono fashion brand using Okayama denim, which I had wanted to do for a long time. That is the same thing—a very traditional Japanese clothing, and denim which also has a tradition in Japan, especially in Okayama. I’m bringing these two traditions together and try to take them abroad. I’m really excited about that. It’s been busy either way.
– We heard there were periods you were living abroad. How did the impact of COVID differ from Japan?
Sunshine: I don’t know. For almost the entire period of COVID, I lived in Tokyo. I was in New York for two or three months when waiting for a new visa. It was when New York was really bad, so I had to live in a hotel and couldn’t go out.
But the interesting thing is, when Broadway shut down, New York went dark. When you think about it, Broadway is 41 theaters, then you have off-Broadway. But it’s not just the theaters; around the Times Square where there are theaters, thousands and thousands of people go to the restaurants and bars every night, not just the actors and crews, there’s set designers with shops near Broadway, the lawyers, the accountants, the producers, the promotors, the advertising agencies……Broadway is a whole city to itself.
You realize the extent New York is affected by the great show business called Broadway. When Broadway theaters close down, there’s no work. Nobody came. It was like a ghost town. It was depressing. Personally, the two years of COVID made me very aware of how many things I took for granted. I couldn’t even call up my buddies and say, “Let’s go for a beer.” That’s crazy. Now that I have the chance to perform in London and New York again, I’m going to appreciate that opportunity much more than before.
– Did you contact your family and friends in Canada, to check if they were doing okay?
Sunshine: Yeah, I talked to my brother and my father. Japan was much better off than Canada or the States. Japan never really locked down. You can always go out, there were always some restaurants, some bars, you could always meet your friends. So, talking to them, I realized I was really lucky to be back in Japan for this pandemic.
It goes both ways. The government says please don’t go out, and people basically just did. And Japanese people don’t mind wearing masks. Nobody had to force anybody to do something in Japan. I continued to raise money for my show, which I have been doing for the last two years. I meet businesspeople and give presentations. So the business side of the show business continued; only the show was interrupted.
– After the pandemic is over, would your activities for rakugo change?
Sunshine: Actually, I think people are really dying for live performance now. Every time something big like this happens, people say, “Oh, this is the end of Broadway,” or “This is the end of live performance.” They said so when TV came out, or movies. Yet Broadway has survived for over 100 years no matter what technology, what amazing thing come out. Before COVID, Broadway had its best year in history for ticket sales and the number of audiences, and it would have kept going up if it hadn’t been for COVID.
I was in London in December and January, and people were lining up in front of the theater. My theater was almost full as well. So in that respect, I don’t think anything has to change. The audience may be wearing masks for a while, maybe you have to show COVID test results to enter.
On the other hand, COVID has created a lot of opportunities. The streaming services—Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu—all those are dying for content. There are huge opportunities now to reach amazing audience all over the world. I want to take advantage of that. If we can get on Netflix or others, so many more people will be coming to the theater, and we’ll have tours. So doing Netflix isn’t just to get famous; it would create a great opportunity for people to hear about rakugo and want to see it live. But in the end, I really want to be touring for the rest of my life. Doing rakugo live, just as it was meant to be done. So very traditional.
– What do you think is necessary to improve the world of rakugo?
Sunshine: Nothing. The world of rakugo is perfect. I need to get more famous, that’s all. Otherwise, the world of rakugo is very healthy right now. Rakugoka don’t get so famous like all the manzai people on TV. But very few rakugoka are doing part-time jobs. There’s a whole network of theaters and little shows, and everybody can make a living as a rakugoka. Some people make a lot of money. It’s amazing that a thousand people can say, “I’m a storyteller, that’s my job.”
Japan is the only country where that exists. For me, my mission is to bring rakugo to the rest of the world. I think it would be amazing if rakugo became an English word, like kabuki, sushi, sashimi, izakaya, or karaoke—these famous and much beloved Japanese culture.
– Many people consider you as not only a rakugoka, but a comprehensive entertainer. How would you introduce yourself?
Sunshine: I wouldn’t complicate it. Like I say, I’m a rakugoka. A talkative person. I do like the fact you said that. Especially, this period has made me think of how to make my show better and entertaining. I don’t think I’m a comprehensive entertainer yet, but I want to aim for that.
One thing I’m doing, we have a debayashi, the introduction music. [Shows his debayashi video.] I also wrote another song called “Udon Rap,” and had a British rap singer to sing it. For the show, besides my debayashi, there’s the music when people are entering the theater, music during the intermission, and music after the stories. So the moment people walk in the theater, all the background music is original, instead of random songs.
Right now, I’m writing the music “Momotaro-san” with another British musician, that will play after the classic rakugo story Momotaro. I’m trying to make this as amazing and full and unified experience as possible. It’s going to take a few months to get the whole thing done, but I’m really excited to be doing the music like this, and maybe promotional videos—a kind of “Sunshine media,” all based around rakugo. I think there’s so many opportunities now that you can take advantage of.
– You said your mission is to bring rakugo to the rest of the world. Do you have plans to take an apprentice in the future?
Sunshine: I can’t really plan that, but if someone wants to become my apprentice, I would be glad to take them. Are you looking for a job?
– How about Chinese apprentice?
Sunshine: I’ll take anyone if they can speak Japanese. I don’t think you can properly learn rakugo without speaking Japanese. I’ve taught some Americans before, and they were good at this. But if they don’t speak Japanese, there’s something about the way you move, the little head movement, the way you pronounce certain things—you can see that it’s a thin veneer, you’re just pretending to be rakugo.
You need to know Japanese as well as manners and pronunciation. Language is everything. Maybe they should really study with a Japanese master. Probably, the best person to be my apprentice would be a Japanese who also wants to do it in English and perform around the world. I would be a good shisho for that. But for a foreigner, I would suggest they go to a Japanese master. Because even though I’ve been here a long time, my Japanese is still very limited. I can perform in Japanese, but to be teaching to that extent, I would be very careful about that.
– Is it similar to judo and Brazilian jujitsu relationship, like two rather different things?
– I think your rakugo is an overall entertainment, yet rakugo is very traditional. Do you make more modifications to entertain people?
Sunshine: You could look at it that way. However, once I’m doing rakugo on stage, I don’t modify anything. My actual performance in New York and London are very traditional. But some of the things around it, like the music and use of lights, there are certain entertainment aspects that I’m adding. But the actual art-form, I’m very careful about performing it.
– So it’s like you have rakugo as the main dish, and the entertainment as the side dish?
Sunshine: Yes. My dish is chutoro, iwashi, and hotate, but not California roll. But I do see what you mean. Turning it into English is an immediate change in certain respect. Or trying to do it in Chinese. My shisho might say, you can do your gaijin sect, which may be a different artform. But I’m not very comfortable with that personally. I don’t know if I want to be doing the Brazilian jujitsu of rakugo. I might change my mind, but I don’t know. Entertainment and sports are two very different things. It’s such a good question.
I haven’t really given deep thought, but I would want to keep it strict. A Broadway actor may look at me and say, “Oh, Sunshine. He just wears a kimono, kneels on a cushion and tells a story. I could do that.” And they can just do it. But I think rakugo, when you do the traditional shugyo, and the things you’re taught by the master, the things you have to do, fold the master’s kimonos, and clean the house every day for three years, all of that and learning the manners and things.
People say, “Why do you have to clean your master’s house every day for three years just to become a comedian?” But I would say, no, you can’t do rakugo unless you do that. That’s part of it. That’s part of everything.
And it shows as part of how you behave on stage. If you just taught the entertainment side, that’s armature, just a hobby. It’s not what has existed in Japan for 400 years. I feel like I have a little bit of responsibility there too. If I start my own thing, then how will all the other rakugoka in Japan feel about that? I mean, it’s okay, but is that rakugo? I would tend to be more traditional.
– That’s why you suggested going to a Japanese master, right?
– So having the proper knowledge of rakugo, and pretending to act rakugo while knowing nothing about it are totally different things?
Sunshine: It is different. You could even see it with Japanese people who do it as a hobby. Some of them are really good. They memorize the story, and they are great at acting it. But you could see it’s just a hobby. Some professionals are not very funny, but you could feel they’re professional rakugoka. It’s a whole different feeling on the stage. Difficult to explain, though.
– Very interesting.
– One last question: What does your master, Katsura Bunshi VI think about your activities?
Sunshine: Oh, of course, he loves it. This is why he took me as an apprentice. He wanted me to spread rakugo throughout the world. And I do his stories on Broadway, so he’s very happy, very interested, and very supportive.
I hope I could bring him to Broadway and London someday to do a show together. We were actually trying to figure out his schedule, then the corona came up. So we’ll see when things get better. He travels a lot and loves performing abroad, so I’m sure he’ll love it. Whenever I talk to him, he’s always asking what’s happening in New York, what’s happening in London.