REVIEW: A Night of Rakugo

Sitting on a 2’x2’ cushion on stage, in front of a large audience, telling a funny story — that is the 400-year-old art of Japanese storytelling, or rakugo.

Having some prior knowledge of rakugo, the moment I heard about a live performance in Ann Arborfree of charge — I knew. I was there. Doors opened at 6:30PM in U-M’s Modern Language Building Auditorium 4. The performance was planned for 7PM sharp. Although my friend and I arrived on time, we were greeted by a full house. In fact, it was so crowded, people were standing against the walls. We were handed a very nice program that was half in Japanese and half in English, detailing the night’s schedule.

Organized by the U-M Japanese Language Program and Center for Japanese Studies, I saw the faculty dressed in kimonos. In case you don’t know what kimonos are, they’re long, loose robes with wide sleeves and tied with a sash, originally worn as a formal garment in Japan.

Seeing beautiful and intricate patterns, colorful fabric, wooden sandals, I could feel my heart punch a hole through my chest. This was the real deal.

Well, thanks to my punctuality, my friend and I found front row seats…on the floor. The faculty handed us Japanese newspapers to sit on and apologized that there were no seats left. It was really no trouble, though. Sitting on the floor was a pain in the butt, but the show was free, and we had a great view of the stage. It was red, with a lush purple 2’x2’ cushion sitting on top of it. A paper lantern stood on each side.

The show began by first teaching the audience a little bit about rakugo and giving a short demonstration as to how a typical performance is done.


Rakugo
is a traditional comedic performance that definitely throws anyone for a loop the first time around, but it’s actually pretty easy to understand. Long story short, the performer sits on the cushion on stage and tells a story. They do this by enacting every character in the story, and using their only two props: a paper fan and a tenugui (Japanese towel). They may stand up on their knees but never on their feet, so the performance never leaves the cushion.

Because the performer has so much to act out, their creativity and skill shine through the performance. They can use the fan as a pair of chopsticks or as a pen, they can use the towel as a letter or a book! The performance really delivers the story.

After the crash course on rakugo, the performances came next. Because the show was organized by the university’s Japanese Language Program, students studying Japanese were able to participate in this unique art of storytelling. One by one, short stories a couple minutes long were told by each student.

One of the students told a story about a little girl greeting her father who had come home from a seaward trip. The girl urged to see his photos of the ocean, gushing over the fish swimming underwater. In one photo, the girl found a sea creature that was uglier than the rest and, disgusted, she asked her father what it was. Then the father scolded her, because it was not a fish — it was her mother!

In rakugo, the story typically leads up to a hilarious punch line at the very end. And honestly, they were really funny! I was cracking up on the floor, trying to hold in my hideous snorts.

After the students were the two Japanese rakugo performers, who had flown to the United States all the way from Japan as cultural envoys. Rakugo professionals.

Yanagiya Sankyo (柳家さん喬) and Yanagiya Kyonosuke (柳家喬之助) are two widely famous rakugo performers in Japan, and tickets to see their shows are priced usually over $30 per person! It was the biggest honor to be able to see their performances for free. I was just happy to be there. Even if I was sitting at eye level with people’s feet.

Unfortunately, photography was prohibited for the two famous rakugo performers. But I promise you, they were amazing. Sitting up there with their commanding presence, their expressions and voices varying with every character — it was truly an art. Just by a small turn of their torso, they suddenly became a different person! Their performances were definitely the highlight of the night.

Yanagiya Kyonosuke (柳家喬之助) performed first with the story Hatsu Tenjin (初天神, “First Tenjin Festival”), which was summarized in the program: “A precocious boy named Kinbou convinces his father to take him to the festival at the Tenjin shrine, on the condition that he won’t bother his father to buy him anything. At the festival, of course, Kinbou can’t help asking for everything he sees, causing problems for his father.”

It was a hilarious performance, and the room roared with laughter as Yanagiya Kyonosuke pouted and wailed as the child. Kinbou was one spunky child, and I loved every second of his character on stage. It was an incredible performance by an incredible performer!

The last performance carries the most prestige in a rakugo show. After a brief intermission, Yanagiya Sankyo (柳家さん喬) delivered the last performance, telling the story of Shinigami (死神, “The God of Death”). In the program, it was summarized: “The God of Death tells a man who has decided that he wants to die that it’s not his time yet and teaches him a way to make a living as a doctor. He grants the man the ability to see the God of Death and teaches him a spell. If the God of Death is sitting by the patient’s feet, then the patient will recover. He simply has to recite the spell and the sick person will get well. If the God of Death is at the patient’s head, there’s nothing that can be done for him. The man becomes very wealthy but spends lavishly on trips and ends up broke. When patients stop coming, he becomes desperate to regain his fortune. But is it possible to trick the God of Death?”

Shinigami (死神, “The God of Death”) is one of the most popular and famous rakugo stories out there, and although it’s a little on the scarier side, it has its funny moments. Shinigami was beautifully told by Yanagiya Sankyo. Everyone was plunged straight into the story as he acted out the God of Death and the cheating doctor. As the God of Death, Yanagiya Sankyo held the fan like a cane under his hands, chuckling at the man’s misfortune. I was enraptured by his performance, visualizing the elements that weren’t there. It was a wonderful story told by a wonderful performer to end a wonderful night.

If you ever catch the word rakugo keep your ears peeled. A story will be told!

REVIEW: Japanese Prints of Kabuki Theater

Photo courtesy of the UMMA

Although the UMMA houses many intriguing exhibits, the Japanese Prints of Kabuki Theater has become a favorite for visitors of the museum. The art of kabuki theater, which is a classical form of Japanese drama that dates as far back as the 17th century, has been captured by colorful woodblock prints for the public to view. The exhibit currently showcases a collection of these prints, including those made by admired print-artists such as Utagawa Toyokuni and Toyohara Kunichika.

When I first stepped into the exhibit, I was greeted by oriental music and a large wall colored in blue, with text that described the art of kabuki theater. After reading the text, I make my way around the room—it was spacious, with clean white walls that had splashes of color from prints. These depictions of theater showcased famous actors and actresses in scenes from actual plays, as well as fictional ones. Some of the scenes included actors in disguise from enemies, lovers who were reunited, and battle scenes.

Photo courtesy of the UMMA
Photo courtesy of the UMMA

Among the collection of prints was a showcase for a bright red kimono with gold embroidery in the shape of various animals. This kimono was iconic for a specific kabuki actress, who was rarely seen wearing kimonos of other colors.
Next to the kimono was a TV that played a video recording of a kabuki theater performance from the late 1900s, a visual that seemed to bring the prints to life.

Overall, visiting the exhibit was a wonderful experience. I was enlightened of an aspect of Japanese culture that I did not know existed. Don’t miss the chance to view the exhibit for yourself—it will be at the UMMA until the 29th of this month, from 11AM – 5PM on Tuesdays through Saturdays, 12PM – 5PM on Sundays!

REVIEW: Sankai Juku’s “UMUSUNA”

From the very first moment to the last, the Butoh dance company Sankai Juku captivated all audiences with their movements. All eight company members exerted utter control over their bodies, in the artistic sense that we do not see in the Western dance forms.

Founded by Ushio Amagatsu in 1975, Sankai Juku is one of the leading Butoh dance company from Japan. Butoh is an indescribable and difficult-to-define genre with playful and grotesque imagery, taboo topics, and extreme or absurd environments. As with many other Butoh dancers, performers of Sankai Juku paint their bodies white, shave their heads, and wear simple costumes — either all-white or white with one additional color. As a result, they look much like classical marble statues dancing on stage. In fact, the idea of using cloth-wrapping as their costume was inspired by ancient Greeks and Romans, when these clothes were considered gender-neutral and generic. (It was nice to be able to read this article in Japanese to find this out.)

Ushio Amagatsu in his solo act of “UMUSUNA”. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Although the marble statues may be a Western/European idea, Sankai Juku diverges from the Western aesthetics in dance in many ways. The biggest one is the ideas surrounding “tension” — Amagatsu describes Butoh as “a conversation with gravity”, in which the dancers seek to achieve “relaxation” by going along with gravity in their movements as much as possible. In ballet, dancers intentionally add tension by dancing en pointe and lifting up their bodies; in Butoh, they intentionally bring down their center of gravity. As such, each movement is very slow and steady — in the opening 20-feet-walk that could take 3 seconds in our daily life, Amagatsu takes 3 minutes. Choreography incorporates lying down, crawling, bending, gasping for air, and many other movements that are vital in our life — “UMUSUNA” is the concept of entering into a world, on a blank slate.

UMUSUNA is a very old word originating from ancient Japan that has the same root as ubusuna (one’s place of birth). Ubusu means birth, the beginning of life, or entering the world. The word umusu also embodies the concepts of everything and hothing, existence and nothingness. Na evokes the land, the ground/sosil. and one’s native place. (Taken from program notes)

 

In the simplistic stage setup for “UMUSUNA,” sand constantly falling from the ceiling reminds us of time that flows very slowly and steadily. One scene flows to the next seamlessly. To me, the most incredible scene change was the one from “III. Memories from water” and “IV. In winds blown to the far distance.” After four dancers spent the entire act crawling, sliding, and lying down on the sand-covered platform, the lighting changes to cast shadow on the traces that these dancers have made. Then, the dancers gradually switch out — and the new dancers stare at the traces made by their predecessors — as if they are looking back to their infancy and childhood, their “birthplace (ubusuna)”.

Watching Sankai Juku’s performance challenged me to think about contemporary dance from different perspectives. It makes me feel very happy that these people have come from Japan to perform — the same ubusuna as me. Thanks (again) UMS and Pomegranate Arts for bringing this wonderful performance to Ann Arbor!

PREVIEW: Sankai Juku’s “UMUSUNA”

On Friday, October 25, Ann Arbor welcomes back Sankai Juku with their performance of “UMUSUNA: Memories Before History”. Sankai Juku is a dance group from Japan who specializes in the dance form of Butoh, an indescribable and difficult-to-define genre with playful and grotesque imagery, taboo topics, and extreme or absurd environments. As with many butoh dance groups, Sankai Juku performs in all-white makeups and minimal costumes, on a simply decorated set. The focus is on the dancers’ movements — they are not necessarily “beautiful” or soothing, but they convey strong messages on philosophical matters and evoke strong emotions.

Intern from UMS, Rachel Stopchinski writes in her UMS Lobby post:

Butoh performance, like Sankai Juku’s UMUSUNA: Memories Before History, which plays at the Power Center this October, often aren’t narrative. The symbolism of their intense movement vocabulary is left for the audience to decipher. I expect this performance will call to my mind my experiences both in the forests of Mt. Fuji and elsewhere, experiences that attempted to illuminate the complex relationship between Japanese culture and the environment. We interacted, even climbed inside, the earth. We wondered what it would have been like before human interaction—a history we can only imagine.

(Quoted from: http://umslobby.org/index.php/2015/09/student-spotlight-rachel-stopchinski-on-japan-and-sankai-juku-17427)

Photo courtesy of the Artist.

Over the past summer, I had the privilege to work with Pomegranate Arts, a small independent arts management company in New York that manages many artists including Sankai Juku in North America. As an intern, I helped out with some parts of filling out the visa application for everyone in the group, and I had to compile a packet of reviews from around the world about Sankai Juku. One of the interview pieces I’ve come across was of Ushio Amagatsu, the choreographer for “UMUSUNA” and the founder/director of Sankai Juku, who mentioned the importance of birthplace in this piece:

Firstly, the word umusuna in the title – a similar word would be ubusuna – is an old word meaning “the place you were born.” The word primarily refers to a small area, but if you take a broader, universal, planet-wide perspective, I think it’s possible to imagine lots of places where humans were born on Earth. So, I created this piece to express the places where humans have a connection with nature, comprised of the elements of earth, water, fire, and air, and to also bring time into the mix.

(Source: http://www.wochikochi.jp/english/special/2013/11/sankaijuku%20.php)

Sankai Juku’s dance performance is nothing like you’ve seen in the past. (Unless you’ve seen them at their earlier UMS appearance, of course!) It is not meant to meet the beauty standards of ballet or American contemporary dance, and challenges your view on how dance can look like. The troop’s unique aesthetic and artistry is definitely something to check out.

When: October 23 and 24 at 8pm

Where: Power Center

Tickets: $12/20 for students. Available for purchase at the Michigan League Ticket Office, or ums.org/tickets.