Japanese sit-down comedy: Rakugo returns to PSU

On Oct. 14 and 15, Portland State is hosting a show by popular Japanese Rakugo performer, Hayashiya Hikoichi.

Rakugo is a form of Japanese theatrical comedy that dates back at least to the seventeenth century. The literal interpretation of Rakugo is “the fallen words,” yet a more natural interpretation could be “the punchline”—the words that fall at the end of the funny story. Rakugo is comedy in the form of stories that take place on a stage. The performer must sit during the entire show and may only move their upper bodies, use a variety of voices, and utilize two traditional props to convey the entire comedic story and all of its characters to the audience.

This will be Hikoichi’s first Show in the United States and the Vanguard was able to meet up with him and his translator, Dr. Laurence Kominz, professor of Japanese at PSU’s Department of World Languages and Literatures, to talk about Hikoichi’s work.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Vanguard: When were you first exposed to Rakugo, and what made you decide that you wanted to perform it?

Hayashiya Hickoichi: My first exposure was sort of atypical. I encountered the written text. Because I lived in the country we didn’t have live Rakugo performances. I also heard it on the radio, but I didn’t see it live until I was 18 and when I did, I thought, this is for me. I like doing things I can do solo. I also have always loved stories since he was a child. I love writing stories and playing all of the different roles by myself. Therefore, Rakugo fit my predilections very well.

VG: How old were you when you started?

Hikoichi: I left college when I was 19 years old to enter the world of Rakugo. I was a literature major but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoyed performing. So, I became an in-house apprentice.

VG: Rakugo is an old art form in Japan. Will the pieces you perform be traditional Rakugo stories or did you write them yourself?

Hikoichi: They are both classics. When you tell Rakugo fans that these are the two pieces that are going to be performed, they become very excited. However, there is something called Makura that comes before the Rakugo story and even if it is a classic story, the Makura is something we make extemporaneously. It is not very long and it happens before each story. It is something to soften up the audience.

VG: I would love to know, what is your favorite Rakugo story?

Hikoichi: The one that I will do second is one of my real favorites. What I love about it is that I have to create an object that people can imagine, just with words and gestures, without ever having an object. The story is about tricking a supposed gourmet chef into eating something incredibly foul. That stimulation of the audience’s imagination, creating the object being eaten in the minds of the audience, that is what I love about this piece.

VG: Are there any props allowed in Rakugo?

Hikoichi: There are only two props allowed. The traditional fan and a hand towel about the size of a handkerchief. The fan can be chopsticks or a sword. It can become a cigarette or a pipe. (At this, Hikoichi pics up the closed fan and mimics smoking a pipe.)

VG: How does Rakugo compare to western stand-up comedy?

Hikoichi: Usually, most western comics do not have to imitate many different people in a story. I’ll give Colbert credit for his Trump imitations, but he does not do a whole story where he is Trump and Bannon. The most important difference is that these are long stories with many characters. Plus the stand-up comedian is allowed to move and walk around the stage. In Rakugo you must sit in place and you can only move your upper body. I feel it gives me more freedom and flexibility. I can create more and different characters than I could if I moved. I have to use my voice more too. Also, I get to create different places and settings from my stationary position. I have a saying, “Because we sit, we become free.”

On the other hand, I love American stand-up. When I was in New York and Los Angeles, I saw many performances. My younger brother lives in LA, and so I have visited many times. I went with my brother to the Laugh Factory, and my brother was asked why they were translating Japanese. My brother told them that I am a professional comedian. So, I was invited up onto the stage and I got to perform up there, and I told a very short Rakugo, standing up, in English. It was a warm audience, and the stand-up comedian helped to prepare them for the experience.

VG: Officially though, this is your first American performance. Are you excited?

Hikoichi: Actually, I am wondering how this will go since this is the first time I will perform in Japanese with English subtitles. I am really curious about what the response will be. I have been told that this has been done before and that I cannot expect to have the non-Japanese speakers laugh at the same time as those who are fluent. They will laugh when they, in their own time, read the funny parts. Obviously, you laugh faster if you hear something than if you have to wait to read it. Many Rakugo artists who perform abroad get used to this though.

It doesn’t really matter to me if the laughter isn’t timed perfectly. If they laugh, it means they’re understanding the story. I have watched things in other languages than Japanese as well, and when I finally understood at my own ability and pace, it made me so happy. I want to give that kind of pleasure to the non-Japanese-speaking audience members who make the effort to understand it.

VG: Do you think that there are elements of comedy that are universal?

Hikoichi: I made an effort to choose two pieces that I thought would be quite universal in their comic appeal.

VG: What is your favorite joke?

Hikoichi: It is sort of a story.

There are some poisonous snakes kind of hanging out together.

One mumbles and the other asks, “What happened?”

“I bit my tongue,” the snake says.

It is an old joke, but I love imagining the facial expression of a poisonous snake that has bitten its own tongue. It is also a play on words, such as “the cat has my tongue.” So I bit my tongue also means, I don’t want to talk to you.

VG: Many western comics have said they were funny from a young age and were always trying to make people laugh. Did you have that same experience?

Hikoichi: I always liked people being happy in my presence. What I really liked was a one-on-one conversation that would make my friends feel happy. But the thought of being in front of a bunch people was scary because I was very shy. But I loved to regale my friends and family.

VG: Is it hard for you on stage then? How did you overcome it?

Hikoichi: I imagine I am a different person stage. I become a different person on stage. Many different people actually. I become a different person from the moment I start the story. And I wind up talking about every sort of topic and being characters that are nothing like me in real life.

VG: Do you practice all of your facial expressions?

Hikoichi: My approach is that I do not practice facial expressions. What I do is really imagine the thing that I am showing. If I imagine it well, then I naturally make the proper expressions (Hikoichi acts out a scene about a strange looking dumpling that, once he tastes it, he thinks it is so good that he shares it with Laurence. It actually is quite funny).

VG: It seems like you would have to be really in tune with your audience to make them imagine these things with you. How do you accomplish that? Are you conscious of the need to affect the emotions and imagination of the audience or is it enough to imagine it yourself?

Hikoichi: Both. It is complex. If I think that the audience is not getting it, I up my level of expressiveness. I will express more for them. That is one of the reasons that they leave the house lights on during Rakugo—so we can see the audience. Professional Rakugo reciters are listed by name, not by the story they will tell. They decide on the spot which story they will tell. So you have to be entirely aware of what everyone else has done, especially if you are the headliner. You cannot tell the same story again.

VG: So do you decide as you walk out on stage?

Hikoichi: I look at the audience that is there, and then I whittle it down to four or five stories. Then when I sit down I do my Makura, the extemporaneous portion, after I see how they react, then I decide. That won’t happen this time. Everything is decided.

There are times, however, when I have walked out and I had chosen one and then I sit down and do Makura and think, nope, not that one. I have to start over again.

VG: Since Rakugo is such an old and respected art form, do you have to deal with hecklers?

Hikoichi: Sometimes I may get unexpected shouts from the audience. Maybe from someone who has drunk too much, or someone who is having such a good time that they lose their sense of decorum. There are a lot of drinking scenes in Rakugo and someone may shout out that they drink like that too. So maybe I will put my hand up while I pretend to drink in a “quiet please” gesture, or I may say, “Wow, it’s really loud out there today.” Something that obvious, you know? And then the audience often laughs with me instead of the heckler and it is a way to get the heckler on my side.

VG: After this weekend do you have any more plans to perform in the States?

Hikoichi: I would love to, but I do not have immediate plans. Actually, I have to perform in Tokyo on the night I fly back. I am the leader of a group of young apprentices who love writing and it is a performance where we must write and perform our own new Rakugo stories. Since I am the leader, I also have to write and perform one myself. I could just have them do it, but since I am the leader, I feel like I have to do it too. Also, I love writing new stories. It’s become really popular. We do it every other month. A lot of people come to listen to it, even though other than me, it’s younger people. So every other month I have to create a good, new story. I am the only one doing this for them right now and I am very tired. It is going to be tough though because I want to set a good example, but I only have four or five days here. And I haven’t written it yet. I am thinking about a piece on jet lag.

Hikoichi will perform at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 14 and 2 p.m., Oct. 15 in Lincoln Hall. Tickets are available online or at the PSU Box Office: 503-725-3307 www.pdx.edu/boxoffice/tickets