Japanese-style vaudeville, complete with authentic comedy, visual arts entertains at Elizabethtown College
02/06/2014   //   By:   //   Arts & Culture, Arts and Culture, Features   //   1 comment

Hayashiya NirakuThink of it as Japanese vaudeville, alive with storytellers, comedy skits and visual artists.

In a theatre style similar to traditional Japanese yose, which means ‘to draw to seat,’ Elizabethtown College presents an afternoon of authentic sit-down comedy and paper cutting. The free performance, from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 15, in the College’s Gibble Auditorium, is supported by an Undergraduate International Studies and Foreign Languages (UISFL) grant and the Department of Modern Languages.

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Yose, a way to entertain local communities, dates to the 17th century. The shows, performed on the grounds of temples and shrines, included rakugo (rah-ku-GO), a unique form of sit-down comedic storytelling, and, during intermissions, iromono, literally translated as “brightly colored things.” Iromono tends to be flashy and holds the audience attention with other forms of types of comedy, music, singing and vaudeville type acts until the next storyteller comes onto the stage.

Seeing the real thing in front of my own eyes started my personal connection to the art.”

Borrowing from this tradition, Elizabethtown mixes rakugo storytelling with kamikiri (KAH-me-key-ri), an artful paper-cutting performance, and short skits presented by students of Japanese from Elizabethtown, Franklin & Marshall and Dickinson colleges. To remain authentic, the show is performed entirely in Japanese but includes English translation or Power Point subtitles. The College students, wearing traditional Asian garb, perform their traditional skits as a learning tool to practice their Japanese language skills.

Rakugo and kamikiri are performance styles exclusive to Japan, and the performers, masters in their art, are stars in their home country. Often appearing on television, they can be compared to Broadway celebrities in the United States. In other words, they are a pretty big deal.

“When I was growing up in Japan I had seen rakugo on television and had never heard of kamikiri,” said Nobu Takahashi, Elizabethtown College assistant professor of Japanese. It wasn’t until he was teaching at a college in Middlebury, Vt., that he became familiar with his own country’s art form. “I saw performers in 2008 when I was teaching summer school. … Seeing the real thing in front of my own eyes started my personal connection to the art,” he said.

When he came to Elizabethtown Takahashi wanted to invite the men to perform here, but “they are famous people, busy and expensive,” Takahashi said. “The UISFL grant made it possible to bring them to campus.”

Rakugo, presented completely in Japanese by master performer Ryutei Saryuu, was developed during the Japan’s Edo period from 1603-1867. It’s a unique form of “sit-down comedy” in which the stories are presented by a single performer in the traditional manner of kneeling in the middle of the stage on a small cushion called a zabuton or directly on the floor. The performer wears a kimono and employs a traditional Japanese paper fan and fabric towel as props.

The stories are reminiscent of Shakespeare comedy in that they are the same story told over and over through the centuries, but the actor’s facial expressions, movements and inflection are what make the story unfold. “Because they are sitting, all of the comedy comes from the upper body,” said Takahashi. “The fan and the towel are used to express a lot of things. They can be a bowl and chopsticks or traditional Japanese paper. It’s all about imagination.” Rakugo, which means stories that fall, build up and up until the end where they drop onto a powerful punch line, or ochi.

The stories tend to be dialogues between several people and, because Japan is a hierarchical culture, the storyteller indicates by the direction and position of his head whether the person talking is of importance. By exaggerating facial expressions and using the fan and napkin to symbolize items in the story, the rakugoka leads the audience in imaging the scene. Though most of the stories are 400 years old, there have been new rakugo stories written, as well.

“The stories are usually comedy but can be touching about a husband and wife or they can be scary,” said Takahashi. Most of Ryutei Saryuu’s stories are comical, but he also shares emotional love stories. As the stories have been repeated over the years and the audience knows how it ends, the performer’s skill ensures enjoyment.

Rakugoka are ranked by their skill and experience. As an apprentice, they live with a master, working in his home. In return the master teaches them the art and supports them with lodging and food. Ryutei received his shin’uchi ranking in 2006. Shin’uchi, which means “one of true value,” is the top of the heap in rakugo.

Following the rakugo performance at Elizabethtown is kamikiri, an artful paper-cutting performance that also leans toward comedic.

Cutting the image in just a few minutes, Hayashiya Niraku takes requests from the audience. The scissors are specially sharpened and adjusted by the artist for clean, quick cutting. They become accustom to using a very specific type and brand. “He was afraid the company would stop making them so he bought a lifetime supply,” Takahashi said of the German-manufactured scissors.

Although kamikiri is traditionally Japanese, the scissors and paper used in the performance are decidedly Western. Only about 100 years old, kamikiri came about as a way to market an item new to Japanese culture. As Western products began to arrive in Japan, German scissors makers needed a way promote their product. Salespeople knocked on doors and gave demonstrations by cutting out pictures. As not to leave trash on possible clients’ front porches, the cutting took place in one line, producing a continuous cut which produced the pictures and the silhouettes.

Because the process to become a master in kamikiri is a long and intense process, Hayashiya is one of just five professional kamikiri performers in Japan. On stage since 1991, he apprenticed under his father who was a master and professional. Kamikiri is created on the spot from audience requests, which means the artist must stay current with popular culture, news and events. “The harder (the request) the more uncomfortable they are but also happy,” said Takahashi. “They never say ‘I can’t do that’.” At one performance, Takahashi said, the artist took a request from the audience. He was asked to create ‘tofu.’

For more information contact Nobu Takahashi at takahashin@etown.edu.

About the Author :

E.A. (Elizabeth) Harvey is the communications manager and news editor at Elizabethtown College. She has worked in the Office of Marketing and Communications since 2008, after more than two decades as a newspaper feature writer. She holds a bachelor's degree in corporate communication from Elizabethtown College.

  • concernedcitizen

    Is this event still going on today? Wasn’t sure if the weather would postpone it…