Simanaitis Says

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夫を連れて行って, ください

A JAPANESE COMEDIENNE might use the line above, Google Translate’s rendering of “Take my husband, please.” But until relatively recently she wouldn’t be performing rakugo, the classical form of Japanese storytelling hitherto limited to male practitioners. 

So let’s celebrate Fumi Nishii, a 35-year-old Japanese woman growing up in Osaka, the traditional center of rakugo. Buddhist art graduate Nishii took three tries before Yoneji Katsura, a seasoned rakugo practitioner, was willing to take her on. Like two other Japanese theater genres, noh and kabuki, rakugo has a hierarchy of mentor/apprentices learning the art.

Motoko Rich and Hikari Hida describe Nishii’s progress in “Playing Drunks and Fools (Yep, Men)” in The New York Times, December 19, 2021: “For about six months, while working part time at a supermarket, she visited Mr. Katsura’s home and sat in on rehearsals. In 2011, Mr. Katsura formally accepted her into a three-year apprenticeship and gave her the stage name ‘Niyo,’ which means two leaves. She also took on the family name that he had inherited from his mentor.”

Niyo Katsura recently was the first woman to win a prestigious prize for rakugo newcomers in the award’s 50-year history. This and the following images by Shiho Fukada for The New York Times, December 19, 2021.

The Rakugo Art Form. Rich and Hida write, “Over the nearly three-century existence of rakugo, the slapstick cousin of Japanese stage arts like kabuki and noh, most of its performers have been men who portray multiple characters of both genders. Since women entered the profession just over 40 years ago, they have faced resistance from fellow artists, critics and audiences. Women represent just one in 16 of the close to 1,000 rakugo artists now working professionally.”

Ms. Katsura says it is only logical that “if men can perform women, then women should be able to perform men.”

Rich and Hida describe, “Rakugo is an oral tradition in which stories—about 600 of which are in circulation among performers today—are passed down by masters to apprentices. The art form has strict rules: Performers remain seated on a cushion in the center of a largely bare stage, and they use very few props, such as a folding fan or a cotton hand towel. Stories range from about 10 to 30 minutes and feature dozens of characters, all of whom are conveyed by changes in facial expression, voice and movements of the body above the waist.”

Women as Benshi Too. Movie fan Daughter Suz tells me about benshi, Japanese performers who provide live narration for silent films of both Japanese and Western origin. These performers, also traditionally male, play an aesthetic as well as interpretive role: Wikipedia describes, “This commentary was as much part of the theater-going experience as the film itself. In one instance, a benshi was able to avoid government censorship of The Kiss by describing kissing in Western culture to be as casual a greeting as a pat on the back.”

Wikipedia cites two well-known female practitioners of the art: Midori Sawato, with a repertory of more than 500 films, has performed abroad and has an official website. Masami “Vanilla” Yamazaki is listed as a benshi voice actor, actress, choreographer, and tarento (TV “talent”). Her filmography includes the 2005–2006 TV series IGPX: Immortal Grand Prix. IMDb describes, “In the year 2048, people are raving about a fighting race called ‘Immortal Grand Prix,’ or IGPX in short, which is faster and more exciting than any of the existing motor sports.”

“The phenomenon,” IMBd continues, “is so big that an entire city was built for the racing industry where competitions take place on a huge track. In the ‘Immortal Grand Prix,’ two teams of three IG machines, high-tech humanoid mechs driven by humans, race at speeds greater than 400-km/h. The teams make three laps of a 60-km course while intercepting the opponent as they vie for a first-place finish. The best machine performance, the best pilots, and the best teamwork are the only factors that can make them the winners.”

Hammi and Max, eat your hearts out. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021

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