Toronto Native Katsura Sunshine First Foreigner to Master Japanese Storytelling

Article excerpt

Toronto man aces Japanese storytelling

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TORONTO - With his bleach-blond hair, giddy-puppy enthusiasm and rather goofy-looking long white kimono patterned with the red Canadian Maple Leaf, Katsura Sunshine certainly attracts attention as he returns to the streets of his native Toronto.

Just imagine how he stands out in his adopted home of Japan.

There, the 43-year-old is one of only two foreigners to have ever ascended to the level of professional rakugo storytellers, a tradition that stretches back to the 13th century and gained prominence in the 1600s. Born Greg Robic in Toronto, Sunshine (as he prefers to be called) was a University of Toronto-educated playwright and a scholar of ancient Greek comedies whose version of Aristophanes' "The Clouds" ran at the Poor Alex Theatre for well over a year before being taken on tour.

Then, he went to Japan and fell in love with rakugo, a form of Japanese live entertainment in which a solo storyteller sits onstage with only a paper fan and cloth as props before spinning a comic yarn. These stories wind through casual humour rooted in stand-up-comedy-style autobiography before eventually arriving at a re-telling of traditional tales that can date back hundreds of years.

His only non-native-Japanese predecessor to master the form, Britain's Kairakutei Black, died 90 years ago, but Sunshine says his status as the lone living foreign rakugo storyteller doesn't inspire cynicism so much as curiosity in the Japanese audiences who come to see him perform.

"Rakugo storytellers are very modest in that they think: 'Why would anyone else want to become a rakugo storyteller?'" he relays with a laugh during a recent interview in Toronto. "You're not very high in the social standing in Japan traditionally. Although it's a very fun job ... it's like, why would a foreigner of all the things they could do in their life want to become a rakugo storyteller?

"And then when they hear I was a playwright and did musicals in Toronto, they're like: 'You left THAT for THIS?'"

Indeed he did -- but he's coming back, at least temporarily. Sunshine will launch a 16-city, 25-date tour of the United States and Canada next month, sponsored in part by the Japanese consulates and embassy and the Japan Foundation. The tour will wind through Vancouver, Halifax, Ottawa, Calgary, Montreal and Richmond, B.C., before wrapping with what Sunshine says is a dream gig at Toronto's Winter Garden Theatre on Oct. 5.

The tour will find Sunshine translating his stories from Japanese to English and French. In fact, his potential as an ambassador for this uniquely Japanese art form was one of the primary reasons he was able to persuade veteran storyteller Katsura Bunshi VI to become his master in the first place, back in September 2008.

You see, becoming a rakugo storyteller requires an arduous apprenticeship that typically stretches three or four years. Once Bunshi consented to taking Sunshine on as an apprentice (somewhat reluctantly, Sunshine points out), the pupil went to the teacher's house every day. He would take care of his master's menial tasks -- cooking, cleaning, carrying his bags and folding his kimonos -- for the opportunity to watch Bunshi hone his storytelling craft. Over this period, Sunshine consented to a rigorous set of rules for a man in his late 30s (apprentices usually begin learning rakugo in their late teens). …