Sharing traditional Japanese tales with New Zealand

Hiroshi Nakatsuji reckons he is rarer than a takahē.

The Auckland-based entertainer has trained as a theatre clown, worked as a stand-up comedian, and landed a bit part on Shortland Street during his performing career. But in recent years, he’s turned his attention to a lesser-known style from his native Japan — rakugo, the traditional art of storytelling.

“As far as I know, I’m the only rakugo performer in New Zealand.”

Originally from a small town in Kanagawa prefecture called Ōiso, Nakatsuji moved to New Zealand in 2003 after falling in love with a Kiwi woman.

It was no great culture shock for Nakatsuji, who had spent five years living in America. He became absorbed in his New Zealand life, even learning te reo Māori at the Auckland University of Technology and Te Wānanga o Raukawa.

But he eventually found himself facing something of a midlife crisis.

“I had ignored my own culture for a very long time. When I turned 40, I felt like, ‘something’s not right, I have to embrace my own culture as well’.”

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What is rakugo?

Dating back to the 9th century, rakugo is said to have originated from the efforts of Buddhist monks to stop people from falling asleep during their sermons. The art form involves a lone storyteller who remains seated throughout the performance. With only a fan and towel as props, they must use their words to conjure up vivid images in the audience’s minds.

Nakatsuji first encountered rakugo as a child, when he stumbled across a cassette tape at the local library. It captured his imagination, and he went on to join a rakugo club at university.

He had the opportunity to perform rakugo in New Zealand in 2009, as part of a theatre project called Asian Tales: Native Alienz. He introduced the style to his director, Tony Forster.

“We kind of created this ‘New Zealand’ version of rakugo together.”

In 2016, Nakatsuji connected with a rakugo teacher based in Japan, Kanariya Eiraku, who specialises in English performance. He gifted Nakatsuji with his stage name, Kanariya Eishi.

“’Shi’ is from my real name, ‘Hiroshi’. ‘Ei’ means English. So as a whole it roughly means ‘Hiroshi who does rakugo in English’.”

Onehunga 3

Oral tradition

Nakatsuji says the hardest thing about performing rakugo in English is trying to convey Japanese elements that New Zealand audiences might not be familiar with.

“Even though I do it in English, I still try to maintain ‘Japaneseness’. But I might throw in some western concepts. There’s a story about a rickshaw driver and I say he goes to ‘church’, even though ‘church’ isn’t something you’d hear in Japanese rakugo.”

He doesn’t rely on scripts, instead forming the dialogue for the stories in his head.

“Most rakugo performers create their own working scripts nowadays, but rakugo is actually considered an oral tradition, like in Māori and Pasifika cultures.”

Nakatsuji says he tries to choose stories with universal themes so everyone can enjoy them. He’s performed at cultural events, schools, libraries and even rest homes.

“I recently did rakugo for people with dementia. It was a very interesting experience. When I first went into the room, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to perform, because no one looked engaged – lots of them had a blank stare.

“But then I could see something was happening in their minds. One of the ladies started chatting to my characters. She was so drawn into the world. It was very special, being able to connect to another human being at a deeper level.”


Rakugo revival

Nakatsuji admits rakugo is an unusual hobby, even in Japan. “It’s generally for old people.”

However, over the past few years it’s found a younger audience, in part thanks to a hit manga series about a rakugo performer called Descending Stories: Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū, which has also been translated into English.

“There’s been a revival of rakugo culture.”

In New Zealand where rakugo is not widely known, Nakatsuji says he often feels the pressure of being the face of the art form. He’s also had to develop a thick skin.

“Some people can be pretty brutal. They’ll say, ‘I just didn’t get it’.”

But that hasn’t deterred Nakatsuji, who says he has come to consider rakugo his life work.

“It’s become a little bit of an obsession. I’m kind of reconnecting with my roots.”

Images: Supplied by Hiroshi Nakatsuji

- Asia Media Centre