Author: Rob Jessop
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Shinigami with Katsura Sunshine
As a follow up to our previous article, UK-Anime once again sent this intrepid correspondent into the urban jungle, to see Katsura Sunshine's take on the famous Rakugo Shinigami (God of Death). It was a one-off show on the spookiest day of the year, Friday 13th, at London's Leicester Square Theatre. I caught up with Sunshine, his producer Rie Crowley, and show manager Marie Fukuda after the show for an informal chat.
The show begins as it usually does with Sunshine warming up the crowd. The set dressing has been altered to fit the ghostly theme of the show, now sparsely lit and studded with candle-shaped lights (I learned later that the show manager, Marie Fukuda, had spent many hours making these). A funny side effect is that Sunshine is completely unable to see the crowd, so he asks for the lights to briefly come up.
This is surprisingly important - according to Sunshine, a large part of the apprenticeship of a Rakugo performer is spent in the company of the master learning the soft skills of reading the crowd, so that you can subtly adjust your performance on the fly. In this sense it's perhaps closer to stand-up comedy than a stage play. Rakugo is an old tradition and fans of one of UK-Anime Network’s most beloved shows Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju would be forgiven for thinking that an apprentice spends all of their time memorising traditional stories, and learning to perform them perfectly by rote (and/or engaging in love triangles beset by social obligations, having the world of Rakugo on your shoulders as times and tastes change and you become frail, etc, with perfect dramatic poise. Did I ever tell you how good that anime is?).
Back to the show in question, though and after this brief interlude, and having gotten a sense of the nearly-sold-out crowd, Sunshine can get back to his participation-heavy intro to this special story. He explains that Shinigami is in fact recently adopted from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Well, 100 years old is pretty recent in light of a 400 year old tradition at any rate.
This particular story takes around 30 minutes to tell unlike his other performances which are each made up of multiple shorter stories. He tells us this and explains that Rakugo always, always ends with a punchline. Often it's funny, as he briefly demonstrates with some extremely short stories of two or three lines, but sometimes...
It's here Sunshine pivots from the carousing introduction, very quickly, into the chilling atmosphere of the main event. It's to his credit as a performer - enhanced by the staging and enthusiastic crowd - that it immediately becomes so quiet that you can hear a pin drop.
Without giving too much away, it begins with the protagonist Gembei crushed by debt and mulling over various ways to take his own life, before the debt collectors do it for him. The titular Shinigami appears and begs him to remain alive, for his fortune hasn't yet run out and his premature death would upset the peculiar rules of the Shinigami world. Gembei is unconvinced, but the Shinigami offers him a scheme by which he can cash in, providing he follows certain iron-clad rules.
If you have even a passing familiarity with Grimm fairy tales you'll figure out where the story ends up. Sunshine's Gembei is the star of the show; he's a wastrel who is given a second chance and squanders it, but he's funny and sympathetic, such that you can't help but be drawn along with his highs and lows.
What surprised me the most is that for all the story's chill and moralising, it's packed with humour. Even the slapstick and farcical jokes seem to fit well. This provides light-hearted counterpoints which make the sting in the story's tale all the more effective, even for people who see it coming a mile away. It's gripping; the final line of the story, the 'punchline', is delivered with a particular hair-raising chill.
Catching up with Sunshine after the show, we got to talking about his research. The Rakugo Shinigami is often performed with several different endings. Many of these are surprisingly comic, even slapstick. What would a comedy Shinigami be like, I wonder?
Katsura Sunshine is appearing at the SoHo Playhouse in New York from November 16th 2017 and will be at Hyper Japan in London's Tobacco Dock on Sunday 26th of November 2017 for a special performance.
Thanks to Katsura Sunshine, Rie Crowley of Point Blank Productions and Marie Fukuda for speaking to me after the show.