OSAKA, Japan – On stage, Katsura Niyo wore a delicate pink kimono. With her petite physique and high-pitched voice, she could pass for a college student more easily than a 35-year-old performer of one of Japan’s oldest comedy arts.
However, when she reached the point in her routine where she portrayed a drunken salesman – a middle-aged man – the audience laughed heartily as the character slurred his words and stabbed himself with a knife in his hand in a desperately unsuccessful attempt to demonstrate the medicinal properties of the product. mysterious oil.
Ms. Katsura’s bizarre ability to portray drunks and fools, many of whom are men, has earned her acclaim in rakugo, the classic form of Japanese comedy storytelling. Last month, she became the first woman to win the prestigious Rakugo Rookie Prize in 50 years of awards.
Taking the trophy, Mrs. Katsura announced, “Do you see me now, old people?”
In the nearly three centuries of the existence of rakugo, a cousin of slapsticks in Japanese performing arts such as kabuki and noh, most of its performers have been men, who have portrayed many characters of both genders. Ever since women entered the profession just over 40 years ago, they have faced resistance from fellow artists, critics and the public. Women represent just one of 16 of the nearly 1,000 rakugo artists currently working professionally.
Ms. Katsura’s victory was a milestone not only because of her gender, but also because she performed a traditional storyline with male characters. Some of the former female performers, in an effort to attract the attention of an audience concerned about women being portrayed as men, transformed the male protagonists in classic stories into women.
But Ms. Katsura was determined to tell the old stories the way they were originally intended. “I wanted to perform rakugo just like men do,” said Ms. Katsura, who received the highest score from all five judges of the NHK-sponsored competition. “I feel like history has changed.”
Rakugo is an oral tradition in which masters pass on stories to students – about 600 of which are in circulation today among performers. In this art form, there are strict rules: the performers remain seated on a cushion in the center of an almost naked stage and use very little props, such as a folding fan or a cotton hand towel.
The plots last from 10 to 30 minutes and contain dozens of characters, each of which is conveyed in a change in facial expression, voice and body movements above the waist.
“I’ve never seen anything better than her version of the story she performed,” said Kenichi Hori, a cultural critic who oversaw the award-winning Ms. Katsura’s performance. “For the audience, you just want it to be fun. You don’t have to care if the performer is male or female. “
Raised in Osaka, Ms. Katsura, née Fumi Nishii and using a stage name, was raised by unmarried parents, which is unusual in Japan. The household was less rigid about gender roles than more traditional families.
“My mom always said that it made no sense for us to say ‘because you are a boy’ or ‘because you are a girl,’” she said.
While studying Buddhist art at a college in Kyoto, she attended live rakugo performances. Her favorite characters reminded her of the cool clowns who were punished by the teachers. “I thought these people were talking nonsense and people were laughing at them openly,” she said. “I was very attracted to it.”
She understood that it was hard for women on stage. When the woman spoke, “the audience didn’t laugh.” She read a book by the renowned artist rakugo, who wrote that women make the public “uncomfortable.”
After graduation, she found a mentor who was ready to take her to study. The first time she stood in front of the dressing room door of Yoneji Katsura, a seasoned rakugo practitioner from Osaka, Japan’s comedy capital, he told her that he would not accept women as disciples. The second time she asked, he refused again.
“I couldn’t believe that such a strange girl wanted to be my student,” recalled 64-year-old Mr. Katsura. “I was not sure that I could raise a student-student.”
He recalled that he regularly saw her at his performances, often sitting in the front row. He said he even heard a voice from above urging him to take a chance. When Ms. Katsura knocked a third time, the veteran performer agreed to let her observe the practice of his other students.
For about six months, working part-time in a supermarket, she visited Mr. Katsura’s home and sat in rehearsals. In 2011, Mr. Katsura officially accepted her for a three-year apprenticeship and gave her the stage name “Niyo”, which means “two vacations.” She also took the last name he inherited from his mentor.
But even though he recognizes her gifts, Mr. Katsura is not convinced that women truly belong to the rakugo world. “The essence of rakugo is that it is an art that men have to do,” he said.
For Ms. Katsura, it is quite logical that “if men can perform women, then women should be able to perform men.” Over time, she has developed a signature gender-neutral “bowl” haircut, which fans call “mushroom”. However, she never resorts to lowering her voice to play with men, or any other trick she thinks might be false.
A year before she won the NHK competition, she was a finalist. One judge told her that she needed more life experience to give texture to her performance.
In the summer, Ms Katsura contracted the coronavirus. She was scared, but wondered if this could somehow deepen her art. “Maybe it’s bad to say, but I thought that maybe I’m one step closer to becoming a good rakugo performer because I have a feeling that I’ve never had before,” she said. …
After her winning performance last month by Gontaro Yanagiya, the judge who gave her the harshest mark said he cried with joy at seeing Ms. Katsura’s successes. “It was like she came back just to shove this show in my face,” said Mr. Yanagia.
Ms. Katsura admitted that she reached her heights thanks to the women who came before her.
Tsuyu no Miyako, 65, who is widely regarded as the first woman to succeed in modern rakugo, recalled how male colleagues told vulgar stories about women or spanked her on the buttocks. She said she learned how to slap, but mostly she had to go along with the treatment.
“I just thought I was subscribed to this world,” Ms. Tsuyu said.
Onstage in Osaka earlier this month, Ms. Katsura told two stories, including a 30-minute classic about a father who orders one of his masters to seek out potential romantic interests for his yearning son.
In Lady Katsura’s hand, the folded fan turned into a sword, chopsticks, and a long smoking pipe. Turning her shoulders, she reminded the stooped gait of a man, and with a wave of her chin, she bared her beard.
At one point, Ms. Katsura invited an old artist, 56-year-old Hanamaru Hayashiya, to join her on stage. She told him that some common words in traditional rakugo stories now sound sexist. For example, the word “yomehan”, which is often used for a wife, combines the Chinese characters for “woman” and “house.”
“I don’t think these words fit the world we live in now,” said Ms. Katsura.
“Words are very difficult,” said Mr. Hayashia. “I think this shows that rakugo is a man’s world.”
In the dressing room after the performance, Ms. Katsura folded her kimono and briefly thought about her performance.
“They were a good audience,” Ms. Katsura said. “They were laughing.”