Greg Robic moved to Japan 14 years ago, so when he flew back to Toronto for a visit this week, he did what any homesick Canadian might do: He wandered into an uptown pub to catch the Maple Leafs' season-opener. Wearing a kimono and white slippers.
The traditional garb has been Robic's uniform ever since he was granted the name Katsura Sunshine two years ago, becoming the first North American to be certified in the ancient Japanese art of rakugo storytelling. On Saturday night, he will perform at Toronto's Winter Garden Theatre, the final stop in a 19-city tour of Canada and the United States sponsored by the Japanese government.
Robic – or Sunshine, if you please – was a familiar face in the Toronto theatre community during the mid-1990s. As a recent University of Toronto Classics grad, he produced, wrote, directed and acted in a delightful production of Aristophanes' The Clouds, which ran at the Poor Alex Theatre for 15 months. His love of classics led him to Japan after he read an article that suggested that Greek comedies and tragedies bore resemblances to Noh and Kabuki theatre.
"You can't see Greek theatre as it was done," he reasoned, "but you can see Noh and Kabuki basically preserved, because it has continued."
While in Japan, he discovered rakugo, a 400-year-old tradition in which a kimono-clad performer kneels on a cushion and, using only a fan and a hand cloth, regales an audience with stories. Some tales are brief, perhaps 10 or 15 minutes; others can stretch to an hour.
"I usually compare it to Bill Cosby when he's doing the Cosby Kids," says Sunshine, 43, sipping a pint of Mill Street ale. "There's almost no narration, it's dialogue-driven."
Performances begin with the rakugo-ka telling stories drawn from his personal life; the second half of the evening is usually devoted to classic tales. The other night, after the Leafs finished off the Montreal Canadiens and the bar crowd thinned out, Sunshine demonstrated one such story, an audience favourite about a child with such a long name that, by the time his mother manages to get him up for school, the day is over. (Snippets of Sunshine performing that tale can be found online.) "It's very, very innocent comedy," he explains. "A rakugo storyteller will not swear, will not talk about politics or anything controversial." In the first half of the evening, "when you're doing your own material, you want to bring the audience together. You never want to divide them."
The story of how one becomes a rakugo-ka could make for its own classic. Aspiring performers submit themselves to an apprenticeship – or, rather, indentured servitude – with a rakugo master that lasts three years. "No days off," Sunshine says. "You clean his house, do his laundry, carry his bags – and just learn by observing." Apprentices are on call 24 hours a day, and effectively barred from having a social life.
Sunshine's master was Katsura Bunshi VI, a rakugo-ka now in his 70s who has written about 230 stories. "He could call any time: 'Oh, Sunshine, I can't find my glasses. Come up.' I gotta go, [even if it's] one o'clock in the morning. And if I smell like alcohol? Big trouble."
He laughs and says it reminded him a little of The Karate Kid, in which Ralph Macchio's character doesn't understand why his sensei commands him to sand floors, paint fences and wax a series of cars rather than teaching him karate.
Being called to his master's house in the middle of the night to perform a menial task requires "erasing yourself as an individual human being, subsuming everything to the master, and trying to learn to read your master's mind. So, if he asks you for tea once, you have to read the pattern of his behaviour, his needs, and realize, 'Well, I think he needs a tea,' and put it out there. You spend three years learning to read your master's mind. And then, when you go up on stage, you can read the audience's mind and you'll know how to entertain them, you'll be able to read their rhythm, feel what they want, and tell the stories that they want to hear."
Sunshine is writing his own stories now – there are 12 in his repertoire, including a Japanese-language version of the Abbott and Costello "Who's on first?" routine – and continues to learn how to reach his audiences. Initially, he says, he loosely adapted his master's stories to perform them in English, and was disappointed with the audience's flat response. "But I had a hunch: 'I'm going to translate as much as I can, word for word, trying to imitate the rhythms, the speech patterns, and just be as close as possible to the [original Japanese experience].' Suddenly, people were just killing themselves laughing."
Now, he's more confident. "I think there's room for this art form here. Especially with stand-up comedy – [there's] a lot of cynicism and negativity and divisiveness and swearing, and all that. I think there's room for the kind of innocent humour that rakugo brings to the table."
As the only Western-born practitioner, Sunshine has been tapped by the Japanese government to be a cultural ambassador of the form. "I'm interested to see how far it could go here," he says, smiling. "I'm hoping to get apprentices. I'd like to think that, in 30 or 40 years, just like in sumo wrestling, all the best rakugo storytellers are foreigners."