OSAKA >> As the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics approach, attempts are being made to introduce traditional performing arts in Kamigata (the Kansai region) to the increasing number of foreign tourists to the area.
Performers consider the inflow of foreign visitors a good opportunity to cultivate new fans of Kamigata’s traditional arts, such as rakugo storytelling and bunraku puppet dramas.
About 70 audience members burst into laughter when Shofukutei Ginpei, 51, a rakugo storyteller, used a folding fan instead of chopsticks to noisily slurp up udon noodles. His Sept. 28 performance was part of a vaudeville-type show at the Osaka Museum of Housing and Living, a place popular with foreign tourists for recreating the look of a town in the Edo period (1603-1867). Rakugo storytelling in English, Chinese and Korean was held there for the first time.
Ginpei, who has South Korean roots, performed the classic rakugo story “Toki Udon” in Korean. It is about a customer who conspires to get out of paying for udon noodles.
Katsura Jakki, 49, gave a performance in Chinese of “Dobutsuen” (The zoo), a story about a man who becomes the talk of the town after donning a tiger pelt. Katsura Asakichi, 48, performed the same story in English. Both renditions used humorous body language to convey the story.
“It was my first time watching rakugo. The way the performer eats udon made me laugh,” said a 26-year-old tourist from South Korea.
In addition to rakugo, visitors to the museum can also enjoy bun-raku and Kyogen, a form of traditional theater that developed as a comic intermission between noh acts.
An estimated 360,000 foreigners visited the museum last year, a 35-fold increase from 2010, when the museum launched a popular attraction in which visitors can don kimono and take pictures in front of the historic town.
Unlike bunraku, which can be enjoyed visually, rakugo is a storytelling art and therefore difficult for foreigners to enjoy. Many have left in the middle of performances, giving rise to the foreign-language show in September.
“Rakugo’s comic essence is universal. I’d like to convey to people overseas how funny rakugo is,” said Ginpei, who has been performing rakugo in Seoul.
As for noh, many measures are being taken to help people better understand storylines.
The Yamamoto Noh Theater in Osaka developed an app that displays English subtitles on smartphones or tablet devices. The theater had been displaying English or Chinese subtitles on a screen beside the stage, but the new app offers added benefits such as allowing English subtitles to be accessed at other theaters as well.
“We’ve received positive feedback from foreigners about this app,” an official of the theater said. “We’ll work harder to convey information in foreign languages to cultivate new fans.”
The Osaka Museum of History projected subtitles in three languages — Chinese, Korean and English — above the stage during a recent joint performance featuring bunraku puppetry and musume gidayu — female shamisen three-stringed lute players.
The museum is running tests to determine the proper display speed and amount of subtitles.