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Yamato Katsura (former name: Shisai)

Yamato Katsura (former name: Shisai) [profile]

First Chuo Rakugo Star

Yamato Katsura (former name: Shisai)
Master of Rakugo

On March 24, the Commemorative Stage for the Promotion of Shisai to Yamato Katsura III began at the Suzumoto Entertainment Hall in Ueno, Tokyo. At the stage, Rakugo Master Yamato Katsura III displays outstanding performances.

Yamato was a member of the Chuo Rakugo Club (hereinafter referred to as the “Chuo Rakugo”) during his time at university. He is the first performer from the Chuo Rakugo to earn the rank of Shinuchi (star performer).

Encounter with rakugo

I first saw a live rakugo performance when I was 19 years old. At that time, it was my 2nd year as a high-school graduate still studying for university entrance examinations.

For countless generations, my home has been located in Arakawa, Tokyo, close to the entertainment hall. However, I was totally uninterested in rakugo until I saw the first live performance. During my time as a 2nd year student at the cram school, I had completely lost my motivation to study. At that time, my grandfather, who loved rakugo, suddenly became bedridden. To take my mind off realities and worries, I went to see a rakugo show with a complimentary ticket to the entertainment hall which a newspaper carrier brought to my grandfather every month, while I really had an indifferent attitude towards rakugo.

In that state of mind, I entered the Asakusa Engei Hall. That was when everything changed.

Perhaps it was the perfect time for me to encounter rakugo. From that day on, I took complimentary tickets and went to Asakusa twice a month. Spurred by the desire to see a show at a different entertainment hall, I began going to the Suzumoto Entertainment Hall in Ueno with a small amount of allowances on my hands. For me, rakugo was the perfect way to relieve stress. I never thought about making it my profession.

At that time, I was completely focused on entering university.

Joining the Chuo Rakugo

Fortunately, I was able to enter Chuo University. At the welcome party for new students, I made my way straight for the Chuo Rakugo room, which was located in the old building for clubs.

I knocked on the door and then opened it. “I’d like to join the club,” I said.

“Really?! Have a seat!”

I was greeted by 3 older students.

At first, I thought that these 3 students were there to greet new students, but it turned out that they comprised all the members of the club! With a history of 40 years at that time, the club was on the verge of disappearing.

However, about 10 freshmen entered the club that year and gave it new energy. The older students took good care of the new club members, and 8 of the 10 new members continued to participate in the club until graduation. The 8 new members had a strong rivalry with each other. It was a very stimulating atmosphere in which members practiced earnestly with the goal of becoming the best performer.

Promise to my father

Rakugo Master Yamato dressed in ordinary clothes

My grandfather passed away around New Year’s Day and I began to ponder about my future. After much consideration, at the end of my 1st year at university, I decided to become a professional rakugo storyteller. By no means was it an abrupt decision on my part; indeed, I had thought about my life seriously.

“I want to become a professional rakugo storyteller,” I told my parents.

“You must be joking!” responded my father. “You spent 2 years studying for entrance examinations. What are you thinking?”

“But I’m determined,” I replied stubbornly.

Then, my father laid out the following condition.

“As long as you graduate in 4 years, you can try becoming professional.”

Of course, it was a very reasonable condition. However, during my 1st year at university, I spent all of my time in the club room and only took less than half the credits I was supposed to. My parents probably wished I would repeat a year of university, give up my dream of becoming a rakugo storyteller, and join a company.

From my 2nd year, I studied seriously and it became apparent towards the end of my 4th year that I would graduate. Reflecting back, it was a blessing that I had an ambition I wanted to fulfill quickly, and that I had expressed it to my parents. The condition put forth by my father also came at a good timing.

Encounter with Rakugo Master Saiga

The Chuo Rakugo featured teaching from professional storytellers by generation, something quite rare at other Japanese universities. My teacher Saiga was one of the past instructors. He had appeared on the TV program Shoten for 8 years, and I had always watched the program.

I was so excited when I first met Rakugo Master Saiga. Although he had an intimidating face and a threatening edge to his voice, he kindly gave very detailed explanations when teaching. I often consulted him when I encountered a problem.

Master Saiga showed affection to me and the other club members. He often took us drinking. I also went to see the performances of Master Saiga. When I became a 4th year student, I started to dream about becoming his apprentice.

However, I had promised my parents that I would graduate in 4 years. I gave the top priority to fulfilling this promise. Until I graduated, I never said a word to Master Saiga about becoming his apprentice.

I was worried that Master Saiga would tell me to quit university and start my apprenticeship, something which I could not do. I was intent on fulfilling my promise to my parents and let nothing stand in my way.

Master Saiga's response

The day after the graduation ceremony, I went to see Master Saiga only to find that he was in Chiba. So I quickly made my way to Chiba.

“Please take me as an apprentice! Please!” I begged.

Master Saiga seemed quite surprised at my request.

“Well…let me think about it. I have to speak with your parents. As masters we are responsible for our apprentices’ livelihood. I can’t accept you without the approval of your parents.”

Together with Master Saiga (left)

We returned to Tokyo from Chiba. My parents came immediately and had a long discussion with Master Saiga.

“Are you sure that this is the life you want for your beloved son, who even graduated from university?” Master Saiga asked my parents. “There is no profession other than Rakugo, where salary significantly varies depending on the popularity one would earn. Also, there is no guarantee that your son will succeed. Traditionally, training has always been quite severe. Your son may lose his health and work himself to death. Even so, is it still all right to make him my apprentice?”

I will never forget the answer that my father gave.

“For him, there’s nothing happier than learning a profession which he is interested in. Please teach my son.”

Afterwards, Master Saiga would often tell me the following: “I accepted you as an apprentice because of what your father said and his attitude. You should be grateful to your parents.”

From apprenticeship to Shinuchi

I had always thought of Master Saiga as a kind man who would offer me advice and take me out to eat. However, he changed suddenly when I started my apprenticeship. There is a huge difference between professional and amateur rakugo. Amateur techniques are completely useless. I started by throwing away my amateur ideas.

For two months, Master Saiga did not give me a performing name, nor teach me any rakugo stories. Instead, I was scolded incessantly from morning until late at night.

As a minor performer, I was responsible for running Master Saiga’s daily errands. I also worked at the stage. I did not have a day off for 4 years. Really, not even a single day. I never had time to relax. Indeed, if I grew lazy, my apprenticeship would be terminated. I had always been working under pressure.

Upon reaching the rank of Futatsume (second rank), I wore a haori (kimono jacket) and was told that I must make a living by myself through rakugo. As Futatsume, I performed throughout Japan instead of remaining by the side of Master Saiga. This was so I would be invited to perform at the time when I became Shinuchi. My greatest fear was to have no invitations to perform. I can say clearly that rakugo is an extremely tough profession.

I decided to make rakugo my lifework because I am attracted to its art form. I can state that rakugo is truly interesting from my experiences, even as I am still working on improving my storytelling skills.

I am sicerely grateful for your continuous support, and wish to see you at my shows in the future.

Yamato Katsura (former name: Shisai)
Katsura's real name is Hideki Tanaka, born in Tokyo on August 30, 1974. After graduating from Tokyo Metropolitan Hakuo Senior High School, Tanaka entered the Chuo University Faculty of Letters, where he studied psychology in the Department of Education. He began his rakugo apprenticeship under Saiga Katsura immediately after graduating from Chuo University in 1999. He was promoted to the rank of Futatsume (second rank) in 2003 and to the rank of Shinuchi (star performer) in spring 2014. In 2001, he won the 6th Maki Okamoto Prize, which is equivalent to the Best New Performer Award given by entertainment halls in Tokyo. In 2012, he won the Sagamihara Young Rakugo Storytellers Championship. He also serves as an instructor at the Chuo Rakugo Club.
Rakugo storyteller Yamato Katsura III Official websitenew window