Somemaru’s Kôza, Outstanding! さすが染丸師匠の高座!

Today I got dressed in kimono and went to the hiru-seki (afternoon show) at the Hanjôtei to see Somemaru perform. Fortunately I found a seat up front, at far stage right. I sat next to a man, who, with his shoes off and legs stretched out, seemed intent on sleeping throughout the show. Let me digress by making a few comments about this man.

At first I thought the man was being rude by sleeping, but I soon noticed he wasn’t sleeping at all. I know he was awake because he took notes at the beginning and end of each kôza. He was listening, and rather actively. During each makura he would whisper to himself the title of story he thought hanashika were leading into. As I listened to him guess, I realized he was correct in almost every case.

From a Western (and contemporary Japanese) point of view, the man was being rude. The way he lounged in his seat and kept his eyes closed sent the message that he wasn’t interested in being there, or thought the performances weren’t worth much. This is not so from the traditional Japanese (rakugo) perspective, though. Being that rakugo is a narrative art to be listened to and not necessarily one to be watched, this man was putting each hanashika to the test by refusing to watch their facial expressions, gesticulations, and (in some cases) excessive animation. The way he was sitting, too, is what hanashika and yose owners have long desired–that people make themselves at home, as if they were in their own living rooms. This is one reason that, at the Hanjôtei and some other yose, you can see the character 樂 (raku, relax, ease, calm) affixed to the wall behind hanashika, at upstage center. The man I sat next to was therefore not being rude. He was a rakugo tsû (connoisseur). He listened closely, and made hanashika work for his laughter. With knowledge of this, I was especially glad to see it when the man was sitting up in his seat, eyes wide open, for the tori (final act, headliner), Somemaru.

It goes without saying, Somemaru’s kôza was outstanding. It had been quite a while since I had listened to Somemaru’s rakugo from the audience, so this was a nice treat. I was able to see him in full view and observe the audience’s delight as he narrated his story, today Shaku no aigusuri (The Best Medicine for Nervous Cramps). Of course there were other great acts today (e.g., Katura Bunya’s Kyô no chazuke [Tea over Rice, Kyoto-style] was quite enjoyable, reminiscent of his master’s [Katsura Bunshi V] version of the same story), but Somemaru has a special talent for drawing in the audience, making them feel comfortable, and feel there is no other place in the world he would rather be than right there on stage before them for his 40-minute set as tori. Indeed, Somemaru is a true professional, from opening bow to closing bow. One must note, too, his kimono are absolutely fabulous.

It is difficult for anybody to sit in one place for three to four hours, and this is why the more seasoned, talented hanashika perform later on the yose bill. This is why Somemaru performs last. The promise of his appearance keeps people in their seats, and his performance makes them forget it if they were tired. It seems that all hanashika throughout the long show have their own ways of comically empathizing with the audience, their own ways of thanking them for sticking around to the end of the show. This is how Somemaru began his kôza today, too, with a joke about how long the show was, and sincere expression of his gratitude for their staying to listen to him.

Following the show, I paid Somemaru a visit in the gakuya, bowed, told him I loved the show, and bowed once more to make my leave. “Where are you going? You better at least stick around for dinner,” he said. “I doubt you’ve been eating anything good lately anyway.” How could I argue with that? Besides, Somemaru was right, I hadn’t eaten anything very good since the last time I saw him. From there, we went out to eat. I got the same thing Somemaru ordered: unagi don and ebi tenpura no soba (broiled eel over rice and deep-fried prawn over buckwheat noodles). While savoring this, I was lucky to sit in on Somemaru’s dinner-time lecture to his pupil Someya about the psychology of characters in a story he is currently learning.

Shishô, thank you for a great kôza, and a wonderful dinner!









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