While studying at the Chuo University Faculty of Letters, Minami Sudo (24) won the Judges’ Special Prize at the All-Japan Students Rakugo Championship (Sakuden Award). After graduating in 2010, she became an apprentice of Master Hayashiya Shozo IX (50). Her days are spent training as a zenza (curtain raiser and apprentice), a rookie in the world of rakugo, or Japanese comic storytelling. Minami appeared in the Enjoying the World of Rakugo (October 28th; Tama Campus, Building No. 1, Room #1406) event during Homecoming Day, a festival for exchange between Chuo University graduates. Minami discussed how she became involved in the male-dominated world of rakugo, the severity of her training, and the fun of rakugo.
Fishing for laughter
In the grounds of Asakusa Kuramae Hachiman shrine, there was a rare dog named Shiro who had a pure white coat. No hairs of a different color were mixed into his coat, and he was very popular with the locals. “Shiro, a pure white dog like you is close to a man,” a worshiper at the shrine continued to tell the dog. “I’m sure that you will be a man in your next life.” “I’m not interested in my next life,” thought Shiro. “I want to be a man in this life.” Shiro prayed for his wish to come true for 3 days, for 7 days and finally for 21 days. Suddenly, all of the hair flew of the body and he had become a man.
Tsuruko acts as Shiro, who straightens his back and calls the manager at an employment agency that finds positions for servants. Tsuruko’s voice rings throughout the venue. So begins today’s performance of the story Moto-Inu, a rakugo which is often performed by Zenzas.
Tsuruko says her lines with perfect timing in order to get laughs from the audience. She pulls her body far backwards as if she were pulling laughter out of the audience. She seems to say “That’s right. Laugh more and more!”
It’s as if she were fishing for laughter.
Tsuruko belonged to the theater club at Takasaki Girls’ High School. Although she was uncertain whether or not to continue theater at university, she decided to enter the Rakugo Research Society because it had a stronger impact than any other club. From then on, Minami was devoted to the world of rakugo. “The best part of the Chuo University Rakugo Research Society is that you can be as foolish as you want.” she says.
While fully enjoying comedy with other society members, Tsuruko received instruction from professional storytellers twice per year. She became engrossed in rakugo and learned the art. As a result of her efforts, she advanced to the finals of the 5th All-Japan Students Rakugo Championship (Sakuden Award (Note 1)) held in March 2008. The name of her stage was Chuotei Kawaii. Tsuruko performed Gojo-Kyu, a rakugo story where the character endures the heat of moxibustion (a Chinese medical technique involving the burning of the herb mugwort).
Out of the 7 top-level student rakugo storytellers from throughout Japan, Tsuruko won the Judges’ Special Prize. The judges included the two distinguished storytellers Master Katsura Sanshi (name at that time; later succeeded to the name Bunshi and became Chairperson of the Kamigata Rakugo Association) and Master Tatekawa Shinosuke. This was the day when Tsuruko’s ability was recognized by professionals. She also advanced to the final 7 members at the same championship the following year (February).
Every day, Tsuruko went to the room of the Rakugo Research Society. Every single day, she was absorbed in rakugo. Her enjoyable life as a university student passed as swiftly as the wind. Suddenly, it was time for her to decide on her career after university. She decided to look for general employment. However, Minami’s 3rd year at university coincided with the economic recession that struck Japan. She received a cold reception from society and spent her days dashing through Tokyo in her suit for job interviews. At the same time, her final performance at the Rakugo Research Society was drawing near.
“More than my search for employment, I didn’t want to have any regrets as a rakugo performer,” says Tsuruko. “I couldn’t keep my mind off rakugo.” Tsuruko couldn’t deny her true feeling—that she wanted to perform rakugo. Searching for employment made her realize her strong commitment to rakugo. It was a passion that couldn’t be stifled by the buttons of a suit.
“You should do what you really want,” were the encouraging words of her mother. In the end, even her father relented, although he initially expressed reluctance at his daughter’s dream of becoming a rakugo storyteller.
20 bottles of sauce and 500 dumplings
This was Tsuruko’s first step to becoming a rakugo storyteller. She entered the famous Ebina rakugo family. Her life as a minarai (apprentice) began under Hayashiya Shozo IX, the eldest son of Hayashiya Sanpei (previous Master of the family), who was known as the Showa Period’s king of roaring laughter and was famous for his line: excuse me, madam.
Minarai is the first position comes before Zenza. Tsuruko moved to an apartment close to her master’s house. From morning until bedtime, she stayed close to and took care of her master. She was only allowed to go outside when accompanying her master. At her master’s house, every day was filled with hectic activity of learning proper behavior, going shopping and doing the housework, cooking, cleaning and other chores. “During my time as a Minarai, I was truly like the character Sadakichi who appears in rakugo stories,” says Tsuruko when comparing her past to the servant at a merchant.
“Tsuru. Bring me an otesho.” “OK!” Although she answered quickly in a loud voice, Tsuruko had no idea what an otesho was. While trying to read the answer from her master’s expression, she attempted to use her intuition. Tsuruko brought several types of dishes, but nothing was right. By the time she realized that an otesho is a small dish for soy sauce used when eating sliced raw fish, she had ruined her master’s mood. (Teshio-zara: A small, shallow dish. Also known as an otesho. In order to remove impurities from traditional Japanese food, salt was piled in a small dish. (Definition from Daijisen Dictionary.)
The kitchen at her master’s house was stocked with 20 bottles of sauce. Tsuruko would make 500 dumplings at one time. “I mean 500!” says Tsuruko when telling how surprised she was. However, the dumplings disappeared quickly at meals with the large family of her master, her master’s wife, her and 5 senior apprentices. During special events, family founder Master Hayashi Sanpei’s apprentices would also join in meals.
Tsuruko worked feverishly every day for the 6 months while she was remembering the work of a Minarai and acquiring the ability to participate in performances as a Zenza.
What? Do I have to get dressed here?
The difficulties didn’t end even when Tsuruko was permitted to start performing. Rakugo is a male-dominated field and there is only one dressing room available. From drinking tea to smoking, eating and getting dressed, everything from before performing to after performing is done in the dressing room. Sometimes one can even hear dirty talk in the room. It was no easy task for a young woman to find her place in such an atmosphere.
Tsuruko also had trouble with her storytelling. Although it is comical when a man imitates a woman’s voice, a woman imitating an angry man lacks force. In addition to acquiring basic techniques, Tsuruko struggled to establish a different kind of comedy from men. She had to search for a technique to amuse the audience. During her Zenza training, Tsuruko took great care even for simple tasks such as serving tea to masters. She remembered the preference of each master; who likes strong tea, who likes hot tea, etc. For performers who came in a hurry, Tsuruko served tea at a temperature which could be drunk quickly. She folded her master’s robe and kimono. On the stage, she turned the pages of the mekuri, paper on which the name of the next performer is written. She turned over cushions so that performers could sit on a new side. After a performance which involved cutting paper, Tsuruko carefully picked up the scraps of paper. For masters who use a shamisen (Japanese string instrument), she inspected the instruments for any damage. Tsuruko always performed her many tasks with a smile.
“I became a performer, so I want to be glamorous.”
Tsuruko chose her path by herself. Ever since she joined her rakugo family, she has continued to persevere.
“If a Zenza is gloomy, the atmosphere of the dressing room is gloomy, too!” she says with a bright, reassuring smile.
Through the introduction of the agent, Shiro becomes a servant at the home of a retired person living in Senju. The retired person likes eccentric people. However, Shiro cannot restrain his dog-like personality.
Retired Person: “Let’s have some tea. Check and see if the water is boiling hot.”
Shiro: “Bow-wow!” (Begging) (note: In this play on words, the same Japanese phrase is used for “boiling hot” and “beg.”)
“Get the tea drier. The tea drier over there!”
(Woof) (note: The phrase “tea drier” can be similarly interpreted as “bark.”)
“No, the tea drier!” “Bow-wow.” “Oh, I’ve had enough. Where’s Omoto? Is she here or isn’t she?” (note: The sentence “Is she here or isn’t she?” can also be interpreted as “Is she here or is she a dog?”)
“Huh? I just changed into a human this morning.”
The glow of laughter spread brilliantly throughout the audience.
(Note 1) Sakuden Award: Known as the father of rakugo, Anrakuan Sakuden was known as a skilled orator and wrote the Seisuisho (Laughs to Banish Sleep), a collection of comic stories. An All-Japan Students Rakugo Championship is held in Sakuden’s birthplace of Gifu (currently Gifu City). The championship was first held in 2004.
Offered by: Hakumon Chuo 2012 Winter Issue No.229
Ms. Tsuruko Hayashiya
Born in Takasaki City, Gunma Prefecture in 1987. Graduated from the Faculty of Letters, Chuo University in 2010. In September of the same year, began studying under Hayashiya Shozo IX. Her stage name is Tsuruko Hayashiya (given name is Minami Sudo). In January 2011, performed the story Miso Mame (Miso Bean) during a show by the Hayashiya Shozo Group at the Yokohama Nigiwai-za. In March of the same year, she was appointed as the opening act, or zenza (apprentice). While a member of the Chuo University Rakugo Research Society, won the Grand Prize at the Chiritotechin Cup: Fukui Women’s Rakugo Championships.
Also won the Judges’ Special Prize at the All-Japan Students Rakugo Championship (Sakuden Award). Currently undergoing an apprenticeship as a zenza at shows throughout Japan.