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Saturday, May 14, 2011

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Tough audience: Survivors of the March 11 disaster watch a performance by traditional Japanese storyteller Sanyutei Kyoraku in their shelter at Tsuyagawa Elementary School in Ichinoseki, Iwate Prefecture, on Sunday. AP PHOTOS

'Rakugo' master performing classic comedy tales along northeast coast in effort to bring some cheer to evacuees

Storyteller tries to ease tsunami victims' pain


ICHINOSEKI, Iwate Pref. — The traditional Japanese storyteller kneels in front of a room full of families that have lost everything — their loved ones, their homes, their entire town — and his face stretches into a broad grin.

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For a good cause: "Rakugo" comedian Sanyutei Kyoraku performs during a fundraising event Sunday for survivors of the March 11 quake and tsunami at the Culture Hall in Ichinoseki, Iwate Prefecture.

"There once was a samurai who loved to drink sake," he says, and begins to sway as though tipsy.

The samurai story, a classic comedy hundreds of years old, normally draws a steady stream of laughs. But it gets only a few chuckles at this shelter for those who lost their homes in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

After two months, survivors of the twin disaster receive a steady supply of food, water and medical provisions. Now, Sanyutei Kyoraku is trying to overcome a different kind of challenge — getting them to smile again.

Kyoraku is a master of "rakugo," the ancient art of humorous storytelling, and usually performs in front of crowded halls in Tokyo or on national TV. At the shelter in Ichinoseki, Iwate Prefecture, he sits in a cramped meeting room attached to an abandoned gymnasium, his audience watching from rows of folding chairs.

In a culture where pain and sorrow are internalized and not discussed openly, it is often difficult for those living in shelters with little privacy to have a sense of humor.

"Some people still can't even laugh yet; they just walk out when I start," says Kyoraku, who has given free performances all along the battered northeastern coast since the disasters.

Kyoraku is the stage name of Takayuki Kato, 47. He performs in the classic style, kneeling on a small cushion and dressed in a simple kimono with only a paper fan and a handkerchief for props. He switches expressions and mannerisms to play several roles at the same time — thirsty drunks, confused grandmothers, angry dogs — quickly alternating voices for each throughout a story.

"It was really interesting; I thought it was great," said Seito Ishizawa, 57, who sat mostly stone-faced through the show.

After his performance, Kyoraku talks about the mental stress of dealing with personal tragedy and living months without any privacy, and the need for everyone to help lift the spirits of those around them.

"If you want to make people around you smile, you have to start by smiling yourself," he says.

While evacuees in some areas have started to move into temporary housing, it will be months before enough are built for everyone that lost their home.

In his shelter performances, Kyoraku sticks to lighthearted traditional tales. He has learned to moderate the content of the volunteer shows after performing for survivors of the Great Hanshin Earthquake that devastated southern Kobe in 1995.

At a charity event in an area with far less damage, he performs a piece about a hospital trying to cope after a major earthquake, mixing humor and tragedy as he shuffles through half a dozen characters. Some in the audience laugh as they cry.

"We need to talk about the tragedy, to ge-t it all out," he said. "If you hold in these thoughts, they will come out in your dreams."

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