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Toronto native Katsura Sunshine first foreigner to master Japanese storytelling

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TORONTO - With his bleach-blond hair, giddy-puppy enthusiasm and rather goofy-looking long white kimono patterned with the red Canadian Maple Leaf, Katsura Sunshine certainly attracts attention as he returns to the streets of his native Toronto.

Just imagine how he stands out in his adopted home of Japan.

There, the 43-year-old is one of only two foreigners to have ever ascended to the level of professional rakugo storytellers, a tradition that stretches back to the 13th century and gained prominence in the 1600s. Born Greg Robic in Toronto, Sunshine (as he prefers to be called) was a University of Toronto-educated playwright and a scholar of ancient Greek comedies whose version of Aristophanes' "The Clouds" ran at the Poor Alex Theatre for well over a year before being taken on tour.

Then, he went to Japan and fell in love with rakugo, a form of Japanese live entertainment in which a solo storyteller sits onstage with only a paper fan and cloth as props before spinning a comic yarn. These stories wind through casual humour rooted in stand-up-comedy-style autobiography before eventually arriving at a re-telling of traditional tales that can date back hundreds of years.

His only non-native-Japanese predecessor to master the form, Britain's Kairakutei Black, died 90 years ago, but Sunshine says his status as the lone living foreign rakugo storyteller doesn't inspire cynicism so much as curiosity in the Japanese audiences who come to see him perform.

"Rakugo storytellers are very modest in that they think: 'Why would anyone else want to become a rakugo storyteller?'" he relays with a laugh during a recent interview in Toronto. "You're not very high in the social standing in Japan traditionally. Although it's a very fun job ... it's like, why would a foreigner of all the things they could do in their life want to become a rakugo storyteller?

"And then when they hear I was a playwright and did musicals in Toronto, they're like: 'You left THAT for THIS?'"

Indeed he did — but he's coming back, at least temporarily. Sunshine will launch a 16-city, 25-date tour of the United States and Canada next month, sponsored in part by the Japanese consulates and embassy and the Japan Foundation. The tour will wind through Vancouver, Halifax, Ottawa, Calgary, Montreal and Richmond, B.C., before wrapping with what Sunshine says is a dream gig at Toronto's Winter Garden Theatre on Oct. 5.

The tour will find Sunshine translating his stories from Japanese to English and French. In fact, his potential as an ambassador for this uniquely Japanese art form was one of the primary reasons he was able to persuade veteran storyteller Katsura Bunshi VI to become his master in the first place, back in September 2008.

You see, becoming a rakugo storyteller requires an arduous apprenticeship that typically stretches three or four years. Once Bunshi consented to taking Sunshine on as an apprentice (somewhat reluctantly, Sunshine points out), the pupil went to the teacher's house every day. He would take care of his master's menial tasks — cooking, cleaning, carrying his bags and folding his kimonos — for the opportunity to watch Bunshi hone his storytelling craft. Over this period, Sunshine consented to a rigorous set of rules for a man in his late 30s (apprentices usually begin learning rakugo in their late teens).

"No holidays, no drinking, no smoking, no going on dates, a curfew — the works," said Sunshine.

Still, Sunshine insists the mentoring was harder on his master than it was on him, since Bunshi was making a lifetime commitment to his student and essentially welcoming him to his family.

Also welcoming was Sunshine's flesh-and-blood family, even if they were a bit puzzled by the art form at first. His brother, Pete Robic — a trained accountant who works in finance and, clad in a sharp suit with short-cropped dark hair, cuts a wildly different figure than Sunshine — has played an integral role in arranging and publicizing the Winter Garden engagement. His parents have also been supportive.

"I've always been a bit different so I think they were prepared for anything," Sunshine says with a laugh.

It remains to be seen whether other North American audiences unfamiliar with the form will be similarly open-minded.

Sunshine is, of course, brightly optimistic. He compares rakugo storytelling to a gentler, more family-friendly version of stand-up comedy — in rakugo, he says, a performer seeks to unify his audience rather than risk alienating even a couple observers with an off-colour remark. Similarly, rakugo involves heavy amounts of improv, as performers feel out a crowd and subsequently decide which stories to tell.

Once ensconced in a story, the performer acts out two roles by changing the tone of his voice (this part can be a challenge for Sunshine, since he speaks Japanese with an accent that can distract audiences). He compares his master to a Japanese Bill Cosby, but points out that rakugo performances are certainly less edgy than North American standup.

"It's back to a more innocent time of comedy, perhaps," Sunshine says.

Still, he acknowledges that some elements might be lost in translation in on this side of the Pacific.

"The storyteller is starting his story from the basis of being at a lower social station than the audience — so (you) bow your head to the audience (and) they usually start with an introduction and say something like, 'Thank you very much for coming at a busy time in your schedule, but I know the really busy people haven't come.' It's very, very self-deprecating," said Sunshine, who is also a TV personality in Japan.

"And there's also a very kind of specific speech rhythm and there's a whole way of holding your body that's very Japanese and very, very specific to rakugo. There's so many things about rakugo storytelling that are very specific to it, (but) that can definitely transfer to English if I work hard enough."

And those close to him don't doubt that work ethic.

"I think everybody can feel his energy, his enthusiasm, and his desire to do his best and do his craft to the 110th per cent," says Pete Robic.

Sunshine is only in his fifth year as a fledgling rakugo professional, which is far too early to take on apprentices.

Yet he jokes that his opportunity to take someone under his wing might not be far away yet.

"My master said a funny thing to me the other day. He said, 'Sunshine, go ahead and take apprentices' — which is unheard of in your fifth year — 'but they have to be foreign. If you take a Japanese apprentice, you're going to teach them your funny Japanese.'"

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