Osaka, Japan – On stage, Neo Katsura wore a soft pink kimono. More than a 35-year-old artist, one of Japan’s oldest comedians, with his small frame and high voice, he can easily master a college bachelor’s degree.
Nevertheless, when he reached his usual level, the audience laughed heartily as he became a drunken man – a middle-aged man – whose character blunted his words and stabbed himself in his hands, failing in a vicious attempt to show the medicinal properties of the drug. A mysterious oil.
Mrs. Katsura’s incredibly talented drinkers and idiots, many of whom were men, earned him accolades in Raguko, the classical form of Japanese comedy storytelling. Last month, Ragugo became the first woman in the 50 – year history of the award to win the prestigious Prize for Newcomers.
After picking up the trophy, Ms Katsura asked, “Old men, do you see me now?” Declared that.
For almost three centuries, Raguko was a slapstick cousin of Japanese stage art such as kapuki and no, and most of its artists were men portraying multiple characters of both sexes. Since women entered the industry 40 years ago, they have faced opposition from fellow artists, critics and audiences. Women now represent only one in 16 of the 1,000 Raguco artists working professionally.
Mrs. Katsura’s success was a milestone not only because of his gender, but also because he performed a traditional story with entirely male characters. Some earlier female artists turned male protagonists into women in classical stories in an attempt to captivate audiences by portraying women as men.
But Mrs. Katzura was adamant that old stories should be told in the way they were first conceived. “I wanted to perform Raguko in the same way that men do,” said Ms Katzura, who received the perfect score from all five judges on the competition panel, sponsored by NHK, the general broadcaster. “I feel history has changed.”
Raguko is an oral tradition in which 600 stories are in circulation among artists today – passed on by masters to practitioners. There are strict rules in the art form: artists sit on a cushion in the center of a large empty stage, and they use very low props, such as a folding fan or cotton hand piece.
The stories are about 10 to 30 minutes long and consist of dozens of characters, all of which are expressed through changes in facial expressions, voice, and body movements over the hips.
“I have never seen anything better than the version of the story he performed,” said Kenichi Hori, a cultural commentator who saw Ms Katzura’s gifted act. “For the audience, you want it to be fun. It doesn’t matter if the actor is male or female.
Mrs. who grew up in Osaka. Katsura – who was born Fumi Nishi and used the stage name – was raised by parents who were not legally married, which is unusual in Japan. The family was less concerned about gender roles than traditional families.
“It doesn’t make sense for my mom to always say‘ you’re a boy ’or‘ because you’re a girl ’, he said.
While studying Buddhist art at a college in Kyoto, he attended live rago shows. Her favorite characters were reminiscent of class clowns punished by teachers. “I thought, these people say stupid things and people openly look at them and laugh,” he said. “I was very impressed with it.”
She could see that it was hard for the women on stage. If a woman plays, “The audience will not laugh.” She read a book by a famous Raguko artist who wrote that women “made the audience” uncomfortable.
After graduation, she looked for a mentor who would take her to training. When he first stood outside the dressing room door of Yoneji Katsura, an experienced Raguko coach in Osaka, the comedy capital of Japan, he said he would not accept any women as coaches. The second time she asked he refused again.
The 64-year-old Mr. Katsura recalled. “I could not believe that such a strange woman wanted to be my coach.
He recalled seeing her often at his shows, often sitting in the front row. He said he even heard a voice from above, urging her to get a chance. When Ms Katsura knocked for the third time, the senior artist allowed her to observe the training of her other coaches.
For about six months, while working part-time at a supermarket, he met Mr. Went to Katsura’s house and sat in on the rehearsal. In 2011, Mr. Katsura formally accepted her for three years of training and gave her the nickname “Neo”, meaning two leaves. He also took the family name he received from his guide.
But even though he recognized his gifts, Mr. Katsura is not sure if they really belong in the world of Rakoko. “The basis of ragoko is an art form that men have to do,” he said.
According to Ms. Katzura, “If men can perform women, then women can perform men” is logical. Over time, she adopted a gender-neutral bowl haircut that fans call a “mushroom.” Nonetheless, she does not use her voice to lower her voice or use other techniques that she believes would strike the wrong note.
The year before winning the NHK tournament, he was the finalist. A judge told her she needed more life experience to give texture to her acting.
During the summer, Ms. Katzura became infected with the corona virus. She was scared, but wondered if it could deepen her art somehow. “Maybe it’s a bad thing to say, but I thought, I’m one step closer to being a good Raguco actor because I’m experiencing this feeling that I have never had before,” he said.
Following his successful performance last month, Judge Gondoro Yanakia, who gave him harsh comments, said he was pleased to see Ms. Katsura’s progress. “It was like she came back to put that acting on my face,” Mr. Yanakia said.
Ms. Katzura admitted that she was raised by the women who came before her.
65-year-old Tsu no Miyo, widely recognized as the first woman to succeed in modern-day Ragugo, recalled how male colleagues would tell vulgar stories about women or slap her in the buttocks. He learned to slap again, but often had to accept treatment.
“I thought this was the world I signed up for,” Ms. Suu said.
On stage in Osaka earlier this month, Ms Katsura told two stories, including a 30-minute traditional story in which a father commands one of his artisans to look for a future romantic interest in his beloved son.
In Mrs. Katzura’s hand, it turned into a folded fan sword, a pair of soapsticks, and a long pipe of smoke. With the curl of her shoulders, she provoked a man’s oblique gait, revealing a blow to her cheek and beard.
At one point, Ms. Katsura invited Hanamaru Hayashia, 56, a senior male artist, to join her on stage. She told him that some common words in traditional Raguko stories now sound sexual. For example, the word often used for wife combines the Chinese letters for “yomehan”, “woman” and “house”.
“I do not think these words apply to the world we live in now,” Ms Katsura said.
“Words are so hard,” Mr. Hayashia said. “I think it shows that Ragugo is a man’s world.”
In the dressing room after the show, Ms. Katsura folded her kimonos and briefly reflected on her performance.
“They were a good audience,” Ms Katsura said. “They laughed.”