OSAKA, Japan — Onstage, Niyo Katsura wore a fragile pink kimono. Together with her petite body and high-pitched voice, she might move extra simply for a university undergraduate than a 35-year-old performer of one in every of Japan’s oldest comedic arts.
But when she reached the purpose in her routine the place she impersonated a drunken salesman — a middle-age man — the viewers laughed heartily because the character slurred his phrases and stabbed himself within the arm in a raucously unsuccessful effort to point out off the medicinal properties of a mysterious oil.
Ms. Katsura’s uncanny potential to painting a spread of drunks and fools, lots of them males, has introduced her acclaim in rakugo, a classical type of Japanese comedic storytelling. Final month, she grew to become the primary lady to win a prestigious prize for rakugo newcomers within the award’s 50-year historical past.
After taking the trophy, Ms. Katsura proclaimed, “Do you see me now, outdated males?”
Over the almost three-century existence of rakugo, the slapstick cousin of Japanese stage arts like kabuki and noh, most of its performers have been males who painting a number of characters of each genders. Since ladies entered the career simply over 40 years in the past, they’ve confronted resistance from fellow artists, critics and audiences. Ladies signify only one in 16 of the near 1,000 rakugo artists now working professionally.
Ms. Katsura’s victory was a milestone not solely due to her gender, but additionally as a result of she carried out a standard story that includes all-male characters. Some earlier feminine performers, in an effort to woo audiences unsettled by ladies performing as males, transformed male protagonists in classical tales into ladies.
However Ms. Katsura was decided to inform the outdated tales the way in which they have been initially conceived. “I wished to carry out rakugo the very same approach that males do,” mentioned Ms. Katsura, who acquired an ideal rating from all 5 judges on the competitors panel, sponsored by NHK, the general public broadcaster. “I really feel that historical past has been modified.”
Rakugo is an oral custom during which tales — about 600 of that are in circulation amongst performers in the present day — are handed down by masters to apprentices. The artwork type has strict guidelines: Performers stay seated on a cushion within the middle of a largely naked stage, they usually use only a few props, comparable to a folding fan or a cotton hand towel.
Tales vary from about 10 to half-hour and have dozens of characters, all of whom are conveyed by adjustments in facial features, voice and actions of the physique above the waist.
“I’ve by no means seen something nearly as good as her model of the story she carried out,” mentioned Kenichi Horii, a cultural critic who watched Ms. Katsura’s prizewinning act. “For the viewers, you simply need it to be enjoyable. You don’t essentially care if the performer is male or feminine.”
Rising up in Osaka, Ms. Katsura — who was born Fumi Nishii and makes use of a stage identify — was raised by dad and mom who weren’t legally married, which is uncommon in Japan. The family was much less inflexible about gender roles than extra conventional households.
“My mom all the time mentioned it doesn’t make sense for us to say ‘as a result of you’re a boy’ or ‘as a result of you’re a woman,’” she mentioned.
Whereas finding out Buddhist artwork in school in Kyoto, she attended dwell rakugo performances. Her favourite characters reminded her of sophistication clowns whom lecturers punished. “I believed, these persons are saying silly issues and persons are brazenly laughing at them,” she mentioned. “I used to be very drawn to that.”
She might see it was powerful for ladies onstage. When a lady carried out, “the viewers wouldn’t snort.” She learn a e-book by a well known rakugo artist who wrote that ladies made audiences “uncomfortable.”
After graduating, she sought out a mentor keen to take her on for coaching. The primary time she stood exterior the dressing room door of Yoneji Katsura, a seasoned rakugo practitioner in Osaka, Japan’s comedic capital, he advised her he wouldn’t settle for any ladies as apprentices. The second time she requested, he refused once more.
“I couldn’t imagine that such a wierd woman wished to be my apprentice,” recalled Mr. Katsura, 64. “I had no confidence that I might increase a feminine apprentice.”
He recalled seeing her recurrently at his performances, typically sitting within the entrance row. He mentioned he even heard a voice from above, urging him to take an opportunity on her. The third time Ms. Katsura got here knocking, the veteran performer agreed to let her observe his different apprentices observe.
For about six months, whereas working half time at a grocery store, she visited Mr. Katsura’s house and sat in on rehearsals. In 2011, Mr. Katsura formally accepted her right into a three-year apprenticeship and gave her the stage identify “Niyo,” which suggests two leaves. She additionally took on the household identify that he had inherited from his mentor.
However regardless that he acknowledges her presents, Mr. Katsura shouldn’t be sure ladies actually belong within the rakugo world. “The idea of rakugo is that it’s an artwork type that males ought to carry out,” he mentioned.
To Ms. Katsura, it’s only logical that “if males can carry out ladies, then ladies ought to have the ability to carry out males.” Over time, she adopted a signature gender-neutral bowl haircut that followers name “the mushroom.” But she by no means resorts to decreasing her voice to play males or utilizing different methods she believes would strike a false word.
The 12 months earlier than she received the NHK competitors, she was a finalist. One decide advised her she wanted extra life expertise to offer texture to her efficiency.
Over the summer season, Ms. Katsura contracted the coronavirus. She was frightened however questioned if it would in some way deepen her artwork. “Possibly it is a unhealthy factor to say, however I believed, perhaps I’m one step nearer to being a great rakugo performer as a result of I’m experiencing this sense that I by no means had earlier than,” she mentioned.
After her successful efficiency final month, Gontaro Yanagiya, the decide who had given her the harshest suggestions, mentioned he cried with pleasure to see Ms. Katsura’s progress. “It was like she got here again simply to shove that efficiency in my face,” Mr. Yanagiya mentioned.
Ms. Katsura acknowledged that she had reached the heights she had due to the ladies who got here earlier than her.
Tsuyu no Miyako, 65, who’s broadly acknowledged as the primary lady to achieve fashionable rakugo, recalled how male colleagues would inform vulgar tales about ladies or slap her on the buttocks. She mentioned she realized to slap again, however principally needed to settle for the therapy.
“I simply thought that was the world I signed up for,” Ms. Tsuyu mentioned.
Onstage in Osaka earlier this month, Ms. Katsura advised two tales, together with a 30-minute classical story a couple of father who orders one in every of his craftsmen to seek for a potential romantic curiosity for his lovesick son.
In Ms. Katsura’s hand, a folded fan grew to become a sword, a pair of chopsticks and a protracted smoking pipe. With a roll of her shoulders, she evoked the slouching stroll of a person, and with a stroke of her chin, she evinced a beard.
At one level, Ms. Katsura invited a veteran male artist, Hanamaru Hayashiya, 56, to hitch her onstage. She advised him that sure widespread phrases in conventional rakugo tales now sounded sexist. The phrase typically used for spouse, “yomehan,” for instance, combines the Chinese language characters for “lady” and “home.”
“I don’t suppose these phrases match the world we live in now,” Ms. Katsura mentioned.
“Phrases are very troublesome,” Mr. Hayashiya mentioned. “I assume this exhibits that rakugo is a person’s world.”
Within the dressing room after the present, Ms. Katsura folded her kimonos and mirrored briefly on her efficiency.
“They have been a great viewers,” Ms. Katsura mentioned. “They laughed.”