Diane Kichijitsu: “Human interactions provide a lot of comedic material”

Born in Brittany, Diane Kichijitsu has always had a passion for travel and storytelling. She first came to Japan as a backpacker. After falling in love with the culture, she studied for teaching certificates in flower arranging and the tea ceremony, before being introduced to the world of rakugo and kimono dressing. The bilingual artist has gone on to perform rakugo in over 30 countries.

1. First of all, what exactly is rakugo? It is the traditional Japanese art of comic storytelling, originating in the early Edo period (1603-1868). The performer acts out all the characters in the story while kneeling on a cushion, using only a paper fan and a tenugui (a kind of handkerchief) as accessories.

2. What made you become rakugoka (rakugo artist)? I was introduced to the famous rakugoka Katsura Shijaku (1939-99). He pioneered rakugo in English and I was asked to be his o chako (stage assistant).

3. Have you encountered any difficulties as a non-Japanese woman? It was definitely a man’s world when I started playing in 1998. Most of the stories were written by men and most of the characters were male. Sometimes I played five men in a story! I thought it would be nice to have more female characters.

4. How have others in the rakugo world reacted? Almost everyone was very supportive, although at first I received a few comments that foreigners can’t understand the heart of rakugo, or women can’t do rakugo — I was suggested to learn to play the shamisen instead.

5. How was the process of adapting the stories into English? Translating comedy is sometimes difficult as some of the classic tales were written over 100 years ago. When I wanted to run one in English, I found that some sentences and objects had no equivalent word in English.

6. How did you overcome these problems? I started writing my own stories. I also introduced female characters into some of the classics where appropriate without losing the original feel of the story. Sometimes I also use traditional stories as a base and turn them into modern stories.

7. Where do you get ideas for new material? Many of my ideas come from everyday life. I like people watching and I do it everywhere – on trains, in cafes, on the local shopping street. I’ll talk to anyone! The human interactions provide a lot of quality comedic material.

8. Are there any tips for performing in front of a non-Japanese audience? It is important that the public can visualize the scene. I realize that some may not know much about Japanese culture, so I sometimes edit the stories for everyone to enjoy.

9. Can you give an example? If I perform the classic tale “Manju Kowai” (Scary Sweet Bean Cake), I change it to “Sushi Kowai” (Scary Sushi). Everyone knows what sushi is!

10. Can you explain the preparation of a show? I check the stage for music, sound and lighting as soon as I arrive. There is a brief rehearsal, then I put on my kimono. I love preparing my outfit for each show. I have a crazy collection of over 450 kimonos and over 200 obi (belts).

Diane Kichijitsu is a firm believer in the idea that laughter is powerful. | COURTESY OF DIANE KICHIJITSU

11. Was there a particularly memorable performance? During a performance at a school in India, I invited some of the children to come and try rakugo for themselves. A little girl ran onto the stage and knelt on the cushion. She was very excited, so I let her have her moment. Some teachers seemed nervous, but she did just fine.

12. What happened next? Later, I heard that she had learning difficulties, rarely spoke, and couldn’t be in a class with other children. We were all amazed.

13. Is it true that you had to be on the Diamond Princess cruise liner that made headlines at the start of the pandemic? Yes, I had worked on the Diamond Princess as a guest artist for five years. I was scheduled to play on various cruises in 2020 but needed surgery in early February and then the ship entered quarantine around the same time. It was surreal watching our ship on the news every day, knowing that my shipmates were on board.

14. What impact has the pandemic had on your work? My cruises have all been canceled and theaters have been closed for a while. However, I was able to do school broadcasts, webinars, and social distance broadcasts, following all safety guidelines.

15. How did you use the overtime? I studied, wrote new texts, climbed many mountains, took long bike rides and finally learned to drive and got my driver’s license last year.

16. Why is laughter important, especially during the pandemic? We have no control over the situation, but we do have some control over how we react to it. Laughter is very powerful. If we are stressed but have a good laugh, we release the stress and feel energized and more positive.

17. Has interest in rakugo from the international community increased? Yes, I have received many emails and messages from groups, schools and individuals outside of Japan with various interests in rakugo. He’s definitely getting better and better known.

18. What surprises you that few people know about? That I was painfully shy as a child. The mere thought of speaking in front of a group of people I didn’t know would make me nauseous.

19. You make people laugh, what makes you laugh? Good real-life observational comedy. Cringe-worthy stories that I can completely relate to.

20. What does this year have in store for you? Show projects and new job offers are starting to arrive. I am delighted to start new projects and learn new skills. I will also continue to explore the great outdoors and practice more driving.

For more information on Diane Kichijitsu, visit www.diane-o.com.

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