One day last fall, as I was walking through Yoyogi Park on my way to fall off the slackline, I saw this guy standing by a tree in a vaguely medieval-looking costume. In America I’d have hustled by, careful to make ZERO eye contact, sure he was either a member of a rabidly proselytizing religious cult or a member of the Society For Creative Not Having A Life.
But fortunately, we were in Tokyo, and I discovered that Ootomo-san actually performs incredibly entertaining traditional Japanese one-man comedy!
Rakugo dates from the samurai era, and Ootomo-san’s performing persona evokes the traveling artists who wandered from town to town, entertaining the citizens with stories that made rich and poor alike laugh at the foibles of being human. Rakugo stories are filled with all kinds of characters – snooty courtesans, sniveling peasants, haughty judges, lovelorn fools, cheating husbands – and all of them are expertly played by Ootomo-san. Sitting in a position that makes my knees hurt just thinking about it, Ootomo-san switches between characters faster than a chameleon, changing his voice and body language so completely you forget he’s not actually a simpering girlfriend wannabe or a leering fisherman.
And the best part is, Ootomo-san can perform in ENGLISH! Very few foreigners are lucky enough to get a chance to watch rakugo even in Japanese, so to see rakugo performed in English is like winning the daily double for those of us whose Edo-era Japanese is a little nonexistant (think Shakespeare, only with words that aren’t even close to anything you recognize).
All you have to do is ask. Don’t be shy – he speaks English and can choose pieces that only take three minutes or make you laugh for twenty. And I’ll bet my prize ReBoot action figures that you’ll want to stay longer than you thought. After each performance, he’s generous with his time, answering questions about rakugo, life in Japan, his volunteer time with refugees of the 3/11 earthquake and even doing an encore if your sides don’t yet hurt enough from laughing.
Update: Ootomo-san (pronounced oh-toe-moe) is no longer performing in Yoyogi Park, but he now has a whole channel of rakugo stories for your viewing pleasure! Whether you’ve got two minutes or twenty to spend laughing at these delightful traditional performances, check them out!
Fishing For Women (19:12)
Ghost Woman Returns (5:36)
The Unobservant Husband (13:20)
Too Much Religious Devotion (5:31)
The Water Vendor’s Fortune (7:11)
Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Tokyo
Writing mystery books set in Tokyo is mostly what I do, but I also blog about the odd stuff I see every day in Japan. I'm a graduate of Stanford University and the Sendagaya Japanese Institute in Tokyo, and a member of the International Thriller Writers, the Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters In Crime. When I'm not in Tokyo, I live in San Francisco. I also host a travel site called The Tokyo Guide I Wish I'd Had, so if you're headed to Japan and want to check out the places I take my friends when they're in town, take a look!