San’yutei Ponta II anxiously paced back and forth in the wings of the International House theater like a boxer waiting to enter the ring before taking the stage to deliver his rakugo performance. 

“I’m very, very nervous because I can’t speak English and I am very, very sleepy because I ate Chicago pizza,” Ponta said, folding his sweeping gray kimono under his legs to sit down upon an enormous purple pillow in the middle of the stage.

Rakugo is a traditional form of Japanese storytelling prominent during the Meiji Restoration, a period of major political, economic and social change in the country from the mid-19th century up until World War I. This period, catalyzed by the demise of the Tokugawa shogunate, a military government, is known for Japan’s emergence on the world stage as a modernized power.

The period is also the subject of the Smart Museum’s spring exhibition, “Meiji Modern: Fifty Years of New Japan,” which cohosted Ponta’s rakugo performance in conjunction with the ongoing show. 

“It’s a type of storytelling art in which I sit alone on a cushion like this and tell a story and all of you need to imagine that story in your head,” said Ponta. “This is an art form that requires you to use your imagination, so it only succeeds when we all work together.”

Most rakugo stories, he said, are set during the Edo period but there are some anachronistic elements mixed in, such as the amounts of money referred to, because they were written down during the Meiji. 

Rakugo performers, such as Ponta, have a devoted following in Japan more than a hundred years after the Meiji period ended despite the preeminence of television and other visual forms of storytelling. Born in the central Japanese city Nagoya in 1985, Ponta became the seventh disciple of Sanyo Tekura, an eminent Japanese rakugo artist, in 2013 and was promoted to fasume, the second highest rank for rakugo performers, in 2018. 

Ponta’s rakugo performance on Monday evening, April 15, was presented in conjunction with the Smart Museum and the Japan Business Society of Detroit, which is also sponsoring four more upcoming performances in Michigan. 

Relying solely on voice, facial expressions and hand gestures to deliver stories with multiple characters, as well as a couple of props – a fan and a small towel called a tenugui – there are nevertheless many different kinds of stories rakugo performers can tell, according to Ponta.

“Most of its stories are humorous. Others are emotional tales that depict the relationship between parents and children or husbands and wives,” he said. “There are also, of course, frightening tales that feature ghosts or grim reapers or other non-human creatures.”

Melissa Van Wyk, a professor of Japanese literature at U. of C. and Ponta’s translator for the evening, said she was amazed to learn that rakugo performers “often decide on which story they will tell right before they go on stage to perform.”

She told the audience that Ponta had prepared three stories for the evening from his repertoire but would choose only two of them based on such conditions as “the atmosphere of the audience and the weather that day.”

The first story Ponta delivered, “Long and Short,” was a comedy of manners about a long-winded man and his friend who is the opposite type – curt and brusque. The two spar over the right way of doing things, from how to eat a chestnut bun to the right way to smoke a pipe, which Ponta conveyed by sucking on the end of his fan. 

One could imagine Larry David, the comedian behind “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” who has made a career lampooning the unspoken rules of proper behavior, being impressed by Ponta’s one-man performance of the pair.

Although Ponta’s face had been stoic up until that moment, it became elastic when he was acting, shifting easily from a stern scowl to an obsequious grin. And with just a slight turn of his head, he transformed into a different character as if he were donning different kabuki masks, also using the intonation of his voice to signal to the audience when a male character or a female character was speaking. 

Ponta’s second story was “The Grim Reaper,” a Faustian tale by San’yutei Encho I, the leading rakugo storyteller of the Meiji period and Ponta’s namesake. 

The story opens with a poor man being chastised by his wife for his many failings, including his inability to get a loan from their neighbors so that he can feed his family. 

“You have to be more persistent,” she tells him. 

Seeing that he’s hopeless, she tells her husband that she wishes he would hit his head on a block of tofu and die. The husband, sent into a reverie about how he should kill himself, is approached by a wizened old man leaning on a cane, an image Ponta conveyed by resting his two hands on the fan. 

The old man turns out to be none other than a grim reaper himself and tells the husband that his time has not yet come. But the grim reaper has a trick the husband can use so that he doesn’t have to live out the rest of his days in grinding poverty. 

“If you see one of us near the pillow of a sick man, that means he’s going to die, but if we’re at the foot of the bed that means he’ll live,” the grim reaper tells him. 

Although the villagers in his town are initially skeptical of the husband, who has no medical instruments or training to speak of, word of his success treating patients soon grows and he becomes rich.

But when his fortunes take a turn for the worse – he spends all his money on a mistress – he is forced to seek out new patients, but all appear to be doomed men upon his arrival. 

Offered a million yen to extend the life of one sick man by just a few months, he tries to trick the grim reaper by turning the bed around 180 degrees so that the foot is at the head and the head is at the foot.  Of course, there’s no cheating death, and the grim reaper ultimately comes calling for the husband’s life instead.

After the performance concluded on that grim note, Ponta expressed surprise at how little difference he felt performing before an American audience for the first time. It made him realize, Ponta said, “the power of rakugo to cross not only generations, but also borders.”







Winter/Spring Museum Preview 6

Watanabe Nobukazu’s 1899  “Bronze Statue of Saigō Takamori in Ueno Park, Tokyo,” part of “Meiji Modern: Fifty Years of New Japan.”




More on “Meiji Modern” at the Smart

The Smart Museum’s “Meiji Modern: Fifty Years of New Japan” showcases more than 130 artworks from the Meiji period, including paintings, hanging scrolls, screens and ceramics and various other media from public and private American collections. 

Many of the artworks feature traditional Japanese symbols such as Buddhist deities and animals. Others depict major events from the time period, such as naval battles between Japanese and Russian warships in the Russo-Japanese War, which took place from 1904 to 1905 towards the end of the Meiji period.

The exhibition, which was curated by Chelsea Foxwell, a professor of art history at the U. of C., and Bradley Bailey, Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao, who are all curators of Asian art at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, runs through June 9. 

In the coming weeks,  the Smart Museum will host a series of events, including a two-day symposium, an art-making day and gallery talks.

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