The Carmel High School auditorium filled with guffaws Tuesday night as a kimono-clad comedian performed stand-up comedy in the traditional Japanese fashion -- sitting down.
Comedian Kaishi Katsura sat comfortably on the stage atop a purple pillow, with a microphone and a hand towel and fan. The crowd of 400 quickly warmed up as he made jokes about learning English.
"We learn to say in high school, 'This is a pen. This is a pen.' When do you ever say that?" he quipped as some Asians in the audience nodded their heads and laughed sympathetically.
The comedian regularly appears on Japanese television performing Rakugo, a 400-year-old tradition of comic storytelling that began with monks telling stories to their followers in temples.
Katsura wants to bring the phenomenon here.
Kaishi Katsura during a rakugo performance.
"People say Japanese traditional culture cannot be accepted (in) foreign cultures," Katsura said after his performance. "I want to make Rakugo more popular."
Katsura's storytelling relies on the audience's imagination, as he does not get up from the pillow or use other characters. The hand towel and fan are the only two props Rakugo masters are allowed to use.
He showed the Carmel audience how to eat piping hot Udon noodles with his folded fan, pulling the imaginary noodles up and blowing on them a dozen times to cool them. The crowd, even the non-Asian audience, was roaring.
"It was his facial expressions," said Leann Brackney, who drove from Columbus to see the performance. "It's not that much different than American humor."
Katsura is the only Rakugo master who can perform the stories in English. He performed on Broadway in New York City last year, and he is touring 22 cities in the United States.
Theresa Kulczak, a member of the Japan-America Society of Indiana who helped organize the evening, said the audience got the jokes.
"We hoped that they would," she said. "We had our fingers crossed and I think he came through with the home run."
Katsura said he did not have to change his act for American audiences.
"(My) facial expression is bigger than in Japan," Katsura said. "American people like to see big facial expressions. They think Japanese people don't have facial expressions . . . I want to change that image."
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