Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Liverpool Comic Bringing Japanese Humour to the World

The English port city of Liverpool is internationally famous for its music - the Beatles and Merseybeat of the 1960s - and its football, with Liverpool FC having lifted the European Cup an impressive five times. Yet the first sight that greets you as you disembark your train at Liverpool's Lime Street Station is a statue of veteran comedian Ken Dodd (1927- ), holding erect his trademark 'tickling stick'.

In the nineteenth century Liverpool absorbed waves of Irish immigrants, whose 'gift of the gab' combined with the English trait of dry irony, made for a city crackling with wit and banter as the caustic asides of John Lennon testify. Liverpool produced an impressive array of domestically popular comedians from Arthur Askey back in the 1930s and 1940s to alternative comedians of the 1980s 'new wave' such as Alexei Sayle and the current favourite John Bishop, filling vast arenas up and down the country.

Liverpudlians (or 'scousers') take their instantly recognizable drawl with them wherever they go in the world. Considering themselves something of outsiders in the UK itself, the city was notorious for urban decay and a hotbed for radical socialism in the 1980s before engineering an impressive renaissance.

Diane Orrett is one such Liverpudlian, whose dream as a child was simply to travel the world. After training as a graphic designer in the late 1980s and working in the evenings as a restaurant, she saved up enough money to head off as a globe-trotting backpacker. She fancied dropping into Japan on her travels but feared it might be prohibitively expensive. Working in a ski resort in New Zealand in 1990 however, she met someone who strongly advised her to go: 'Don't worry, the Japanese will look after you', she was told. And so she headed off on a three month trip, hitchhiking all over the country.

25 years later she is still there, based in an apartment in Osaka with her collection of 400 kimono dresses, and travels from there to every corner of the world (54 countries and counting) with her one-woman show based on a traditional form of Japanese comedy called rakugo.

Her development as a rakugo (Japanese 'sit down' as opposed to 'stand up' comedy) artist came about quite by chance. In 1995 a famous rakugo performer called Katsura Shijaku, interested in the possibility of translating the medium into English, was looking for an assistant (known as a o-chako), and asked his English teacher, a friend of Orrett, if he knew of anyone. Orrett leapt at the chance and soon mastered the form, becoming from 1998 a full-time professional rakugo-ka.

In rakugo, the performer wears traditional kimono and sits on a large cushion while recounting setpiece comic tales that often last 20 or 30 minutes. At the end of the tale there is a punchline known as an 'ochi', but it's really the brilliance with which the story is related that is key. The tale usually involves several characters and the rakugo-ka plays all the parts, skilfully adjusting eye direction and vocal tone to indicate who is speaking.

The audience's imagination plays a big part in proceedings too. If the rakugo-ka lifts up and down his or her knees, it means the character is meant to be standing up. To do so repeatedly indicates that they are walking or with greater speed, running. There are just two props - a fan and small hand towel - but these are used to indicate a huge variety of objects, from books to writing brushes to hot sweet potatoes.

Watching Orrett, who performs in both English and Japanese, is at times like watching the brilliant facial contortions and deadpan of a Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. Her pretended munchings of hot tako-yaki (octopus dumplings, an Osaka speciality) with comically inflated cheeks is a joy to behold.

Orrett performs all over Japan, but has also taken her show across the UK, on tours of the USA, to the Baltic Republics, India and beyond. Just this year alone, she has performed in Bosnia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Turkey as well as on cruise ships operating from Taiwan and Korea. Through her shows, the world is being introduced to a hilarious aspect of Japanese culture most people never even knew existed.

Orrett's mastery of rakugo is however just one of an array of performing talents. She also doubles as a balloon artist and has recently added 'laughter yoga' (from India) to her international show. She relates how in the aftermath of the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Tsunami, all the bookings in Japan for the following six months were instantly cancelled. Orrett took the opportunity to travel to the affected areas and offer her services, teaching homeless children balloon art and performing rakugo at refugee centres. She worried that comic performances might be thought inappropriate but soon realised that the victims desperately wished for an escape from their daily troubles. Laughter was always the best therapy.

In Japan, Orrett performs under the stage name Daian Kichijitsu (a pun on the name for an auspicious day in Buddhist calendar). Her shows incorporate not just a performance of traditional Japanese comedy - fascinating though that is - but the means by which someone has been able to forge her own unique life path. 'Follow your dream; don't be afraid to make mistakes; and always greet people with a smile' are just some points of her accumulated wisdom.

For Orrett herself a fascinating life odyssey is still very much unfolding.

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