20 RAKUGO RAKUGO
“Why are you cackling like that?” my girlfriend, Cosima, calls out.
I explain there’s a Japanese guy in a kimono on TV, just sitting kneeling on a bare little stage, telling funny stories. “I can’t understand a word,” I exclaim, “but his acting and miming, the artful way he gets drunk and smacks his lips, they’re fantastic!”
“Ah, so at last you’ve discovered rakugo, our beloved traditional comic storytelling,” my editor replies to my inquiring email. “Well, well, well…”
“Curious he says ‘Well, well, well,’” I tell Cosima.
She shrugs. “Maybe he’ll explain tonight,” she says. We’ll be leaving Tokyo soon, alas, and my editor has arranged a “special” sayonara late drink with us at Bar Lupin in Ginza. Cosima is excited. “I’ve always wanted to go there!”
In a shadowy Ginza lane, Lupin’s sign blazes with the top-hatted, monocled image of the French gentleman burglar it’s named for. Inside it’s dark-wooded and cozily Art-Deco, with yellow lamps glowing overhead, and a sumptuous L-shaped wooded bar counter where my editor welcomes us. The hour is late; besides us, there seems only a small group at the other end of the bar.
“Famous place, this,” says my editor, in his thoughtful, companionable way. “Much literary history.” He grins…slyly? “And rakugo connections! So what will you have to drink? Please meet our special guest bartender.”
The bartender is bending down under the bar, only his broad back shows. Her back, rather, given the florid lady’s kimono that’s visible. She straightens up. Half-hidden by silky scarf, a burly face regards me. Flickering…
An off-kilter recognition spreads through me like horrible, creeping stain.
“Hello,” says a man’s deep voice, in English with a British accent. “I’m Henry Black.”
And Henry Black grins—then pulls a grouchy face that makes me gasp.
“The barber?” I stammer, stunned. “You’re—the barber? My Flowers of Oyaji Gyagu barber?”
My editor chuckles, delighted at my shock. “Master Black, Black-shisho, known as Pleasure Black, was a foremost rakugoka during Meiji Era, even though he was an Englishman. He kindly agreed to enact a barber after you came to Tokyo. The former concierge at your apartment building, the daughter of a colleague of mine, relayed your activities and whereabouts upon your arrival.”
“You mean…?” I mumble dumbly.
“Yes, I confess—the whole barbershop business was staged!” He chuckles again. “Barbershops, you know, were a favorite place for townsfolk to gather in bygone times. A famous early Japanese work of comic fiction was called Floating World Barbershop. Charming, no? So I was inspired to arrange your fateful barbershop episode. The magazine title, Flowers of Oyaji Gyagu, was my idea too—all to spur you to write stories about Tokyo. We editors do like to have fun sometimes, I admit,” he adds.
“Wow, how cool!” says Cosima. She gives me a merry thump on my shoulder, as I stand there wide-eyed.
But he didn’t look non-Japanese when I encountered him, I tell Henry Black. Or flicker, ghostlike.
“Because I’m a fine actor,” he declares, lifting his nose. “I was celebrated for my female kabuki roles”—he shrinks and flutters his hands about gracefully—“and for playing the heroic tough guy, Banzuiin Chōbei, as well!”—he bristles and glowers.
But how—how did the fateful barbershop disappear like it did?
“My kabuki stagehand pals are aces at assembling and disassembling,” boasts Henry Black.
What about the tiny copy of Flowers of Oyaji Gyagu magazine from Edo Museum? I ask my editor.
My editor: “Your agent friend Junzo helped with that.”
And Bunta Sugawara and his potato-salad interview—and that scene in Jimbocho?
“Ah, my fierce buddy Bunta-san and his lads,” grins Henry Black. “Fine job they did, no?”
“So wait, were all the other ghosts in on it, too?” I ask unsteadily.
“Well, hardly!” replies my editor. “This is just Tokyo—capital of ghosts!”
He rubs his hands happily. “Now let’s drink!” he says.
Black-shisho hefts a giant sake bottle. He pours. We toast to Tokyo. We quaff.
I stare into my glass, shaking my head at the evening’s revelations…surrounded by grins.
“Shall I tell a little story?” says Black-shisho. He has a glint in his eye. “Well then. A guy heading to a bar sees an old man squatting fishing at a rain puddle. Taking pity at this pathetic, woeful sight, the guy insists the old man come along, he’ll treat him to some sake and grub. At the bar the oldster guzzles and gobbles away. ‘Grandpa, tell me, do you ever really catch any fish from a puddle?’ the guy asks. ‘Of course!’ comes the answer. ‘You’re the fifth one I’ve caught today!’”
“Ha ha! You’re a fish!” Cosima bursts out. She claps me on the back once more. Henry Black gives a wink.
I suffer the general amusement. “Actually, I think of myself as a sort of rakugo performer too, a joke maker,” I declare gamely.
My editor nods. “Yes. There are three grades of rakugo performers,” he says. “You’re a zenza—an excellent zenza.”
“What grade is that?”
“Apprentice,” says Henry Black. Another wink.
I see the jokes are all on me tonight.
“Instead of sake I want to try now a Moscow Mule,” announces Cosima, food writer and cocktail lover. “I hear it’s famous here.”
“Sake is the best drink,” replies our bartender.
“No, I want a Moscow Mule, vodka and ginger ale. In a pretty copper cup!”
Less than pleased, Henry Black fiddles behind the bar and duly plants a Moscow Mule in its pretty copper cup in front of Cosima. She takes a sip—and spits it out in disgust.
“This is awful!” she squawks.
“I beg your pardon?” replies the great rakugoka, drawing himself up haughtily in his gaudy kimono.
“It’s revolting!” insists Cosima, as I elbow her to desist.
“Hey stupid girl,” cries a voice in English down the bar, “don’t talk to a great rakugoka like that! Come, I’m going to kiss you!”
We all swing around. The speaker is a ghostly Japanese guy, there with two other ghostly people. He’s thirtyish and wears a 1940’s dark Western waistcoat and tie. He’s very drunk.
“Go fuck yourself!” replies Cosima. I elbow her more savagely.
“Ah, Osamu Dazai,” chuckles my editor.
Of course! I didn’t recognize him not in a kimono. All at once I recall his iconic bar photo; it must have been at this very establishment.
“Him again,” snorts Cosima.
Dazai’s male companion, also thirtyish and besuited in Forties’ Western garb, grins at Cosima with sloppy approval through his big spectacles. “Good!” he exclaims in English. He slaps the bar. “You speak from the heart, the flesh, the body! I am Mr. Ango Sakaguchi.” He bows.
“Like Dazai, another famous Decadent writer,” murmurs my editor.
I recognize him now. “I love the great photo of you writing with a huge litter of crumpled pages around you,” I tell Sakaguchi. “I know it because I wrote a book about clutter and hoarding. You know, garbage houses.”
Sakaguchi looks baffled.
“And this lady,” he continues, referring to the ghostly demure woman beside him in a kimono, “is Miss Sada Abe. She is a tender, warm figure of salvation for future generations! I interviewed her.”
The “figure of salvation” titters and bows to him. Then bowing to us, she heads away past us toward the door. As she comes by, Henry Black crosses his big hands in front of his kimono crotch. I notice my editor doing the same, more discreetly.
“Know who she is, Sada-san?” he murmurs to me, watching her go. He leans close and whispers the answer in my ear.
“My God!” I blurt. “Her?”
“What?” says Cosima.
“So you like rakugo?” interrupts Sakaguchi loudly.
“Tell you later,” I murmur to Cosima, as the Decadent writer blathers on: “It’s great, rakugo! Not just Black-shisho, but my friend Mr. Osamu, he is a rakugoka, literary rakugoka—the best ever! I think he would like to tell you a new story he wrote.”
“Oh, this is going to be special,” my editor enthuses.
What an astounding evening this is, I think to myself.
Dazai bows unsteadily to us. “First, I must sit like a proper rakugoka,” he hiccups. He struggles to get into a kneeling position on his bar stool—and slowly topples over onto the floor.
We all cry out in alarm.
Dazai lies there on his back, laughing. “I’ll do rakugo from here!” he declares.
“You can’t lie down on a rakugo stage,” huffs Henry Black.
“I am doing purest rakugo,” answers Dazai. “Rakugo means ‘fallen words’!” He giggles. He bows toward the ceiling. He begins:
“I walk in the woods. I see a man pressed against a tree. His pants are at his ankles. My first thought is, he’s relieving himself. But then I realize he is rotating his hips heatedly against a low branch!”
“Wait a minute…“ I sputter. I can’t believe my ears.
“Oh baby, I hear him groan,” continues Dazai. “Oh baby!”
“Wait! Stop!” I yell. “That’s my story, ‘Call of Nature,’ I wrote it years ago!”
Sakaguchi looks shocked.
“No no, it’s my story,” insists Dazai.
“It’s mine!” I roar, in authorial outrage.
I start toward Dazai, but Sakaguchi blocks my path.
Suddenly a voice bellows in furious Japanese. We all look around. A ghostly, crew-cut guy in a leather jacket, staggers into the bar, staring about.
“I hate your literature, Osamu Dazai!” he cries, switching to English, apparently having registered non-Japanese faces, even though he’s very drunk. “It exposes things I want to hide in myself!”
“Actually his story just now is by me,” I correct him.
“And yet you came here,” Dazai sneers coolly at his non-fan. “You must be pretty obsessed.”
This retort drives Mishima into savage rage. A dagger flashes in his hand. Everyone shouts. My editor grabs Mishima’s arm and manages to wrest the dagger away.
“Come, Mishima-san,” he says, coaxing expertly. “Let’s go have a jolly nightcap at Donzoko bar, your goodtime place.”
Mishima quietens down enough to be led away. My editor waves apologetically from the door, and mimes he’ll be in touch. He and Mishima disappear into the night.
Henry Black announces Lupin is closing up.
“What a wild ‘special drink’ that was!” I declare, as we approach our apartment building from the metro. “I can’t believe about the barber. And my editor! And I’m still pissed at the stunt Dazai pulled.”
“He’s a drunk,” says Cosima. “I thought it was funny.”
I grunt. And then stop. On the other side of the street, a ghostly old fellow is squatting by a puddle with a primitive fishing pole. He sees us. He immediately assembles the most pathetic, pleading expression on his wrinkled face.
“Go fuck yourself, gramps!” I call out.
“A friend of Henry Black,” laughs Cosima. “Ha ha, you poor fish! Ha ha!”
In response I inform her who Sada Abe, the ghostly lady in Lupin, was in life—namely, the model for the woman in the movie, In the Realm of the Senses, who cuts off her lover’s private parts.
And Cosima’s laughter turns to something else.
About the Author
“I can never remember my dreams so Mr. Yourgrau’s stories are a pretty good substitute.”— David Byrne
Writer-performer Barry Yourgrau is the author of books of surreal, funny, intensely short stories, including A Man Jumps Out of An Airplane, Wearing Dad’s Head, Haunted Traveller, and The Sadness of Sex, in whose film version he starred.He’s also written a memoir, Mess, and anti-kids’ stories for kids, Nastybook.
Barry is the only American author who’s published short fiction on Japanese cellphones (keitai shosetsu). His work has a fine following in Japan.
As performer, he and his stories have appeared on MTV’s “Unplugged: Spoken Word” and NPR’s “Selected Shorts” and “All Things Considered,” among others. He won a Drama-Logue Award for “Wearing Dad’s Head: The Live Version” and was invited to Sundance Theater Lab to workshop Haunted Traveller. He is proud of starring in Anthrax’s heavymetal music video, “Black Lodge”.
Yourgrau’s fictions have appeared in New Yorker.com, The Paris Review, VICE, Story, Bomb, Poetry, Film Comment, Monkey Business Int’l, Little Star, Harvard Design Magazine, and various anthologies. He’s also written for the NY Times, New Yorker.com, Wall St. Journal, Spin, Paris Review Daily, The Baffler, HuffPost, Salon, Independent (U.K.), Artforum, etc. He’s blogged for PsychologyToday.com.
Born in South Africa, he lives in New York and Istanbul. And travels a lot.