"Rakugo" comic storyteller Tatekawa Danshi, who died Nov. 21 at age 75, was an uncompromising perfectionist where the art of elocution was concerned.
But he lost his voice to larynx cancer late in his life, which must have vexed him more than I could ever imagine.
In telling classic rakugo tales, Danshi gave each piece a "tweak" because he was fully confident of his own ability to perform to perfection without going strictly by the textbook. He did not accept the classic tales as they are.
One of his closest friends was cartoonist Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989), the creator of "Astro Boy." Perhaps this was a case of two geniuses sensing a strong mutual bond. Tezuka confided to Danshi one day, "I can't draw circles anymore." Danshi consoled him, saying, "There are circles only you can draw." But Danshi, too, experienced a similar predicament late in his life.
I don't think Danshi could have been consoled by anyone reminding him, "Master Danshi, there are rakugo stories only you can tell." After all, Danshi was mordantly critical of some of the greatest rakugo masters of the Showa Era (1926-1989) when he declared, "They did only easy pieces in their final years, but some ninny praised them for their maturity."
Danshi refused to "act his age," and gamely cut off his own retreat. I wonder how he felt on his sickbed after he had been reduced to communicating only in writing.
Erudite and eloquent, Danshi had an opinion on practically everything from the art of rakugo to social issues. His fans loved his sharp tongue, never entirely sure if he was joking or dead serious. Anyone who couldn't figure him out could "get themselves burned" if they weren't careful, but he was apparently a sensitive and kind soul.
"He acted reckless," another rakugo storyteller Katsura Beicho said warmly.
Fellow rakugo artists concurred that Danshi was truly talented. And it was typical of Danshi when he stated, "I knew I was good from the time I was 'zenza' (a lowly, minor performer)." He wore his heart on his sleeve, which repelled some people, but attracted just as many.
Danshi lived out his 75 years practicing what he believed: That rakugo is an affirmation of human follies and weaknesses.
When he was interviewed last autumn by the weekly Shukan Asahi magazine, he was asked what he would like to be reborn as.
"Anything will do," he replied. "A snake, a crow, whatever."
If I come across a crow that doesn't caw, I suppose I should check to see if it's wearing a headband like Danshi usually did. This year-end, I will remember his sterling performance of a classic rakugo story "Shibahama" with deep nostalgia.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 25
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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.
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