KUNIMOTO TAKEHARU - a wonderful world -

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(C) Mori Kouichi


Who is Kunimoto Takeharu?
He is first and foremost a roukyoku performer. He was born in 1960 to parents of roukyoku storytellers. In youth, he finds interest in bluegrass music and begins to play the flat mandolin. He later picks up the shamisen, a Japanese version of a three-stringed instrument. After graduating from high school, he begins his training as an actor, but finds that he is only given the role of a baker or a mayor to play. He quickly realizes that his short and stoutish stature is not to his advantage in a stage performance in mass so he decides to explore possibilities in the traditional world of solo performances in uniquely Japanese storytelling world of rakugo, koudan and roukyoku. He at first did not wish to follow in his parents' footsteps, but as he listened to the recordings of the past performers, he became interested in the possibilities roukyoku offered. All three are forms of storytelling, but only roukyoku mixes music. Soon, his mother realized of his interest and asked him to play shamisen in her background. After a year, he became a deshi (apprentice) to a roukyoku storyteller and began to tell stories.

What is a roukyoku?
Roukyoku (also called naniwabushi) is a form of storytelling that was developed about 150 years ago, around the time of Commodore Perry's arrival in Japan. It combines the narrative (tanka) with singing (fushi). The performer stands behind a table draped with cloth, with a tall chair in the background and a separate high table on one side for a teacup. Unlike rakugo or koudan where the storyteller sits on a cushion (zabuton), the roukyoku performer occupies a greater visual space and has room for movement. Although it looks like there is only one performer on the stage, behind the screen on the right is hidden a shamisen player facing the storyteller and interjects shamisen sound or voice effects with the flow of the story. Depending on the response of the audience, the time limitation or by whim, the performer  adds, extends or cuts parts of the stories. The shamisen player must keep his/her eyes fixed on the performer and maintain course with the story. Finding the right shamisen player is as key to his performance as his own delivery.

Roukyoku was greatly popular during the days of radio with venues in every town, but with the advent of television, it gave way to other forms of entertainment. When Kunimoto Takeharu entered the world of roukyoku, nobody had preceeded him for 10 years. He quickly observed that it was receding as great storytellers passed away and the listeners followed them. Now there is only one venue left in Tokyo, the Mokubatei that dedicates first 10 days of the month to roukyoku performances. At 2000-yen (about $15), you get to listen to six performers, 30 minutes each! What a treat, if you can bear it!

Where is he going?
He realized that if roukyoku was to survive in any form, it was necessary to attract new crowd and to do so it was necessary to bring attractive materials that young generation could relate to. While he performed the traditional roukyoku on one hand, he led a band on the other. He defined roukyoku in its simplest term, that is telling a story with music, thus began his experiments. In one performance in 1987, he was asked to fill 30 minutes on stage and delivered a rock and roll rendition of a children's story Kasajizou in hikigatari (play instrument and tell stories) which he ended with a twist the audience did not expect. The crowd roared. The shamisen rock and roll was born.

He has since shed the band which was starting to look like any old rock and roll band and now performs solo with shamisen or in duo with a guitarist. While he continues to perform roukyoku in its traditional form, he is also readapting some of the stories. The result of that effort is reflected in the long story of Chushingura delivered in an award winning, deeply moving hikigatari. The initial events in the Edo castle and the final scenes of the revenge have been produced so far and he plans to add more scenes as he takes on this subject as his life work.

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