Rakugo Performer Shunputei Momoe — A Free-living Comic Storyteller and His Cats

Nov 6, 2011 / Interviews

Photo:Shin Suzuki Edit&Text:Madoka Hattori Translation: Seth High

With his distinctive haircut and tense delivery style on stage, Shunputei Momoe has a unique presence - even when compared to other vaudevillians and rakugo performers. In addition to being well-versed in the classics, he has the ability to weave a number of stories in a new rakugo style, including tales about being a cat-lover. When we visited Momoe-san's home, we were welcomed by Kai and Momo, one-time stray cats and the reason behind his move to this new house.

- How long have you kept cats?

"I first took in Kai, my tabby, exactly 10 years ago. He is one of the stray cats that the people of my neighborhood used to take care of, back where I previously lived. Among the 10 stray cats were Kai and Sasami, who passed away in June of this year. While I was looking after them, I became extremely attached to only Kai and Sasami. However, my flat at the time didn't allow pets. So I moved here and took the 2 cats with me. I actually used to live right next door to the home of my master, Sanyutei Enso. His wife as well as his son, the rakugo performer Sanyutei Soki, really took pity on the stray cats. Three years after I had moved, they noticed that the mother-cat was in labor, so Soki contacted me, asking if I might be able to take in one of the kittens. That's how I came to have Momo-chan."

3 Different Stray Cats - 3 Different Walks of Life

- Did the personalities of each cat differ much?

"Sasami, who recently passed away, was really friendly around people. When Sasami was a stray, she was really popular with the old ladies in the neighborhood - so she always received really good cat food. After coming to live with me, Sasami would sit on my knees. Kai and Momo are, to tell the truth, more of my wife's cats. They are not very affectionate with me (laughs). To say one word about each, Kai is cowardly and Momo is strong-minded. About once a day, they will tangle up and fight. Even though Kai is a male and 3 years older, he always loses. This is because his punches are slow and he doesn't vary his attack methods. When Momo was small, she would get pinned by Kai's big bearhug. However, recently Momo has been taking Kai out with her kick."

- What is the reasoning behind their names?

"Kai has had the same name since he was a stray. When he got this growth on his head, he would scratch at it intensely because of how bad it itched ('itchy' is 'kaiyui' in Japanese), so we started calling him 'Kai-kai' - and the name kind of stuck. As for 'Momo', there's really no singular reason why I chose that name. I guess that I just decided it would be good to give her a normal name."

- The name 'Momo-chan' sounds a lot like your own... Is there a relationship?

"Not really. I've only come to be known as Momoe since 2008, when I was promoted to the rank of 'storytelling master'. Momo the cat actually has a much longer history of being called, 'Momo-chan' (laughs). When it came time to think of a new name, my master, Eishi Shunputei, was having a hard time coming up with something, so he asked me to think about it a bit. The names I brought him were 'Momoe' and 'Kakue'. I didn't think it would be an easy decision between the two. However, upon hearing the name 'Momoe', my master quickly said, 'That is the one!'. When I went home that evening, I greeted 'older-sister Momo' by saying, 'Now I'm Momo-chan too.'"

- Are there any comic stories in rakugo that involve cats?

"There are several. Off the top of my head, I can think of 'Neko no Sara' (The Cat's Plate), 'Neko no Sainan' (The Cat's Calamity) and 'Neko no Chushin' (The Cat's Loyalty). My seniors and colleagues told me that I should tell more cat stories, considering that I'm a cat-lover. However, because I have such strong feelings for cats, I don't think I could tell the stories so well - so I have actually found myself avoiding them. The parts when the cats come in will just melt me, and the stories won't be funny anymore. I did though, create a new-style rakugo story about cats. At an event for debuting new stories that I took part in along with Master Enjo (Sanputei) and Master Koen (Yanagiya), I was told, 'Make a story that deals with the theme of cats." Of course, I can't refuse a request from my boss (laughs). So I made a new story titled 'Violence Suko'."

A New-Style Rakugo Piece about Cats of the Near-Future!

- What a title! Can you tell us about the story?

"It's really quite silly, but do you want to hear it anyways? In the near-future, stray cats form street gangs based on their breeds. For example, the Scottish Folds become the 'Suko' (Japanese abbreviation of 'Scottish') team and the American Shorthairs become the 'Amesho' team. Each breed has their own place for eating. However, one day Karl, who is boss of the American Shorthairs, comes up to the leader of the Scottish Folds and says, 'Let's trade eating places on Fridays.' He goes on, 'In exchange, you can also use our place on weekends.' The leader of the Scots replies, 'You must be joking! We get Royal Canin on fridays and Kaiseki Zeppin (gourmet Japanese cat food) on the weekend.' I actually did a lot of research on cat food for this story (laughs). Eventually, the leader of the Scots replies, 'We won't betray the people who feed us.' However, even after that, the fighting continues between the different breeds. Though parts of the story can only be truly appreciated by cat-lovers, even people with no knowledge of cats laughed. The title of the story comes from Master Kyotaro Yanagiya's 'Violence Chihuahua', though the actual story is completely different."

- I'd love to hear the entire story... You brought up cat food. What do you do for Kai and Momo regarding food and litter boxes?

"Because both cats were strays, they used to eat anything. Since they came to be house cats, even though they eat cat food, they quickly get sick of the same variety. So I try to offer a rotation of dry foods that includes Royal Canin, Mio Combo, Purina One and Kaiseki. In addition, I give them one can of wet food each day. As for litter boxes, they are not very picky. The two cats share an ordinary litter box. I buy both their food and kitty litter online."

- Do your cats play with toys?

"Though we have quite a few toys, the cats tire of them quickly. I don't why, but Momo absolutely loves to play with my kimono slip just after it has been freshly washed. When she finds it, she'll make the same face as when she's high on matatabi (Japanese catnip). It's a shame that she isn't interested in my dirty clothes instead (laughs)."

- I've noticed that you have quite a lot of cat items in your home.

"Yeah, that's true. Even if it's just a decoration, anything that has a cat on it catches my eye. I can't help myself from buying them. My wife made this wooden shelf with all the cats lined up on it. She's really good at making things by herself. I also get ceremonial rakes with cats on them at the 'Tori no Ichi' (festival held at shrines in November) as well as things like maneki-neko (lucky cats). I always seem to choose things that are related to cats."

Momo - Kidnapped by Crows (?)

- Though they were once strays, your cats now seem to be complete house cats. Have they ever tried to run away?

"That's never happened. Even when I open the door, they won't take a step outside. However, there was one time that Momo poked her head out the window. I then heard the fluttering of wings, and in the next instant I saw Momo on the roof of the factory next door. The distance was too far for her to have jumped, so I assume a crow picked her up and dropped her on the roof. She was surrounded on the roof by 4 crows, who were picking on her. Once I saw that Momo was panicking, I too began to panic. Looking back on it, I really caused a lot of trouble by calling the fire department.
'Hello! It's my cat!'
'Please calm down sir. What's the matter?'
'My cat!... is on the roof!'
I all I did was state the obvious (laughs). After finally managing to explain the situation, two firemen came to my place. Once again they asked me, 'So, what's the situation?'. I responded, 'Over there!.. over there!' Calmly, a fireman stated, 'So your cat is on the roof. This happens a lot in the city.' (laughs). And I guess that's true. Because my cat was on the roof of a dangerous looking factory, they told me, 'If you really need us to, we could call for a big truck with a ladder. but calm down first and think about. Won't the cat come down on its own at night?' They were so calm and collected! (laughs). Eventually, a neighbor from my building joined two stepladders together to form a single long ladder, which I used to go up and help her. Now I can just laugh about it, but at the time I was scared to death."

- What is it about cats that is attractive to you?

"Though I'm merely comparing the with dogs, cats seem to live by their own set of rules. Though I like all forms of comedy, I like rakugo the best. So I became a comic storyteller. One of the big reasons I chose this path is because I don't like having to follow along with other people. I can practice rakugo by myself. When I am in front of an audience, it is always by myself. I control my own breathing and rhythm. I don't long for the life of a cat, but I do feel much sympathy for them. In any case, of course, the main reason I like cats is quite simply because they are so cute. Since I was a child, I have had cats. I feel that it is just normal for me to be near them."

  • name: Kai / Momo
  • age: approx. 12 y.o / approx. 7 y.o.
  • sex: male / female
  • lind: mix
  • Shunputei Momoe
Born in Shizuoka Prefecture in 1962. After training at a sushi restaurant in America, he returned to Japan and began training under rakugo master Shunputei Eishi in 1995. Momoe was known as 'Norita' until 1999, when he received his second name 'Eisuke' upon promotion. In 2008, he reached the rank of rakugo 'master', finally becoming 'Momoe'. CDs of his work include volumes 1 and 2 of 'Shunutei Momoe's Road to Becoming a Living National Treasure'. DVDs include 'Toteoki Yose! Shunputei Tappuri Nijikan Han' ('Precious Theater - Two and a Half Hours packed full of Shunputei') and 'DVD Wazagi Rakugokai Vol. 6'.