On November 22, 2017, in a live performance venue in Kabukicho, Tokyo, Hawking Aoyama appeared on stage in his wheelchair to perform in the rakugo show Usotsuki Meijinkai, which has been coordinated and run by him and comedian Great Gidayu, 58, from comedy group Takeshi Gundan since 2015.
During the makura session or prelude, he reflects on 2017, including the Moritomo Gakuen scandal, the extramarital affairs of celebrities, and the Harumafuji scandal.
Afterwards, the story starts and the rakugo character Yotaro opens a tool shop full of junk and causes all sorts of trouble. Without using the standard rakugo props—a fan and handkerchief—he develops the story and acts out each character using his eyes. Full of original jokes, the performance receives a boisterous laugh from the audience of 50.
He speaks quickly, but his speech is clear and expressive, and his gags are hilarious. His performance is the culmination of persistent practice, but Hawking humbly says, “Because of my inability to make gestures and use my arms and legs, it’s difficult to act out each character. I need to think of gags that I can deliver to the audience.”
Hawking Aoyama, 44, was born with a disability in his arms and legs, so he moves around in his wheelchair. He brings rakugo into his comedic style, presenting classic rakugo stories in his live performances and holding two-storyteller rakugo shows with a senior comedian.
Hawking Aoyama was inspired to start rakugo when he performed as a stand-up comedian at the rakugo show Dai Ginza Rakugosai, organized by Rokunin no Kai, a group consisting of popular rakugo performers, such as Koasa Shunputei. On Koasa’s recommendation, Hawking Aoyama performed the rakugo Kishu, then challenged himself to perform Tokisoba live after receiving classes from Koasa Shunputei. It was a great success.
Looking back, Hawking says, “Rakugo that is fun to watch and rakugo that is fun to perform are similar but different. There’s a reason why rakugo has continued for 400 years. It was a fascinating experience.”
An interview with a magazine triggered his debut in the world of comedy, but he soon faced a dead-end. “At first, the audience received me well no matter what I did because there were no other comedians who performed in a wheelchair. But my gags were all similar, so both the audience and I soon became bored.”
This is when he started performing rakugo. He was already in love with rakugo since his high school years and was a huge fan of Danshi Tatekawa, who was a charismatic figure in the rakugo world. He memorized kabuki stories, hoping that it would lead to his breakthrough. At his first two-storyteller rakugo show with Great Gidayu, Takeshi Kitano, the teacher of Gidayu and Hawking’s idol, appeared as a surprise guest.
Hawking says, “When he said that I spoke like him, his words became my treasure.”
So far he has only about 20 sketches in his repertoire. He has created new rakugo stories that involve a wheelchair, but he wants to increase the diversity of his gags. “I want to distance myself from gags relating to my disability, and perform new rakugo with gags that are based on current affairs. I can then incorporate what I learn into my stand-up comedy. The world of rakugo is extremely deep. There is something new to discover every time I watch rakugo. I want to challenge myself to perform rakugo for the rest of my life.”
Hawking Aoyama was born in Tokyo in 1973. Born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, he is unable to use his arms and legs and instead moves using a wheelchair. In 1994, he debuted as the “first ever disabled comedian.” He mostly performs live, but is also the author of several books, including Kangaeru Shougaisha, published by Shincho Shinsho. He took his stage name from Stephen Hawkings, the famous theoretical physicist who also cannot use his arms and legs. His rakugo stage name is Kokonteshinshosha.
Chiharu Kakoi is a staff writer of the Sankei Shimbun Cultural News Department.
(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)