‘Laughter King of Showa’ still cracks people up

Photo by Taku Yaginuma / Special to The Yomiuri Shimbun

Visitors look at Hayashiya Sanpei’s favorite personal items, with a life-size panel of Sanpei on the stage behind them.

By Yukiko Hattori / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Hayashiya Sanpei I (1925-1980) was a rakugo comic storyteller nicknamed the “Laughter King of the Showa era,” which stretched from 1926-1989. He was loved by many for his cheerful nature, and he appeared on TV as well as the rakugo stage.

Negishi Sanpeido, a museum about Sanpei in Taito Ward, Tokyo, displays items related to him, including his notebooks with story ideas, scripts for TV programs and favorite daily items.

I passed through a navy-blue noren traditional shop curtain and went up the stairs, where I heard a recording of Sanpei’s voice, which welcomed me by saying, “We were just saying that you might be here soon.” A stage is set up in the exhibition room, and a life-size panel of Sanpei looks at visitors with a friendly smile.

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  • Photo by Taku Yaginuma / Special to The Yomiuri Shimbun

    A decanter contains perfume that Sanpei tried to trick people into drinking.

  • Photo by Taku Yaginuma / Special to The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Sanpei’s handwritten mottoes

  • Photo by Taku Yaginuma / Special to The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Notebooks filled with small writing are displayed.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

Sanpei went beyond classic rakugo stories and created new tales about current social conditions. The many notebooks exhibited in the room are filled with notes and ideas he jotted down, including news stories such as the birth of the Emperor and words Sanpei had come up with. Page after page crowded with his writing shows how much effort Sanpei put into his comedy.

The museum is owned by Sanpei’s wife Kayoko Ebina, now 85. “He thought about jokes, gags and other ideas from morning ’til night,” she recalled.

His handwritten mottoes are also on display. One is “Gei ni Shishi, Gei ni Ikiyo” (Die for performances, Live for performances).

She said that Sanpei loved making people laugh in his private life too. One of the exhibits is a luxury perfume in a liquor decanter. Sanpei tried to make people believe it was a foreign liquor and drink it.

The late actor Yusaku Matsuda purportedly said, “It’s a highly aromatic brandy, isn’t it?” Kayoko said with a smile, “That was a grown-up game.”

The museum makes a lot of effort to entertain visitors. For example, if a visitor claps in front of a TV screen, a rakugo comic story will play. Push a button and you will hear a song sung by Sanpei.

“He was a very talented comedian who worked hard to make people laugh. I hope the visitors laugh,” Kayoko said.

When I went down the stairs to leave, Sanpei spoke again, saying, “I’d like you to stay if you can.”

This museum keeps the humor of the Showa star alive.

■ Negishi Sanpeido

The museum opened in 1995 on the third floor of the house where Sanpei was born, exhibiting his belongings and other goods collected by his family members, apprentices and others. The humorous comments by Kayoko and other family members alongside the exhibits are a must-see. A rakugo storytelling event is held on the third Saturday of every month. The museum is about a five-minute walk from JR Uguisudani Station.

Address: 2-10-12, Negishi, Taito Ward, Tokyo

Open: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays

Admission: ¥600

Information: (03) 3873-0760Speech

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