Sunday 25 July 2021

Talking About Rakugo: The Japanese Art of Storytelling, guest post from Kristine Ohkubo

Los Angeles-based indie-author Kristine Ohkubo uses her work to explore topics related to Japan and Japanese culture. While growing up in Chicago, she developed a deep love and appreciation for Japanese culture, people, and history. Her extensive travels in Japan have enabled her to gain insight into this fascinating country, which she shares through her books.

Kristine’s first book, a travel guide, was published in 2016. She has subsequently published four other books. Her new book, Talking About Rakugo: The Japanese Art of Storytelling  introduces readers to rakugo, Japan’s 400-year-old art of storytelling. It draws on biographical information, anecdotes, interviews, and rakugo scripts to explain why this traditional art form has endured for centuries. 

Talking About Rakugo: The Japanese Art of Storytelling was written in collaboration with Tokyo-based English rakugo storyteller, Kanariya Eiraku. Eiraku, who began performing in 2007, is a former member of Tatekawa-ryu, the rakugo school founded by the late great rakugo master, Tatekawa Danshi. Eiraku has translated and performed over sixty classical and contemporary rakugo stories. Since 2007, he has performed in front of enthusiastic audiences in the United States, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Laos. The founder of both the Canary English Rakugo Company and the English Rakugo Association, Eiraku teaches English rakugo in Tokyo to a wide range of students. He also offers online English rakugo classes here.

So, over to Kristine...

While most Westerners are acquainted with the traditional Japanese performing arts of Noh and kabuki, very few have heard of rakugo. 

What is rakugo you might ask? While some people simply refer to it as Japanese “sit down,” or more fittingly “kneel down comedy,” this 400-year-old art of storytelling is more complex than those over-simplified descriptions imply. Although it is true that rakugo is performed by a seated storyteller, unlike stand-up comedy, it is not just a series of jokes being fired off one after the other. Rakugo is a continuous story that often incorporates humorous monologues and builds up to the punchline at the end. It also requires the raconteur to portray multiple parts. Professional rakugo performers, like Noh and kabuki practitioners, endure a long and arduous apprenticeship with an experienced master storyteller in order to learn and perfect their art.

It is natural to think of rakugo as a comedic art because it was originally called otoshibanashi (stories with a punchline). However, since the word rakugo first entered into usage during the middle of the Meiji period (1868–1912), it has been used as a general term to describe various types of stories including kokkeibanashi (funny stories), ninjobanashi (tragicomic human-interest stories), and kaidanbanashi (scary ghost stories).

When discussing rakugo, it is important to point out that there are two distinct performance styles. The first style is known as Kamigata (Osaka) rakugo and the second style is known as Edo (Tokyo) rakugo. Even though the formats are practically the same and stories are shared between the two, there are some key differences.

Both Kamigata rakugo and Edo rakugo emerged during the seventeenth century, but Edo rakugo was performed indoors while Kamigata rakugo was performed outdoors. As a result, the rakugoka (storytellers) performing in the Kamigata style had to devise ways through which they could attract people passing by, and hold their attention throughout the performance. This is why Kamigata rakugo, with its stories imbued with traditional Osaka merchant culture, tends to be more flamboyant and cheerful than Edo rakugo, which focuses more on samurai, artisans, and craftsmen. Furthermore, Kamigata rakugo storytellers place greater emphasis on entertaining an audience and making them laugh. Often, they will repeat a joke until they elicit laughter from the audience.

Since Edo rakugo was performed indoors, patrons were required to pay a fee before being admitted into the theater to watch the performance. With Kamigata rakugo, the performers collected money from the audience members who were still standing around after the performance had concluded. For this reason, it was imperative for Kamigata rakugo performers to engage their audience members and keep them laughing all the way until the end.  

Other distinguishing characteristics of Kamigata rakugo include the use of a small wooden table known as a kendai, on which the storyteller strikes a wooden clapper called a kobyoshi to signal the beginning of a story or a scene change. There is a small screen placed in front of the wooden table to hide the performer’s knees, which is called a hizakakushi. This style of rakugo also sometimes employs sound effects during the performance to help punctuate the story. 

All of these outdoor techniques were retained by the Kamigata storytellers long after the performances were moved indoors during the eighteenth century with the establishment of vaudeville type theaters known as yose (short for yoseba) or more appropriately seki (short for joseki) in Osaka. These storytelling theaters provided affordable entertainment for ordinary citizens. At the height of their popularity in 1855, there were 175 yose operating in Edo (Tokyo) alone.

In general, rakugoka performing in either style will not announce which story they will be presenting in advance when they are appearing in these types of theaters. It is more likely that their story selections will be announced in advance when they perform at other venues. This tradition dates back to the time when performers surveyed their audiences to determine who was in attendance prior to taking the stage. It would have been detrimental to the performer to share a story which poked fun at a samurai if there were samurai in the audience that day.

Even though the style of performance and presentation of rakugo has changed very little since the art form was formally established in the late eighteenth century, calling it Japan’s traditional art gives it a sense of inflexibility. On the contrary, rakugo, unlike Noh and kabuki, is very adaptable. 

Rakugo’s collection of more than 500 classical stories, which date back to the Edo era, have been updated and altered through the years to include references to current events and situations in an attempt to help audience members better identify with the narratives. Rakugo also includes a vast assortment of original modern stories that are being written every day and constantly altered and updated to suit the audience, the time, and the place. In this regard, rakugo performers are not simply good comedians, but gifted, well-studied, and highly intuitive master storytellers.

Although rakugo evolved as a form of entertainment for ordinary people during the Edo period (1603–1867), it is not an old, dying art struggling to find relevance in modern society.

It remains an integral form of live entertainment in Japan and is becoming more international as the rakugo stage once dominated by Japanese raconteurs now features foreign storytellers. And Japanese performers, both amateur and professional, endeavor to entertain us in English.

So what better time to release an easy-to-understand general guide to an art form that aims to entertain the general public and has successfully done so throughout the ages?

In Talking About Rakugo you will learn that rakugo is fluid not fossilized. Humor is universal and you do not have to be Japanese or know how to speak Japanese to understand and appreciate rakugo storytelling. The stories are timeless and the subject matter involves situations which make us all laugh.

All that is required is a folding fan, a hand towel, and your imagination!

Details: Talking About Rakugo: The Japanese Art of Storytelling is available in paperback here.