Sunday 6 February 2022

Talking About Rakugo 2: The Stories Behind the Storytellers, guest post from Kristine Ohkubo


If you have been following Asian Books Blog, you’ve probably come across the name Kristine Ohkubo. Kristine is a Los Angeles-based indie-author who uses her work to explore topics related to Japan and Japanese culture.

Beginning with a travel guide to Japan, Kristine has published seven books since 2016, with each work exploring either Japan, Japanese culture, or Japanese history.

Kristine has had a deep love and appreciation for Japan and Japanese culture since she was a teenager growing up in Chicago, Illinois. As an adult, her extensive travels in Japan have enabled her to gain insight into this fascinating country, which she shares with you through her writings.

In June 2021, Kristine released an English guide to the traditional Japanese art form known as rakugo. Rakugo storytelling is a unique performance that uses gestures and narration rather than costumes and props; it requires a high degree of skill to perform. A rakugo story is comprised of both narrative and dialog between multiple characters, all of which are conveyed by a single storyteller. The storyteller strives to express the personality of each character by differentiating their tone of voice, choice of words, manner of speaking, and other factors.

The book titled, Talking About Rakugo: The Japanese Art of Storytelling, was written in collaboration with Tokyo-based English rakugo storyteller, Kanariya Eiraku. 

Eiraku participated in the Tatekawa-ryu rakugo school established by the legendary rakugo performer Tatekawa Danshi. After learning about the essence of rakugo from the rakugo master, he began offering Japanese rakugo classes in Tokyo in 1991. Sixteen years later, he established his English rakugo classes. This year will mark the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the Canary English Rakugo classes in Tokyo.

Since 2007, he has performed in front of enthusiastic audiences in Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Laos. He has also translated over sixty classical and contemporary rakugo stories into English.

Eiraku is one of the founding members of the English Rakugo Association in Tokyo. The organization was established in 2020 with the mission to spread rakugo all over the world.

In 2022, Kristine and Eiraku collaborated once again to bring you the second book in the rakugo series, Talking About Rakugo 2: The Stories Behind the Storytellers. The book is officially scheduled to be released on February 7, 2022, which happens to be Eiraku’s birthday!

Approximately 400 years ago, long before modern comedians developed the onstage presentation style recognized as stand-up comedy, a distinct form of comedic storytelling began to emerge in Japan. What began during the seventeenth century as a series of humorous anecdotes used to keep people awake and alert during long Buddhist sermons,  grew into the art form we recognize and love today. The art form developed primarily in urban areas such as Edo (Tokyo), Kyoto, and Osaka, and evolved into two distinct performance styles: Edo and Kamigata. The Edo performance style is still practiced in Tokyo, and the Osaka style became known as Kamigata, while the Kyoto style eventually faded away. It became known as rakugo during the middle of the Meiji period (1868–1912), and it remains an integral form of live entertainment today.

Utilizing a feudalistic apprentice system, this minimalistic art of storytelling was verbally passed down from one generation to the next from master to disciple. The traditions that were established all those years ago continue to be practiced today, but adherence to the old and tried has not prevented rakugo from evolving during the modern age. Today, the stage once dominated by Japanese raconteurs has expanded to include a number of foreign practitioners. Additionally, rakugo is no longer presented in the Japanese language only. Rakugo performed in English and other languages such as French continues to gain popularity among audiences in Japan and overseas.

The realm of rakugo is inhabited by unique and congenial characters with which an average person can easily identify. Only in this domain will you encounter a complete but likeable fool like Yotaro, simpleton craftsmen like Hachigoro and Kumagoro, an adolescent apprentice like Sadakichi, and an irresponsible young master named Kotaro who spends all his time playing around in the pleasure quarter.

In principle, the only props permitted in rakugo are the sensu (a folding paper fan) and tenugui (a hand towel). These items are given a great deal of versatility in the stories as they are used to represent a wide range of items. For instance, a fan can represent a pair of chopsticks, a brush, or a pipe. A hand towel can represent a book, a wallet, and even a roasted sweet potato.

It is the job of the rakugoka (professional storyteller) to inspire their audience’s imagination through their skills in portraying the realm and characters of each story. As of date, there are approximately 1,000 professional storytellers in Japan, and countless amateur storytellers hailing from all walks of life. Each one brings his or her own experiences, eccentricities, and authenticity to the unique world of rakugo.

Professional storytellers are those who have officially completed an apprenticeship with a qualified rakugo master. This training can last anywhere from three years (Osaka storytellers) up to fifteen years (Tokyo storytellers). Amateur storytellers include students belonging to the Rakugo Kenkyu-kai (rakugo research societies) at universities as well as performers who are full-time teachers, office workers, housewives, and retirees, who enjoy performing rakugo. 

Although the amateur rakugo performers do not go through the same long and arduous training that professional rakugo performers endure, their dedication and commitment to their art is still remarkable. Certain amateur performers show a high level of mastery that could rival some professionals.

Sometimes, the stories behind the storytellers entice the public as much as the stories they tell on stage. Rakugo storytellers are often as unique and interesting as the various characters they portray. Talking About Rakugo 2 is a collection of these stories featuring some of the most well-known rakugo performers of today.

The book is divided into five sections featuring performers whose personal lives and their journeys into the world of rakugo have produced unique and sometimes indecorous stories to tell. Stories that are often not publicized, yet they are well-known among rakugo insiders.

Stories featuring, TACHIBANAYA BUNZO III rakugo’s intimidator; HAYASHIYA KOSOME IV a rakugoka whose battle with alcoholism resulted in his untimely death; the late KAWAYANAGI SENRYU whose frequent drunkenness resulted in an unfortunate incident at his master’s house just two years after being accepted as an apprentice; TATEKAWA RAKUCHO who was the only practicing physician in the rakugo world; and SANYUTEI KYUTO a singing rakugo storyteller who once called himself “Evita,” based on the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber. 

You will also read about the eight prominent nisei (second-generation) rakugo performers and learn what it was like to grow up in the households of famous rakugo performers, including that of a rakugoka designated as a Living National Treasure in Japan. Two of the rakugo storytellers featured in this section are brothers, HAYASHIYA SHOZO IX and HAYASHIYA SANPEI II, whose grandfather and father were well-known rakugo performers and whose stage names they inherited. Learn what it was like to grow up as the sons of the man dubbed “The Showa King of Laughter.”

The rakugo profession is a demanding and rigorous one and the road to stardom is often paved with sacrifices and challenges. Talking About Rakugo 2 also features the stories behind the rare storytellers who attained superstardom not only in the world of rakugo, but also in radio, television, and film. The book details the tragedies and triumphs of rakugo greats like TATEKAWA SHINOSUKE, SHUNPUTEI SHOTA, YANAGIYA KYOTARO, and KATSURA BUNSHI VI.

Finally, there are a series of interviews with contemporary rakugo storytellers who perform in both Japanese and English, a trend started by the late great KATSURA SHIJAKU II. These interviews allow you to get up close and personal with performers such as, Canadian-born KATSURA FUKURYU; KATSURA UTAZO whose early dream was to become a rock musician; and STEPHANE FERRANDEZ the 2009 Villa Kujoyama laureate who translates and performs classical rakugo stories in French. You will also be introduced to three rakugo performers belonging to the Canary English Rakugo school.

The book includes eight classical rakugo stories that have been translated into English by Kanariya Eiraku. Rakugo originated as entertainment for ordinary people and is made up of stories about ordinary people including, a Japanese sumo wrestler; a fish monger; villagers who have never seen a mirror before; a fool who tries to grasp the concept of giving a compliment; and much more. Rakugo stories in their entirety are seldom published and stories translated into English are extremely rare. You will find these stories along with a rakugo adaptation of “Hamlet” in  Talking About Rakugo 2: The Stories Behind the Storytellers.

Details: Published in paperback by Kristine Ohkubo, priced in local currencies,  available from Amazon.