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In Rakugo, everything is possible

In Rakugo, everything is possible

Everyone knows stand-up comedy, but the Japanese prefer to make others laugh while sitting. As storytellers and actors at the same time, the masters of Rakugo captivate not only their homeland but the whole world.

Two acquaintances meet. One asks the other:

"How is the bookshelf I built for you?"

"Oh, it has already broken. It wasn't good."

"What, why is that? Oh, wait... You didn't put something on it, did you?"

Sit-down-Comedy from Japan

That's just one short story among many told in Rakugo, the traditional Japanese "sit-down comedy." There are over 500 classic anecdotes and countless more that modern Rakugoka, as the comedians are called, have written themselves.

They don't just sit on stage and tell stories. The traditional setting requires them to kneel on a Zabuton cushion in the Seiza posture and wear a kimono. During their performance, Rakugoka can take breaks and change costumes – such a show can make you quite sweaty even if you're just sitting. Additionally, they have only two props: a fan (Sensu) and a cloth (Tenugui). Throughout the narrative, these can transform into a pen and paper, a sword, a teapot, a book, an umbrella, chopsticks, and much more.

As restrictive as this may sound, it leaves plenty of room for the audience's imagination. As Rakugoka Shinoharu Tatekawa said about his craft: "Everything is possible." The storytelling artist not only has to play one character but several simultaneously engaged in a conversation. This is achieved through changes in voice, facial expressions, gestures, and eye direction, all done rapidly and seamlessly. He can also simulate standing up and walking while still kneeling by mimicking corresponding movements and sounds. Moreover, he must master all the "sound effects": eating, knocking, wind, the sound of flowing water, and much more. The more convincingly he plays and portrays the personalities of his characters, the more vibrant his dialogue becomes. In special theaters, musicians support the storyteller in the background with shamisen string instruments, percussion, and flutes. Today, projections are also commonly used, illustrating the story on a screen behind the Rakugoka. But most importantly, it's the Rakugoka's character: their individual presentation style that adds to the charm of this discipline.

Rakugo stage with microphone and seat cushion on floor

Picture credits: Author: tablexxnx | Flickr | License

From the sermon to comic storytelling

As an ancient Japanese art, Rakugo may not be very well-known outside Japan, but it is incredibly popular within the country. Particularly among young people, the average number of performances seen by traditional comedians is higher than that of Kabuki – expressive theater – or Buyo, traditional dance. Rakugoka are invited to schools, and you can find them at special events such as festivals. They have been performing regularly since 1791 in dedicated theaters, called Yose, where you can enjoy one-man dialogues every day. Yose stages still exist in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. However, the Rakugo style from the latter city has become extinct. It all began in Tokyo, which was then known as Edo.

More precisely, the art of humorous storytelling dates back even further, to the 10th century. Buddhist monks started illustrating their sermons with everyday anecdotes, making their teachings more accessible. Hence, the universal themes of Rakugo: human vanity, foolishness, and greed often lead to comical situations.

After the monks, feudal lords (Daimyo) also took an interest in the stories and employed intellectuals to entertain them. Especially at night, when the fear of enemy attacks was high, these stories kept them awake. That's why the first collection of anecdotes, written by the monk Anrakuan Sakuden, is called "Laughter that Dispels Sleep" (Seisuisho). It includes Doka, poems with a lesson. In Japan, laughter is often associated with educational value: don't be like this or that character, and you won't be punished!

It was only during the Edo period (1603-1868) that this art spread to other social classes and was enthusiastically embraced. Since the 20th century, it has officially been called Rakugo 落語, which can be translated as "fallen words."

Budding comedians have little to laugh about

In Japan, there are still approximately 700 Rakugoka today. If one wishes to become a Rakugoka, they must first find a master who will take them under their wing. The apprentice is initially called Zenza, then progresses to Futatsume, and finally, the master is referred to as Shin'uchi.

Beginners receive an artist name from their master and usually adopt the master's surname as their successor. Initially, they must perform various tasks for their master, assist him, fold kimonos, make tea, observe him at work, and memorize everything. This enables them to imitate the master and practice their first short performances, such as the "opening act" for their teacher. There isn't much time for other activities as they need to be on call for their master. Hierarchy is still relevant in this ancient discipline; for example, during joint pub and restaurant visits, the lower-ranking Zenza may act as the waiter at the table.

If they wish to perform a story on stage, whether classical or from their master's repertoire, they need permission. Once granted, the Zenza can learn from others but must demonstrate their skills before being allowed to tell the anecdote to an audience. Not all stories are deemed suitable for a Zenza; for instance, they cannot include alcohol or gambling.

As a Zenza, they must diligently learn and work for three to four years, sometimes longer, before they can progress. Once appointed Futatsume in a solemn ceremony, they can organize their own performances, gain fans, and earn the recognition of other storytelling artists. This marks the apprentice's arduous journey toward becoming a respected master.

Theater stage

Picture credits: Author: Yuya Tamai | Flickr | License

Rakugo is only for Japanese people?

Despite all the tradition, you don't need to know Japanese to enjoy Rakugo. Many performers have expanded their audience to the rest of Asia, Europe, and the USA, translating their anecdotes into English. Some Rakugoka now come from the West. For about 25 years, women have also been allowed to enter the profession and assert themselves in this male-dominated discipline. There are not only tours but also recordings of famous storytellers on YouTube and television, in movies, and anime that can introduce Japanese "sit-down comedy" to everyone.

A typical anecdote can last between 10 and 40 minutes. Depending on the audience's reactions, the Rakugoka may even extend or shorten the anecdote. Sometimes, he begins the show with a short story called Kobanashi – for example, the one you read at the beginning. However, the key is Ochi – the punchline. It comes suddenly, like a joke, marking the climax and simultaneously the end of a Rakugo story. On average, a Japanese comedian tells about three or four such stories per performance.

Translation is not easy as many Rakugo stories are based on wordplay. Nevertheless, many of these stories resonate with audiences worldwide due to their human themes rather than being specifically Japanese. The charm of tradition is not lost, and sometimes understanding cultural peculiarities enhances the appreciation of anecdotes. The Rakugoka assists in this: at the beginning, he establishes a connection with the audience, talking about social phenomena or current events, often criticizing or parodying them. Personal experiences also find a place in the stories. In the international context, he provides a brief introduction, ensuring everyone can follow the narrative. Interaction with the audience is crucial to maintaining a good atmosphere so that everyone can fully enjoy the show. A traveling Japanese comedian has a lot to share – both true and unbelievable. In Rakugo, anything is possible.

Manju Kowai - Scary little cakes: A little story from the rakugo stage

A group of friends gathers over beer and sake, discussing their fears. "Snakes," says the first, another shudders, "Badgers."

"Spiders..."

"Bats..."

"Ants..."

"Caterpillars!"

One of them remains silent.

"You haven't said anything yet, Matsumoto," they address him. "What are you afraid of?"

Matsumoto thinks. "Hm. There's only one thing I'm really afraid of."

"And what is it?" the others press him.

"Manju..."

"The bean cakes?" they laugh. "But why?"

"I don't know," Matsumoto replies, shuddering and grimacing. "Just thinking about it gives me the chills."

They all continue drinking and chatting cheerfully until it's time to go home. When Matsumoto has gone to bed, the others decide to play a prank on him.

Early the next morning, they go to a store and buy a crate full of Manju in various flavors. They then bring it into the unsuspecting Matsumoto's bedroom and place it next to his bed. Laughing, they wait in the next room for their friend to wake up.

"Aaah!" suddenly a scream comes from the bedroom. "So many Manju! But I'm so scared..." The friends can hardly contain their laughter.

For a while, it becomes quiet in the room. Becoming skeptical, one of them decides to open the door. There sits Matsumoto, joyfully devouring one of the Manju.

"Hey! He tricked us. Look how happy he looks!"

"Hey Matsumoto! Come on, tell us: What are you really afraid of?"

And Matsumoto replies: "Right now, I'm really scared of a cup of green tea..."

Theater from outside with lighting

Picture credits: Author: Tighten up! | Flickr | License

Not enough rakugo yet?

If you want to learn more about the humorous Japanese storytelling art, we recommend the following films and books:

  • Rakugo Monogatari: A film by Shinpei Hanashiya about an seemingly untalented Rakugoka apprentice, structured in the style of the comedy discipline itself
  • Seisuisho. Lachen, das den Schlaf vertreibt: The first collection of anecdotes from the founding father of Rakugo, Anrakuan Sakuden
  • Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu: Manga and anime based on it, where the protagonist, just released from prison, wants to learn the art of Rakugo

YouTube – These and many more Rakugoka entertain in English:

  • Shinoharu Tatekawa
  • Kimie Oshima
  • Katsura Kaishi
  • Kanariya Eiraku
  • Diane Kichijitsu

Maybe you are also interested in the article about Japanese theater Kabuki?

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