Rakugo: The Comedic Storytelling in Japan

They say that laughter is the best medicine. When a person is feeling down or stressed out, one of the many ways to alleviate his or her burden is by making him or her laugh. There are various ways of making a person laugh such as making jokes or telling a funny story. There are two things that can make a story hilarious: one is when the content itself is funny while the other is when the delivery of said story is done in a funny way. Many comedians these days try to apply both to make their audience laugh to their heart's content. In the west, stand-up comedies are quite popular as the comedians are able to make the crowd laugh just by telling a funny story in a certain manner.

On the other hand, not many know about sit-down comedies wherein instead of standing up and walking around, the comedians do their thing while sitting in place. This is because sit-down comedies are not exactly the usual in most places. However, in Japan, sit-down comedies date back to centuries. While most people view the country of Japan, also known as the Land of the Sun, as the homeland of anime and manga, it also serves as the home of a specific kind of comedic entertainment known as rakugo. 

Japanese Rakugo: History and Meaning Behind the Sit-Down Comedy 

Literally translating to “fallen words,” rakugo is a form of entertainment in Japan. It is the art of comedic storytelling that has been present for many years. It consists of a the lone storyteller clothed in kimono, also known as the rakugoka in Japanese, who sits or kneels on a cushion on the stage, also known as Koza in Japanese. With only a single paper fan known as sensu in Japanese and a small cloth or hand towel known as tenugui in Japanese as props for his performance, the rakugoka tells of a long, traditional story in a comedic way. The story in itself is composed of various characters, all played by the voice of the rakugoka, only varying in tone, pitch, and a slight turn of the head.

Initially known as karukuchi, its first kanji appearance dates back to the year 1787, in reference to this kind of verbal performance. However, the term “rakugo” was first used to replace karukuchi in the middle of the year 1868 and the year 1912, during the Meiji period. The term itself became more common among the masses only during the Showa era, from the year 1926 to the year 1989.

Many people may be surprised by the fact that rakugo was actually conceived by Buddhist monks in the 9th and 10th century. Because their sermons can be quite lengthy, the audience would sometimes get bored and tend to not listen anymore. Hence, by doing this form of storytelling, it makes the sermons of the monks somehow more interesting to the listeners. This tradition was actually written and can be found in the story collection “Uji Shui Monogatari.”

As time went by, this form of storytelling transformed from narrative to monologue. This may be due to the daimyo and feudal lords requesting and looking for skilled people who would be able to provide entertainment through different kinds of storytelling. This art of storytelling was then only limited to the upper class that sought various kinds of entertainment.

Come the Edo period for the year 1603 to the year 1867, the rakugo proliferated to the lower classes. Because of the merchant class of the chonin being established during this era, this form of entertainment was introduced to varying classes. It was during this time that several groups of performers in rakugo were established and gatherings of texts were printed. The storyteller at this time, and all throughout the 17th century, was called the hanashika, literally translating to the storyteller.

The People Who Contributed to This Form of Storytelling

By Wintermelonizm (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Through the years, several artists have made contributions in order to develop this art of storytelling. These artists include not just simple performers but also composers of original works based on rakugo. During the Tokugawa period, a performer by the name of Anrakuan Sakuden was one of the most famous rakugokas during that time. Having lived from the year 1554 to the year 1642, Anrakuan was not just a performer but also the author of the Seisuisho. Translating to “Laughter to Chase Away Sleep,” this collection of not less than a thousand stories was published in the year 1628.

Another great contributor to this form of storytelling went by the name of Shikano Buzaemon, who lived from the year 1649 to the year 1699 in Edo, which is now known as Tokyo. He was the author of Shikano Buzeamon kudenbanashi or Oral Instruction Discourses of Shikano Buzaemon. Also the author of Shika no makifude or The Deer’s Brush in English, Shikano wrote 39 stories within this work with 11 of them associated to the kabuki milieu. Another great author who contributed to this art of storytelling was Tatekawa Enba, who was the author of Rakugo rokugi or The Six Meanings of Rakugo.

One book that tells the different stories of a rakugo performer is the Karukuchi gozen otoko or One-liners: An Important Storyteller. This book tells the stories of Yonezawa Hikohachi, who was a performer in rakugo theater and lived in Osaka by the end of the 17th century. His jokes and other anecdotes were written quite well in this collection. Today, there are several artists that perform rakugo such as Tachibanaya Enzo, Hayashiya Shozo, Tatekawa Shinosuke, and Katsura Bunshi. Moreover, some mainstream comedians were also trained as rakugoka apprentices with their names given by their masters, such as Akashiya Sanma and Shofukutei Tsurube. 

The Art of Telling Stories in Rakugo Theater

By vera46 - originally posted to Flickr as rakugo, CC 表示 2.0, Link

There are many elements in performing rakugo. The rakugoka, literally translating to the “person of the falling word,” has to undergo years of training before being allowed to perform in rakugo theater. The purpose of the rakugoka is to generate hilarity among his audience by telling a comedic story with the use of tone and limited but distinct gestures of the body. The ending of the monologue is usually accompanied by a narrative stunt called ochi, which literally translates to “fall,” or sage, which literally translates to “lowering.” Presently, there are 12 types of ochi that are recognized and codified in the industry.

Several styles have been developed through the years since the early rakugo. These styles include theatre discourses or shibaibanashi in Japanese, musical discourses or ongyokubanashi in Japanese, ghost discourses or kaidanbanashi in Japanese, and sentimental discourses or ninjobanashi in Japanese. While the ochi is vital to the original rakugo, this seems to be missing in most of the styles just mentioned.

Among the important elements in performing rakugo are the stories being told by the rakugoka. A canon of more than a hundred traditional stories written specifically for rakugo performance is still being performed today, despite some of them being as old as 400 years old. The length of the story can range from as short as just 10 minutes to as long as 40 minutes, sometimes even longer. The stories usually consist of the funny shenanigans of stock characters that were typical to the neighborhood life back during the Edo period in Japan. While there are already written stories being performed on a regular basis, there are other performers who compose their own stories for the audience to enjoy.

After every rakugo story, it is followed by a comic monologue of the rakugoka. Similar to stand-up comedy (although in this case, it is a sit down comedy), the rakugoka would use this time to say whatever lines they want to say that would entertain the audience and stimulate hilarity. More often than not, most storytellers use this time to elaborate on how to fully enjoy and appreciate the stories in rakugo theater in a hilarious manner. This is beneficial especially for those people who are not yet fully aware how the performance works, so they can follow the story with ease once it starts. This time is also used for the rakugoka to “feel out” what type of audience he has so he may choose the story appropriately.

By Wintermelonizm - 投稿者自身による作品, CC 表示-継承 3.0, Link

As for the storyteller himself, there is training in order to become a professional rakugo storyteller. A person must undergo apprenticeship under a rakugo master for about three to four years, where he will get his stage name from the master. The apprenticeship can be quite strict with certain rules and regulations depending on the master. There are some who are not allowed to drink, smoke, or even go on dates during the period of apprenticeship. The apprentice also does household chores for the master such as doing laundry, cleaning the house, folding kimonos, and cooking.

Hence, with this many rules, only those who are serious about becoming a rakugoka should apply for this. The apprentice learns the art of rakugo by watching his master perform through the years and emulating the master’s actions during the performance. Furthermore, a story can only be performed by a rakugoka once permission has been granted by a master storyteller.

Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju: Its Plot and Five Main Characters 

Rakugo culture is still growing in Japan through the years. This is quite apparent as there is even a manga series based on rakugo known as Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju. The original run of the manga series was from the 25th of March in the year 2010 to the 7th of June in the year 2016. The manga series was also adapted into an anime television series with its first season airing from the 9th of January in the year 2016 to the 2nd of April in the year 2016 as well. The second season of this series was aired from the 7th of January in the year 2017 to the 25th of March in the same year.

The story behind this series is about a man who became an apprentice of a popular rakugo performer after being released from prison. The series shows the different background stories of the rakugo performers and the struggles that they have to face as they strive to gain popularity in their industry of choice. Through this, the main character also befriends another rakugo performer who performs using a distinct style unlike his own.

There are five main characters to this series. The first character is the 8th Generation Yakumo Yurakutei or Kikuhiko. He is a rakugo performer recognized for his perfectionist style of rakugo performance. The second character is the 2nd Generation Sukeroku Yurakutei or Hatsutaro. He is a rakugo storyteller recognized for his freestyle rakugo performance. The third main character is the 3rd Generation Sukeroku Yurakutei, also known as Yotaro or Kyoji. He is an aspiring rakugo storyteller who was just released from prison before becoming an apprentice. The fourth character is Miyokichi or Yurie. She was a former geisha and is the mistress of the 7th Generation Yakumo. The fifth character is Konatsu, who is the daughter of Sukeroku and Miyokichi.

To this day, there are still some traditional theaters that hold live rakugo performances almost every single day. This means that whether it is the month of July or September, there would probably still be a rakugo performance in a certain theater. For those who would like to experience what a rakugo performance is all about, there are famous venues in Tokyo that offer this experience. This includes the Asakusa Engei Hall, Ikebukuro Engeijo, and Shinjuku Suehirotei. As for those residing or staying in Osaka, the place to go to is the Tenma Tenjin Hanjotei. It is great to know that up to this day, the rakugo culture and performance still shines despite the advancement of modern technology. The traditional art of storytelling in Japan lives on and one should not pass up the chance of experiencing this and understanding what a rakugo performance is all about.