What is Rakugo?

Rakugo

Rakugo isn’t a word the English-speaking world knows; but if one Canadian can help it, the Western hemisphere will know it soon enough. The 42-year-old “Katsura Sunshine,” as he’s known, is trying to bring English rakugo to stages all around the world. Rakugo has a long history, dating back hundreds of years. It was first used to entertain lords and aristocrats, and eventually evolved into the long form of rakugo we can see today. But… what exactly is it?

A Different Perspective

Rakugo is a form of entertainment that involves sitting in seiza (i.e., on your shins, as in the picture above) on a cushion, with nothing more than a paper fan and a hand towel as props, usually telling a funny story with various characters and lots of dialogue. It’s basically like Japanese equivalent of stand-up comedy; but in rakugo, there’s no standing. This is a brief example of rakugo in English, regarding the Japanese custom of giving business cards:

The 42-year-old Canadian mentioned above – “Katsura Sunshine” – loves this style of entertainment, and is trying to show it to the world. He wants to make rakugo an English word, like tsunami or typhoon, both of which came from Japanese. In June 2012, “Sunshine” opened up shop in the city of Ise, relatively close to Osaka, where he performs  traditional or original rakugo three days a week, with the hopes of starting English perofrmances for foreign audiences. However, his dream is apparently to open a rakugo theatre in New York’s Off-Broadway and perform in English.

He saw rakugo for the first time in 1999 after arriving in Japan, but a performance in 2008 by “Katsura Sanshi” led him to the life of rakugo he now lives. He began learning from Sanshi (now called “Katsura Bunshi”) in 2008, being the rakugo master’s 15th apprentince. He earned his stage name in 2011, which is also when he became the first foreigner to join the Kamigata (i.e., Osaka-style) rakugo association. As the Japan Times reports:

Sunshine went through the traditional routine of any Japanese rakugo apprentice, for example, cleaning up the master’s house, doing his laundry, folding his kimono and carrying his bag wherever he went. Like any apprentice, he said he did not have to pay his master to learn rakugo from him. [. . .]

Shugyo (apprenticeship) is trying to learn to read your master’s mind,” he said. And then when you finish the apprenticeship, you go in front of the audience and you should be able to read the audience’s mind as well.

“Here’s my audience. Then you can tell them a story that they can come into your world, will laugh, and be entertained. That’s one of the thinkings behind the shugyo,” he said.

Sunshine was a music theater composer and a playwright who left Toronto for Japan in 1999 to learn a bout about Japanese culture – specifically kabuki theatre – but ended up falling in love with the country, as so many foreigners do when they get here. His interest in rakugo led him to the Osaka University of Arts, where he received a master’s degree in rakugo studies – a degree that most Japanese people don’t even know exists. Here’s a video where he does some rakugo in Osaka, talking about… what else? Rakugo.

The differences Sunshine notices in the Japanese theater and the Western theater are very interesting:

“In musical theater, when actors go up on stage, the attitude has to be, ‘I’m great. Look at me. I will entertain you.’ This is the confidence you have to have as an actor,” [Sunshine] said.

This attitude, he said, is “completely different” with rakugo. “Before going up on stage, you say to the other storytellers at the end of the dressing room,Osaki ni benkyo sasete itadakimasu’ (I will go on stage before you to learn). It’s like, ‘I’m going to learn from the audience so that I can be better next time.’ ” [. . .]

“There are strict rules about how the story has to be performed that we the storytellers have to study. The aim of these rules is to make things easy to understand and simple for the audience,” he said. “I think this is genius because this is all 100 percent geared toward the entertainment of the audience.”

How Rakugo Works

Sunshine isn’t the first one to do rakugo in English, though. It’s hard to say who the very first was in Japan, but Japanese rakugo performer Kimie Oshima started an English-language troupe over a decade ago. Oshima is currently an associate professor at Bunkyo Gakuin University. This is how she explains the art:

In Rakugo only the conversations between characters appear in the story. Therefore, the performer must be able play the role of each distinct character. There are always several characters in a Rakugo story. The performers play each character by changing voice, facial expression, mannerisms, speech, etc.. In most cases the characters have strong stereotypical personalities and characteristics so that as the performer switches from one character to another the audience readily detects the change. [. . .] Each character represents qualities within all of us or parts of the human personality. Each character in the story emphasizes one aspect of the human personality. [. . .]

Just like many other forms of comedy among their respective cultures around the world, rakugo historically had a social role as well:

The roots of Rakugo can be traced to the end of 17th century. Rakugo developed from mini-tales which were told among common people. The style of performance or presentation of Rakugo was established in the late 18th century and has not changed. When some of the early artisans discovered that they could actually make a living as professional story tellers, they would rent a large room (Yose) in a house and sit on a small mattress to perform Rakugo.

[. . .] Rakugo stories were intended to teach what would be laughed at in the society and give people social knowledge. As it developed it became entertainment for common people and the rooms where Rakugo was performed (Yose) became centers for social gathering. Historically, there are no female Rakugo-ka (performers) and even today there are only a few female performers. In Japanese culture social activities have been considered as primarily for men.

Also interesting is how rakugo is passed down, so to speak, so that the same story can be performed very differently for different effects.

As Rakugo became popular, a tradition for learning Rakugo became established. [. . .] [When] someone wishes to become a pupil of a favorite Rakugo performer the person goes to the performer and asks to be accepted as a student. If the professional Rakugo performer finds the prospective pupil to be talented and chooses to teach him, the Rakugo-ka takes in the pupil.

The master trains the student verbally. First, the master tells a story, perhaps one of his favorite repertories. Then, the student imitates it as best he can. After much practice the pupil is able to ad or modify the style and introduce some originality to the story. All the training is verbal. No written text is used. Probably part of the reason for the oral emphasis is that when [Rakugo] started many people were unable to read, therefore, the tradition has been passed on through the generations. Recently, it has become acceptable to use audio and video tape, but written text is still not employed. [. . .]

There are about 300 popular stories which are still performed as classic Rakugo in addition to many new stories created by current Rakugo artists. Even the new stories follow the structure of Rakugo so that the essence of Rakugo remains intact. [. . .]

One might ask why the audience would laugh at the punch line of a Rakugo story that the audience has heard many times before – especially in the case of a classic story. It is because of Kusuguri, the jab of laughter. Performers introduce their own originality in their performances and the jab of laughter. Sometimes it appears in word play, set up of the story, exaggeration of performance, or characters’ conversation style. After 300 years people still find new laughter in the same stories. It is similar to the way people enjoy classic operas or classic comedy routines in western culture.

So clearly, rakugo is not the same as stand-up comedy. But the only other form of comedic entertainment that comes close to it is manzai, which is basically two-person stand-up comedy.

The thing I love about these forms of comedy is that they’re all a little bit different. For example, rakugo involves a strict form while being relatively loose on how the story is delivered, which makes for a very personalized performance. Stand-up comedy, on the other hand, is more like a bag of tricks, where the performer comes on stage with their own unique jokes and stories – hundreds or thousands of them – and they improvise based on the reactions of the audience.

And of course there is the dreaded heckler, which is certainly not a part of Japanese culture. To interrupt the performer or make obnoxious noise would certainly be considered rude, which is also why between songs at concerts in Japan, you can hear a pin drop from the crowd’s complete silence. But these are not inherently good or bad things (all though 99% of comedians in the world absolutely hate hecklers) – just different facets of the various forms of comedy among different cultures.

To Be Famous Outside Japan

The Western world may see rakugo as a new and good form of comedy, but it needs to be distinguished from stand-up comedy. And so far, the only distinction people seem to recognize is that “the West has stand-up comedy, whereas Japan has sit-down comedy.” If that’s the only difference viewers see in rakugo, then it will never be adopted abroad. That’s because stand-up comedy is already so popular, and I don’t think anyone will care about someone sitting down. Especially in North America, where the adoption of more Europe-style comedy panel shows has still not happened, bringing in yet another new comedy form that’s similar but simply restrictive won’t be taken seriously by audience.

And the culture rakugo would probably look completely different if it ever picks up in the West. Shugyo (Japanese-style apprenticing) is not a part of Western culture, and the idea of doing a master’s laundry, carrying their books, cleaning their house, etc., is probably not going to fly with most Westerners. So the rakugo-globalization community will have to think about this seriously. For example… can we still call it rakugo without years of Shugyo? Can we call it rakugo if someone writes it down? Because beggars can’t be choosers… and there’s a good chance that it won’t take off unless it becomes “less Japanese.” In fact, asking a Western comedian to sit in seiza is enough to turn them off of the form.

But it would be nice if rakugo was a normal art form in the world, and there are two major things that need to be done. The first is the promotion of the art form, because almost no one has heard of it abroad. The other thing is both simple and the hardest part: Just doing great original performances. Indeed, they’ll have to be original, because foreigners can’t appreciate (i.e., they have no idea about) old Japanese or Chinese folktales, or anything of the sort. Showing parodies or retellings of old stories that foreigners don’t have prior knowledge of is like performing an entire act that’s an inside joke that none of the audience is in on.

It’s not going to be easy to bring rakugo to the West, but it’s not impossible.

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