Rakugo: Japan’s Centuries-old Comedic Solo Storytelling

Rakugo: Japan’s Centuries-old Comedic Solo Storytelling

If there is one Asian country that pays very high regards to cultural heritage and traditional practices, Japan would have to be one of the obvious picks.

It is very much apparent, even when you take a random stroll on any city street. From old castles to gorgeous, old-style ryokan (inns; 旅館), you’ll see how generations have successfully preserved the Japanese culture and way of life amidst its fast-paced, innovative pursuit.

Among the traditional practices that survived and continue to draw the attention of people, both local and international, is Rakugo (落語).

In layman’s terms, it can be defined as a sitcom where one person plays all the characters involved in a story. In short, it’s a monolog. In its traditional sense, Rakugo is seen as a verbal art that seeks to entertain the listeners through well-written and tight storytelling in a span of thirty minutes.

How did it start?

Modern-day Rakugoka (Rakugo practitioners; 落語家), owe the knowledge or the idea of this art from Buddhist monks, who first settled in Japan during the 9th and 10th century. These monks first told stories on streets to spread the principles of Buddhism to bypassers.

Over time, people started to find the act entertaining, resulting to some Japanese locals adapting the style and using it for purely entertainment purposes. This form of entertainment started to gain attention around the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, adapting the name Kobanashi (小話). Here, people started to gather in small public places or on streets to watch individual performers tell a story.

How is Rakugo done?

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The fact that it’s an act of storytelling may sound like it’s an easy job for a person to accomplish. But in reality, it’s way more complicated than that.

Rakugoka will have to memorize the story they want to tell. It can be a popular classical story handed down by previous generations, or an original one. They perform live in small theaters called yose (寄席) and wear a traditional kimono (着物) as the main outfit.

Compared to typical live entertainment shows like Kabuki (歌舞伎) or musical shows, the stage lacks ornaments and props that often captivate the attention of viewers even before the main act. In Rakugo, the performer is both the prop and the main act.

There are only two major tools in a Rakugoka’s arsenal – a sensu (paper fan; 扇子) and a tenugui (towel or washcloth; 手ぬぐい). These materials can then be used to represent other objects like chopsticks and booksn, respectively, as they tell the story.

The performance begins when the backup musicians, who use traditional string instruments, start to play the music. The Rakugoka then enters the stage, kneels down on the small pillow placed in the middle of the stage, and greets the audience with a respectful bow.

Can we all do Rakugo?

The fact is, we can all tell a story. In fact, we’ve been doing it every time we share our latest adventures with family and friends.

But doing Rakugo as an art and a profession requires a certain degree of talent, passion, and love for the craft. It’s exactly how it survived. Compared to other forms of art where anyone can simply enroll in a course and join other students in regular, scheduled classes, studying Rakugo is done under an apprenticeship procedure.

This means that if you can’t convince a ‘master’ to have you as a trainee, you can’t expect to get promoted to higher ranks of the practice.

Studying Rakugo and its Ranking System

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Isn’t it contradictory that such a fine, creative art follows a strict ranking system? Shouldn’t all storytellers be treated equally?

Ideally, yes. But ever since Rakugo became mainstream entertainment during the Edo period, the leading Rakugokas might have seen a potential decline of the practice if no new apprentices carried on the brilliance of this solo craft.

The creation of a ranking system might have been an efficient method to ensure that younger performers were trained under the best masters, while at the same time carrying with them a unique identity to spice up their performances.

At present, studying Rakugo takes between two and four years to accomplish, much like the duration of a formal college education. Within this period, all apprentices are expected to experience the differences of the following ranks:

  • Stage 1: Zenza – equivalent to the beginner stage in any of our current training systems. This is where the apprentice starts to learn the basics by watching his master perform or practice. Whether or not he performs in public is purely the prerogative of the master.
  • Stage 2: Futatsume – usually the part when the apprentice starts to perform in public as an opening show prior to the master’s performance. It is also where one starts to build a name and even his own fanbase.
  • Stage 3: Shin’uchi – the final and the highest rank in the Rakugo system. Achieving this rank usually takes years and it’s not a guarantee that Futatsume students will be granted this name. Factors such as performance, personality, professionalism and approval of other Shin’uchis are crucial in getting promoted to this level. Also, it’s by being a Shin’uchi that one can start taking in his own apprentice.

Stage 3: Shin’uchi – the final and the highest rank in the Rakugo system. Achieving this rank usually takes years and it’s not a guarantee that Futatsume students will be granted this name. Factors such as performance, personality, professionalism and approval of other Shin’uchis are crucial in getting promoted to this level. Also, it’s by being a Shin’uchi that one can start taking in his own apprentice.

Once a person decides to subject himself to Rakugo training, developing the following skill set for a satisfying performance is necessary:

  • Voice inflection (change in tone, pitch, and volume)
  • Mannerism (gestures, eye movements, and facial expression)
  • Mannerism (gestures, eye movements, and facial expression)
  • Quick adaptability (necessary for a sudden shift of characters during the performance)

To stir the audience’s imagination through words, Rakugokas need to have a full grasp on the characters that they will be playing. This includes familiarizing themselves with the most common character stereotypes that are easily recognizable by the public. A few of these are as follows:

  • Man in power – authoritative, confident and usually accompanied by a deep, baritone voice
  • Clumsy personality – rash, easygoing, forgetful
  • Deceitful personality – cunning, smart with words
  • Provocative personality – confident, alluring, flirtatious
  • Shy personality – introvert, silent personality, characterized by soft and low tone of voicing
Delivery and its Main Goal

Rakugo 3

Rakugo isn’t just plain, nonsense storytelling. While topics could range from daily life struggles to the supernatural, there is a notable pattern in its delivery.

  • Makura (マクラ) – the beginning of the story. Here, the Rakugoka often introduces us to the story, its main character, and the setting. It is where we get the idea on what the story will be about.
  • Hondai (本題)– the main story. This is where we get to know the rest of the characters, journey with the protagonist and understand his values, beliefs, and needs.
  • Ochi (オチ) – as the final stage, it’s also considered the most important one. It’s the punch line or the closing part, which will most likely have a huge impact on the story.

While Rakugo stories receive various impressions from its modern listeners, its common goal is to make people laugh. Humor can be added to supernatural stories by the clumsiness of one character. Even ignorance can be used to deliver witty comedy in dialogues.

But then again, the skill of the Rakugoka is a crucial factor. Unless one is skilled in bringing their story to life, it won’t have much impact. Worse, messages can lose their context.

Japan is home to lots of entertainment both for the locals and foreign tourists, but if you’d like to go traditional and have a front-row seat on a slightly different type of storytelling, then listening to Rakugo should definitely be a part of your itinerary!

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