Rakugo in London – Vibrant Japanese Comedy
Rakugo is a popular traditional oral comedy in Japan. The translation of Rakugo is a little story with a punchline. Punchline in Japanese is Ochi, and this word shares the same Chinese letter as Raku. The name itself only became commonly used in the 1900s, but the origin goes back 400 years, to the early Edo period.
One Thousand Stories, Millions of Performances
It started with the compilation of funny stories called Seisuisho, commissioned by a government official in 1615, published in 1623, with nearly 1000 tales. A lot of them are anecdotes based on Buddhist morals, as the editor was a Buddhist monk. But the storytelling is entertaining and attention grabbing. The common characteristic of these stories is that they have a punchline at the end. Street preachers and entertainers took the stories from the compilation, and the art of Rakugo was born.
Street entertainments were very popular in cities like Osaka, Kyoto, and Edo (Tokyo). Around the 1670s and 1680s, hundreds of entertainment houses called Yose-ba, which means attraction place, were built. In Yose-ba, many entertainers continually exercised their talents, including storytelling, music, and, acrobatic stunts. Rakugo was the main attraction at the end. The master sits behind a table, holding a fan, start a small talk, and moves on to the main tale. Yose, as it is known today, is a open place: people can come and go depending on their interests. It was up to Rakugo-ka master’s skill to keep as many people as possible until the end of the show.
The key to its popularity and its longevity is in the individual performance of the masters. The stories stayed the same or similar, but the delivery depends on the performers. When there was a boom, there were a few skilful masters, competing against each other by adding new dimensions to the traditional stories and sometimes creating new repertoires.
At the end of Edo era, in the time of big cultural shift, Rakugo saw a steep decline. But a legendary master Sanyutei Encho saved the art of Rakugo single-handedly. He specialised in telling heart-warming, moral stories and ghost stories, known as Kwaidan. He created a line of performers who were skilled in delivering stories with warm and restrained way. The other spectrum was a line of performers who put more emphasis on entertainment, noise, laughter, and colourful performances.
Variations in performing styles contributed to sustaining popularity. The audience goes to hear the same stories delivered by different Rakugo-ka because it is different every time.
Training to be a Master Performer
Rakugo training is intense. New trainees, if and once accepted by a master, are called Minarai. During this time, they look after daily chores for the master. There is no break unless given by the master. They are expected to obey, but they gain a chance to observe the life of the master around the clock.
Once they are familiar with life as Rakugo-ka, the master allows them to help with the stages. Sometimes they can hold a small talk at the beginning of the show. Then, they can slowly move up the ladder, getting longer time for their performances.
The master (and for some, with the help of the audience) decides that the new Rakugo-ka is ready, then it is time for the real debut. There is no need to do any chores or stage preparation. All available time can be spent on mastering the art of performance and seeking jobs themselves.
The final step is to become Shin-Uchi, who always will perform last. Shin-Uchi is the main performer of the show, and can be called Shisho, the master, and can take students. When a new Shin-Uchi is named, there is a ceremonial inauguration performance.
All this time and beyond, the key is to keep observing and analysing human daily life. Little everyday happenings can be a part of their performances: it can be a part of the small talk or add a different angle to the existing stories. Observing the audience during the performance is essential to read and react to the mood, interact, and change the use of the voice, intonation, action, and – the essential tool – the fan.
Rakugo-ka only have themselves and the fan to entertain the audience who may be ready to walk away. It is the skilled performance that keeps them entertained until the end.
Unique Opportunity to Experience First Hand
In London this week, there is a unique opportunity to see a real Rakugo performance by Katsura Sunshine, the adopted son of Japan. He talks about his experiences in Japan, about training under his master, and about performing to an international audience. He tells traditional Rakugo stories that are hundreds of years old, all in English. The skill of Sunshine makes his personal experience and the traditional stories of Japan come surprisingly close to you.
Prepare to be uplifted by the universal character of his descriptions of everyday life worldwide, and throughout time. It will be a delightful experience.
Tickets can be booked for the remaining performances from the link below.
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