Anyone who’s ever sat through a bad comedy sketch knows how hard it can be to find someone who is truly funny. Bad puns, off-color jokes, awkward pauses- stumble once and you can lose your audience for good. Good comedians, for all their jokes, are actually masters of storytelling. Comedic timing, pace, and even voice are crafts to be perfected- master them all and you can command an audience at will. In the hands of a gifted storyteller, even the dullest story can make us laugh. And no comedian is more studied, intuitive, or gifted than the one who performs rakugo.
Rakugo translates from the Japanese as “falling words”, and is a kind of comic storytelling performance. It began, as most Japanese arts do, in the Buddhist tradition, where monks would tell comic stories to lighten up their sermons. These stories soon turned into monologues recited by professional storytellers, or rakugoka, and would often parody Bhuddist parables. These rakugoka eventually grew into a craft class of professional storytellers who would perform in yose (vaudeville theaters) after studying for years in apprenticeships. In the Edo period, rakugo and kabuki were the most popular types of Japanese theater performance and both are still performed throughout Japan.
Unlike stand-up comics or improv groups, rakugoka don’t walk around or engage in any kind of physical comedy. Instead, they sit in a kneeling position over a cushion, wearing traditional dress. The stage is usually bare, with no set or scenery, so that the speaker can command the full attention of the room with no distractions. Rakugoka use traditional props like fans, chopsticks and tenugui towels to help them act out their stories, but keep their bodies within the confines of the cushion. They use their voices to convey different characters throughout the show, talking as children, old men, or women as needed. This one-man show has been described as “a sitcom with one person playing all the parts” by linguist Noriko Watanabe.
Because rakugo has been performed for centuries, there are classic stories that are traditionally performed by every rakugoka. Unlike comics, rakugoka rarely perform their own personal stories, choosing instead to tell simple traditional comic stories from past Japanese time periods. One of the most popular ones is “Gonsuke’s Fish.”
There once was an old man fishing in a water puddle outside of a bar. A man walked by, and he saw this old man, and he thought, Oh, poor old man. He must be crazy, there’s no fish in the water puddle, but he’s fishing. “Excuse me old man! What are you doing?”
“Heh, heh. I’m fishing!”
Oh, poor old man, he’s like my father’s age. “Listen, I’m going into this bar. Do you want to come into the bar with me? I’ll buy you a drink!”
“Oh, thank you very much. That’s so nice of you!”
So they walk into the bar. The man says “Excuse me bartender- two glasses of sake here. Thank you, thank you very much! Here you go, old man. Take it, it’s yours!”
“Thank you very much!”
“That’s okay. So, how are things with you?”
“Heh heh. Things are going very well.
“Very well? You were fishing in a water puddle.”
“Yes, yes, it was going very well.
“What do you mean? How many fish have you caught today?”
“Heh heh. You are the seventh.”
Even though rakugo has changed little over the centuries, the practice survives because storytelling, at its core, is a timeless experience. One of the first things apprentice rakugokas learn is how to lose your identity to better channel a story. They do this by spending the first years of their apprenticeship cleaning house, running errands, and eventually learning through observation of their mentor. By the end of the apprenticeship, they've worked so hard to understand their mentors that they learn to understand different personalities and lose themselves in a story. Truly great rakugokas personify the act of storytelling, playing different roles without being bound to their own identities. In this way the art of rakugo survives, because though men may die, stories do not.
Today, rakugo is performed by men and women, and some of them perform in foreign languages throughout the globe. The stories, however, remain the same, and perhaps it’s telling that the same stories that were told before apprentice priests in the Edo period are still making us laugh today. After all, the sound of slurping soba noodles is still as funny today as it was in 1655.
WORDS BY MAGALI ROMAN
IMAGE BY BBC RADIO