Rakugo is a 400-year-old tradition of comic storytelling in Japan. A minimalistic performance art, Rakugo features a lone storyteller dressed in kimono, kneeling on a cushion, who, using only a fan and a hand towel for props, entertains the audience with a comic monologue followed by a traditional story. The storyteller differentiates characters in conversation by moving his head from left to right, as well as with subtle changes in tempo, posture, intonation, etc. Rakugo is an ancient art form, but it is still very much alive and well, with over 700 professional storytellers practicing today in the two main traditions of storytelling, that of Tokyo (Edo) and that of Osaka (Kamigata).
About the Stories
There is a canon of several hundred traditional Rakugo stories which are widely performed still today, some of which are as much as 400 years old. The stories are thought to have originated as short comic anecdotes at Buddhist monks inserted into their sermons to keep people interested. The stories feature the comical and occasionally absurd shenanigans of stock characters common to neighbourhood life in Edo-Period Japan, and vary in length from 10 minutes to 40 minutes and occasionally even longer. In addition to these traditional stories, some storytellers compose their own stories. The most famous composer of modern Rakugo stories, Katsura Bunshi VI, has over 200 stories to his name, and only performs his own stories.
About the Monologue
Every Rakugo story is preceded by a comic monologue which consists of the individual storyteller’s “material”, and can be about almost anything, much like stand-up comedy. The storyteller often takes advantage of this monologue to present hilarious explanations of how to enjoy and appreciate Rakugo stories, so that even the uninitiated can easily follow the story once it begins. Traditionally, the storyteller uses the monologue to “feel out” his audience, and actually decides which story to launch into once he can see what kind of audience he has.
About the Apprenticeship
In order to become a recognized professional Rakugo storyteller, one must apprentice to a Rakugo master, from whom one receives a stage name. The apprenticeship lasts for three to four years, and is very strict. Depending on the master, the apprentice may not drink, smoke, or go on dates, and is subject to a strict curfew during the apprenticeship period. The apprentice cleans the master’s house, does laundry, cooking, preparing and folding kimonos, and other chores, and learns the art of storytelling by watching the master perform and imitating. Throughout one’s career, one is only allowed to perform a given story once permission to do that story has been granted by a master storyteller.
There are currently over 700 professional Rakugo storytellers practicing today. Of these, just over 30 are women. There is currently only one storyteller of Western descent. Almost all storytellers belong to one of five professional Rakugo associations. There are several theatres in Tokyo and Osaka that are specifically dedicated to staging Rakugo 365 days a year. Storytellers also perform in concert halls, at temples and shrines, schools and universities, community centres and cultural centres, and just about anywhere else you can lay down a cushion to kneel on.