A rakugo (落語) show is essentially an equivalent of the Western one-man comedy show, where a guy tells humorous stories to the audience. But rakugo is much more than just stand-up comedy! The rakugoka–this is what the rakugo performer is called–is basically a mix of an actor, a storyteller and a comedian who can tell jokes and make facial expressions. The word rakugo means more or less literally "fallen words", and indicates the casual unfolding of events that are narrated by the performer.
The show is actually a sit-down show, as the performer usually sits on a cushion on a stage all the time. The stage is often elevated with respect to the audience seating.
A typical stage setting for rakugo performances.There is no scene setup (usually there is just the performer and a bare wall behind him) nor are there other performers, so the rakugoka must have the ability to let other people imagine the scene he is playing in, by playing all characters which are distinguishable by his voice pitch and the turn of his head, as if talking to invisible people. So he impersonates women, samurai, warriors, peasants, children and so on. Also, he can only use a fan and a napkin as props; those can, with imagination, become anything the rakugoka wants: paper and pen, glass and bottle, phone and map, and so on.
The stories are usually about sentimental intrigues, satirical takes on society, human drama, or in general all those situations that lead to comedic and unexpected endings. The storyteller also interacts with the audience, by asking to clap hands, participate in the acting, explaining the settings of every new story, so that people can already start to imagine the scene. It's all about when to pause, when to "drop" the telling, and how to convey the whole tale. It is definitely hard to make the audience escape reality and enter a world where everything but the performer is imagined. Still, the very good performers can do this effortlessly, provoking a lot of laughter and applause.
The rakugoka shows how versatile props his towel and fan are.The history of rakugo goes back several centuries. It seems that this performing art was born first among buddhist monks, around the year 1200, with the aim of making the religious tales more interesting, and later it became an entertainment art for the feudal lords, as they easily became bored and needed some funny distractions. Around the Edo period, starting from about year 1600, the art started to spread as a common people’s entertainment and storytellers started to appear, each of them with their own comic stories, some of which are still passed on in the present day. Theatres started to pop up, so that the art became slowly part of the culture. Even nowadays some rakugo theaters are out there in Tokyo and Osaka, where performances are held from time to time.
A rakugo theatre in Asakusa, Tokyo. Image: sodai gomi on Flickr.As with many other cultural things in Japan, any art takes on distinctive traits, depending on where it develops: Tokyo rakugo (Edo rakugo) is different than Osaka (Kamigata rakugo), and even different than Kyoto rakugo. Over the centuries, it seems the Kyoto school of rakugo has died out, while the other two are still roaring.
Rakugo is performed in Japanese. All jokes make more sense for the Japanese as they depict known situations and characters, so the laughter is guaranteed. There are performers, both Japanese and foreign, who perform in English. Some barely try to translate their Japanese jokes, and some create new ones from scratch. It must be said that the target audience is key for the rakugoka's success: non-Japanese audiences might not fully understand the Japanese humor, so it is often foreign performers of rakugo who can try spread the art among non-Japanese. Famous English rakugo performers are, among others, Katsura Kaishi, who also performs abroad, and Diane Kichijitsu, a British woman who fell in love with rakugo so much, she decided to move to Japan to pursue it as a career. But either Japanese or English, the burden of rakugo performance is all on the performer: if they’re good, they’ll manage to amuse audiences of any language and culture.
Shinjuku Suehirotei. Image: User:Kentin on Wikimedia CommonsIf you are curious and want to try and attend some rakugo performances, there are some theaters around Tokyo you may want to check out:
*Asakusa Performance Hall, 6 minute walk from Ginza line Asakusa subway station.
*Shinjuku Suehirotei, 1 minute walk from Shinjuku-sanchome subway station.
*Suzumoto Entertainment Hall, 10 minute walk from JR Ueno station, Shinobazu exit. This is particularly great for cheap morning shows.