Rakugou: A one man show

Much like mono-acting, Japan has a traditional art form of storytelling in times where technology had not made its way yet.

Rakugo ( literally, meaning fallen words) is a Japanese art form of storytelling, where a story teller sits on a podium, uses a sensu (  Japanese fan) and a tenugui ( hand cloth) as their props and depicts, characters in the story, the narration and everything in between that completes a story, by themselves. It is truly a one man show. All movements are done while sitting on a Kooza (a sitting mat). The performer has to switch between characters with change in body language, pitch, mannerisms and accent. A typical play lasts for 30 minutes and always usually ends with a punch line (ochi). The whole play depends on the descriptive, narrative and performing ability of the story teller. The stories include genres such as erotica, comedy, satires, horror etc.

Rakugo goes back to the Buddhist era, slowly made its way into the emperor’s court, and entertainment for the high class and reached the common people, thus starting theaters specifically for rakugo. Some of these theaters were rebuilt and still stand today.  

The major turning point was in 1941, the tide was turning against rakugo, self-censorship became to law. The rakugo world censored itself, bawdy and erotic stories like akegarasu, miyatogawa, in all 53 of these great works were labelled forbidden  rakugo and buried, this took a hit to all rakugo performers for it was like restricting the very base of rakugo that is to speak and entertain.

From here on, because of the start of war, people started moving out and naturally this had an effect on the world of rakugo, there were lesser people attending theaters to listen  to rakugo and neither did anyone want to become a story teller,  because you would have to live hand to mouth on a daily basis and it was hard to survive, but the hope that one day when the wars are over and everyone could survive with full bellies and the theaters would fill up again, is why a glimpse of rakugo is still alive even today.

Names and hierarchy

There is a certain hierarchy and naming system when one wants to enter the field. It starts with a recommendation of apprenticeship where the older masters take students in as apprentice (deshi) for 2-4 years bearing all the expenses for them. The deshi lives with the master and works alongside him, and are presented with a name by which they will be known in the rakugo world. As most of rakugo is descriptive, teaching was done mostly through listening and imitating their masters. 

Once they are able to start performing on stage,they are called Zenza (starters), who become opening acts for various performances. The performers are paid based on the seats they gather and the performance. Hence, as starters they are paid with experience. As they move up to “Futatsume”, after years, the students will become shu'ichi where they finally become masters themselves and can then take on their own apprentices. The master when passing may bestowed with his house name  to continue his legacy.

If you would like to know more on Rakugo, I recommend you to watch "Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu" or decending stories. The animation, drama, storyline and the depiction of rakugo is perfect. I was rewatching this beautiful work of anime and decided to write this article.