Japanese Arts (II): Rakugo

Japanese Arts (II): Rakugo

The prototypes of Japanese comedy are rakugo and manzai. Rakugo is a one-man show that tells a story through words and actions. Rakugo is still performed in traditional theaters, such as Suzumoto Performing Arts Hall in Ueno and Asakusa Engei Hall. There is also a rakugo festival held in Ginza in July every year, attracting Japanese people who love rakugo to enjoy the art of storytelling.

What is Rakugo?


The word rakugo means “fallen words”. The lone rakugoka (storyteller) kneels on a koza (raised platform) and only uses sensu (a paper fan) and tenugui (a small cloth) as stage props. A rakugoka plays the roles of all characters in the story, indicating the different roles by changing pitch, tone, and a slight turn of the head.

The rakugo story consists of three parts: the makura (prelude), the hondai/hanashi (main story), and the ochi (closing punchline). Rakugo stories are usually long and humorous, and can sometimes be sentimental. The true art of rakugo is not about telling stories and conveying the wits, but about stimulating the imagination of the audience through the proficient skill of depicting stories.

About 300 classic rakugo stories remain popular and are still performed. There are also many new stories created by contemporary rakugo artists according to traditional style and structure. Traditionally, rakugo has only been performed by men, but today there are many female rakugo artists. Recently, some artists perform rakugo in English in Japan. Most of them are native English speakers who came to Japan and fell in love with Japanese rakugo culture.

History of Rakugo


The Konjaku Monogatarishu and the Uji Shui Monogatari were collections of interesting stories. From the Heian period (794-1185) to the Kamakura period (1185-1333), Buddhist monks preached Buddhist doctrine by quoting stories from these two collections to attract the attention of their audiences. Sengoku Period (1467-1615) was a turbulent era when the daimyo (feudal lords) vied with each other for dominance. Otogishū (scholars, Buddhist monks, and tea masters who served the daimyo) were employed by powerful daimyo to teach them literature and to be conversation partners. Among them, Anrakuan Sakuden was considered to be the founder of rakugo because his Seisui Sho contains 1000 stories that laid the foundation for rakugo.

In the Edo period (1603-1867), rakugo became a pastime for commoners. In 1670, three storytellers built simple huts and told interesting stories to the audience for a price. They are considered to be the first generation of rakugoka. In the late 18th century, Utei Enba started a rakugo revival in Edo (now Tokyo). During this period, many rakugo stories were recorded to ensure that future generations could enjoy them as well.

Content of Rakugo


1. Genres

Rakugo can be divided into four genres: shibaibanashi (theatre story), ongyokubanashi (musical story), kaidanbanashi (ghost story), and ninjobanashi (sentimental talk). Shibaibanashi are comic stories with humor and punchlines to make the audience laugh. Ongyokubanashi draw lessons from other traditional arts and sing some songs during storytelling. Kaidanbanashi are stories satirizing the human world by making use of ghosts and monsters. The stage of Kaidanbanashi performance is darker to create a horror atmosphere. Ninjobanashi are stories reflecting human feelings, causing bitter laughter and tears.

2. Characters

Characters in rakugo stories are often stereotyped in order to be recognizable. Here are some common character types:

  • Stupid Characters: hasty, reckless, forgetful, clumsy
  • Smart Characters: reliable, short-tempered
  • Pretentious Characters: vain
  • Cunning Characters: foxy, witty
  • Authority Characters: powerful
  • Miserly Character: shrewd, stingy, mean
  • Seductive Character: provocative
  • Dishonest Character: liar, braggart
  • Non-human Characters: animals, ghosts, monsters

3. Ochi

Ochi refers to the end of a story. It often includes an interesting part or a punchline. Here are some types of ochi:

  • Niwaka Ochi: An ochi that ends with a simple pun.
  • Hyoshi Ochi: An ochi of repeated punchlines.
  • Sakasa Ochi: It’s an ending with a twist punchline.
  • Kangae Ochi: It is a punchline that is hard to understand but people will laugh after pondering for a while.
  • Mawari Ochi: A punchline that ends the story by returning to the beginning of the story.
  • Mitate Ochi: An ochi with unexpected punchlines.
  • Manuke Ochi: A stupid ochi.
  • Totan Ochi: An ochi that connects back to the rest of the story.
  • Buttsuke Ochi: An ending with a punch line of misunderstanding.
  • Shigusa Ochi: A punchline with a gesture.
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