English-language performances give Japan’s traditional art of comic story-telling an international twist – ideal for rakugo novices!
A simple stage without scenery. A single, kneeling, kimono-clad performer holds nothing but a fan and a handkerchief. Entire dialogues, scenarios and comical antics are brought to life through subtle, considered gestures, turns of the head and carefully chosen words, so that the audience feels transported directly into the story. You feel closer to the traditional tales and legends of Japan…
…even if you don’t understand Japanese!
Though still fairly unknown outside Japan, global appreciation of rakugo, the traditional Japanese art of comic storytelling, has been stimulated by rakugoka such as the late-twentieth-century performer Shijaku Katsura II, who helped to bring this dramatic art international recognition by giving performances in English outside Japan. However, it’s quite possible to find English rakugo performances in Japan, too – look no further than Kansai.
An Osaka-based group known as ‘Eiraku-tei’ (that’s English Rakugo Stage) give fully English-language rakugo performances several times per year. Membership of this group is open to anyone who wants to learn to perform rakugo in English.
Life in Kansai talks to the group’s representative, Kazuya Yuasa (stage name ‘Eiraku-tei MT’), about rakugo past and present, the challenges of performing in English, and more.
What do you enjoy most about performing rakugo? The moment when all the audience start laughing. Their laughter makes me more confident, and it helps me build a good rapport with them so that I tell the story better. I’m also happy if I manage to give a good performance, and use facial expressions I have never used in past shows and practices.
Do you get stage fright? If so, how do you deal with it? I worry whether I’m giving a good rakugo performance. I find it difficult to create the right atmosphere, especially since in rakugo performers appear on stage alone, and the atmosphere changes according to each theatre and audience. Because of this, I think it is important to be calm and observe the audience’s reactions before starting my performance. And it is also important to have phrases ready that are certain to make the audience laugh.
Which are your favourite rakugo stories? There is ‘classical rakugo’ and ‘creative rakugo’. I prefer the classical kind because I think that performing old stories fits better with the atmosphere of rakugo. Another important reason is that through performing ‘classical rakugo’ we can express past aspects of Japanese daily life and learn about it ourselves.
What role do you think rakugo has in modern Japanese society, compared with in the past?
It is said that rakugo began in order to help people understand the preachings of Buddhist priests. Ever since then, rakugo has attracted widespread popularity as a traditional Japanese performing art. In Japan, there are many different styles of comedy in addition to rakugo, but not many that teach the audience about Japanese culture and lifestyle the way rakugo does. It’s a completely unique form of entertainment and is closely intertwined with Japanese culture and life.
What are the challenges of using English for rakugo compared with Japanese? Because I am Japanese, it is not as easy to memorize English phrases and speak English as fluently as Japanese. There are many performers of rakugo in Japanese, so you need a lot of experience to perform. However, there are fewer English-language performers, so it’s easier to find opportunities to get up on stage.
What is your advice to international residents or visitors to Japan viewing rakugo for the first time (either in English or Japanese)? Many people seem to have the idea that rakugo is difficult to understand because it focuses on Japan’s past, but in fact, this is not the case. Of course, it may depict situations that are different from modern life and it may be difficult to understand in parts, but even understanding the stories’ outlines will allow you to enjoy it. Even if there are cultural differences, anybody can basically understand and enjoy rakugo. If you’re not confident with Japanese, I recommend seeing rakugo in English first, but I also recommend seeing it in Japanese and enjoying the expressive facial signals and movement.
Japan’s ‘sit-down’ comedy
The early roots of rakugo go back over a thousand years, but the Edo period (1603–1687) saw rakugo start to blossom, with performance groups forming throughout Japan, and printed texts becoming available. Osaka has its own version of rakugo known as kamigata rakugo, performed in dialect.
The term rakugo means ‘falling words’, which refers to the ochi, a punchline or narrative flourish that often involves wordplay and a gesture. The ochi comes at the end of the rakugo story and serves as a conclusion, bringing the audience back to reality.
The stories you hear at a rakugo performance feature the Japan of everyday folk, the mundane yet entertaining conversations of family life, and often draw on myths. What they have in common is a humour, sometimes laugh-out-loud, sometimes wryly observational, that provides shrewd insights into Japanese culture and relationships.
Eiraku-tei performances in Osaka
Location: Semba-Yose, South Hallway, B2, Semba Center Bldg 2. 2 minutes’ walk from Sakaisuji-Honmachi Subway Station on the Sakaisuji or Chuo lines.
Date and time:
2.30pm–5pm (informal performance)
2.30pm–5pm (official performance)
Further info: ameblo.jp/eirakutei-eigorakugo
By Life in Kansai