[Anime Culture Monday] What is Rakugo? [Definition, Meaning]

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Let’s be fair, my dear otakus. If not for a few recent anime shows, most of us would never hear the word “rakugo”. Unlike other forms of traditional japanese entertainment like kabuki or more familiar characters like the geisha, rakugo is not easily recognized. And that is just the appearance part.

Some years ago, I was invited to a Rakugo performance without even knowing what it was about. Opportunities to experience Japanese culture through real masters of the arts are not widely available in my home country. Besides that, being a fan of everything Japanese, I didn’t hesitate to go. I must admit it surprised me to find a bunch of mature and old Japanese in the small performance hall, all dressed in their best clothes. I would find later that people tend to dress up when they go to theatrical performances in Japan. When we sat down, everything we saw in front of us was an elevated platform with a female rakugoka (Rakugo performer) sitting there, dressed in a plain kimono. In those days my Japanese was quite poor, but my, what a way to pass an afternoon! Somehow, the rakugoka was able to convey humor through her stories, gestures and very simple parafernalia: a fan and a white handkerchief.

That, my dear otakus, is rakugo. Nowadays, there are several rakugokas (mostly men) trying to spread this art throughout the world. This is not easy…

Brief story of Rakugo

The most traditional Rakugo tales date back from the Edo period (1603-1868), the time of Geishas and the newborn Tokyo capital. Nevertheless, its roots can be found in Buddhist sermons, which were parodied by the first rakugokas on the streets. That is pretty much like making fun of the Bible :p Anyway, the funny stories grew so much in popularity that rakugokas were invited by rich families to entertain their guests.

Performances in low ranked theatres similar to baudevilles and what is called “carpas” in Latin America followed. Thus, rakugokas worked on the same places where magicians, minstrels and others did. Perhaps if you saw the Rurouni Kenshin Kyoto Inferno movie, you will remember a scene where Kenshin and his friends are in such a theater. Rakugo still makes people laugh and shines at its best with small audiences.

We could expect that the most successful comedic stories were recorded to be preserved for future generations. Rakugo that made it to the theaters was kept in written form, but most of the tradition is oral, passed down from master to apprentice. Nevertheless, creativity is important here, so the apprentice adds their own personal style to the performance. As for conventions, the stories are composed by three parts: makura (prelude), hondai (main story) and ochi (punch line). Performances can be up to one hour and a half, although rakugokas train for years to be able to adapt the story length on the spot. Nowadays, Rakugo adapts current issues and is an exercise of the imagination and improvisation of the human mind. But let’s see some examples of this art in the anime realm...


Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu

  • Episodes: 13
  • Aired: Jan 9 to Apr 2, 2016

Haruko Kumota created a manga that became well recognized in Japan with several prizes. It became an OVA before going fully into anime, with a second season premiering in January 2017. Anyway, this is the most Rakugo infused anime we can recommend you to find out what is this art about. The story deals with Yotarou, a yakuza criminal who is confined in jail. However, when he listens the rakugoka Yakumo, Yotarou conceives the dream of becoming a rakugoka himself. Thus, when he goes out of prision, Yotarou begs Yakumo to take him as apprentice.

Through Yotarou’s eyes, we will experience the intense training and daily life of other aspirants to rakugokas. And yes, we have women among the cast 🙂 What is interesting about Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shi is that we can transfer the experiences of the characters to other times without much difficulty. The atmosphere is relaxed, irreverent and full of humor. Nevertheless, we also get a glimpse of how difficult it is to train on the subtle art of making people laugh while the performers seek to develop a personal style.


Joshiraku

  • Episodes: 13
  • Aired: Jul 6 to Sep 28, 2012

Joshiraku is an interesting anime proposal that does not pretend to do anything else but make you laugh. The original manga was written by Kouji Kumeta, who is an expert on comedy, and illustrated by Yasu. The story is simple and straightforward: Five girls in typical rakugoka plain kimonos get together in circle to talk. They end up entangling their stories in an ingenious and humorous way… and that’s it! Rakugo in form of modern anime.

Each girl has a distinct personality, a pun-like name and performing style, which can help us distinguish some of the most representative rakugoka ways. Marii has a harsh voice and a male like Edo accent, which is perfect for male dialogs. Kigurumi (like the plush full body costumes) is the most childish, who tends to use double sided and manipulative words. Bohatei tends to change the conversation subjects and thus can be considered the leader of the girls. Gankyou goes from being collected and calm to violent, creating tension in the dialogue. And finally, Kukuru represents all that is negative, unlucky and tragic (because sometimes even bad things make us laugh, I guess ^^U).


Other examples of Rakugo in the anime realm.

An anime series does not have to be purely about rakugo to use it ingeniously in the plot. Take for example Rakugo Tennyo Oyui, which is a fantasy and historical anime. The protagonist girls travel back to the time of Edo and use their “Rakugo powers” to help people and inspire them. Also, one of the main leads of Aquarion Logos belonged to a family of rakugokas. His abilities enhanced his powers in battle, as all the main characters in Aquarion Logos had a particular artistic ability. Thus, when they combined their abilities, they were much more powerful.

It is interesting to note how the Japanese manifest their respect and love for traditional forms of art even on their modern entertainment. The anime Hyouge Mono presents us the tea ceremony, while Miss Hokusai focuses on ukiyo-e. We also get a grip of the Japanese sense of competition in Chihayafuru (karuta) and 3-gatsu no Lion (shogi), where constant training and discipline prove us how difficult is the mastery of such ancestral games. However, for all its hard work, art also can be highly rewarding and fun. That is precisely what Rakugo is about, so it is a nice touch to include it in anime.


Final thoughts

Perhaps the main strong point of Rakugo is that it is capable to communicate deeply to the human core. We make mistakes, we are flawed and the (potentially) comic outcomes tend to be universal. That is why despite being an old art, it still is enjoyed mainly by adults. It is not surprising that anime has picked it up and reinterpret it to adjust to the young now.

So, what are your opinions on Rakugo? Do you think it will resist the test of time and become more popular outside Japan? Have you watched any anime with rakugo on it? We would love to hear about your impressions. See you soon 🙂

Sakura_Moonprincess

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Author: Sakura_Moonprincess

Writing about anime by Moonlight. Swift as a coursing river, with all the force of a great typhoon, with all the strength of a raging fire, mysterious as the dark side of the Moon.

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