Rakugo entertainers rely on their narrative and dramatic skills rather than gimmicks, scenery and props.
Some 300 years before comedians and storytellers of the 20th century developed the onstage presentation style known as standup, their Japanese counterparts perfected their own comedic style – only they did it while sitting down.
This comedic style known as Rakugo (literally, “fallen words”) endures today in the venues of Tokyo and around the world. Seattle residents will have a chance to experience Rakugo storytelling firsthand on Nov. 1-2, when noted Rakugo storyteller Katsura Sunshine performs at the University of Washington.
Like practitioners of today’s observational standup, Rakugo entertainers rely on their narrative and dramatic skills rather than gimmicks, scenery and props. Dressed in a kimono and seated in the center of an audience, the Rakugo storyteller (or Rakugoka) acts out the dialogue of multiple characters over different scenes. The Rakugoka’s role is to inspire the imagination of the audience with the techniques and skills used to deliver the story. The only props permitted are a fan and hand towel.
Traditionally drawing on farce or sentimental subjects, a Rakugo performance ends with a punch line known as the ochi, a verbal stunt involving a disruption or sudden change in the performer’s narrative delivery. (Think of an abrupt halt, or “verbal double-take,” to understand one Rakugo technique.)
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Similar storytelling styles were used by 10th century Buddhist monks to make their sermons more interesting, but Rakugo developed as a comedy form during Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868), an era known for its emerging merchant class, social change and economic growth as well as its aesthetic focus on art and natural beauty.
There are many variations on Rakugo, with differing styles developing in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. Its influence can be seen on television variety programs as well as manga and anime. Recently Japan has seen the rise of English-language Rakugo performers.
One of them, Katsura Sunshine, discovered the style while studying traditional Japanese theater in 1999, and now performs all around the world.
“I was fascinated,” he said. “So fascinated I did a traditional three-year apprenticeship … and became a Rakugo comic storyteller myself.”
Sunshine, as he prefers to be called, will bring his experience to the University of Washington’s Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center Theatre on Nov. 1-2 for a presentation on traditional woodblock prints that flourished during the Edo period during the emergence of Rakugo.
What better way to present an appreciation of Edo period art than with Rakugo?
“Rakugo has maintained its earliest traditions and continues to evolve even today so that it is enjoyed by people of all walks of life and all ages,” Sunshine said, adding that his presentations in Seattle will be “equal parts entertainment, history and art appreciation in one humorous cultural package.”
NHK WORLD TV, Japan’s all English-language channel, presents “Dive into UKIYO-E,” exploring the Spaulding Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, presented in Rakugo-style storytelling by Katsura Sunshine.