Born in 1976 in Tokyo. Tatsuo is a standup comedian (manzai-shi) in a two-man pair named Kometsubu Shakyo. He is a part-time lecturer in Japanese language studies at Hitotsubashi University, Waseda University and Seijo University, etc. He also serves as curator for the Shibuya Rakugo program. After graduating from the First Department of Literature of Waseda University, he completed a doctorate course with a major in Japanese Language and Culture in the Literature Research Department of Waseda University Graduate School. He has served regularly as a radio personality with his reputation as an academic celebrity while also contributing articles as a columnist in numerous magazines. His books include Mottomo Hen na Ronbun (literally: The Strangest Thesis), Koreyakono (Kadokawa publishers), Gakko de ha Oshiete Kurenai – Kokugo Jiten no Asobikata (literally: Things They Don’t Teach at School – How to Play with the Japanese Dictionary), Hen na Ronbun (literally: A Strange Thesis) (both published by Kadokawa Bunko), Bokutachi no BLron (co-authored with Taichi Kasuga, published by Kawade Bunko), etc.
This is a regular program of Rakugo stage performances launched in 2014 at the EUROLIVE performance hall in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. Dedicated to a manifest of providing Rakugo performances that even new audiences previously unfamiliar with the art can enjoy, its programs are planned to make beginners feel comfortable watching and are scheduled for later in the day to make them more convenient to attend and with shorter duration for the stories to also minimize audience stress. The programs present mainly younger Futatsume (second rank) and Shinuchi (top rank) performers, with a total of ten performances a month, two a day over five days beginning from the second Friday of the month. The curator is Sankyu Tatsuo, whose diverse and well-planned programs include not only classic Rakugo stories but also more recently written Sosaku Rakugo stories and Makura-type pieces.
Intromission at the Shibuya Rakugo by Sankyu Tatsuo
Rakugo is a solo storytelling art with a tradition that goes back to the middle of the Edo Period (1603 – 1868). One characteristic trait is that the stories end with a comic punch line called the Ochi. Another characteristic is the solo storyteller perform two or more roles by turning alternately to the right and left (called kami and shimo) to signify the change in the character speaking in a conversation. As for the types of stories in this tradition, besides the primarily comic Kokkei-banashi (Otoshi-banashi) with a punch line, there are emotional Ninjo-banashi stories with a moving end, Kaidan-banashi stories about monsters or ghosts, Shibai-banashi, including ghost stories and stories with background music, etc. The styles are also divided into Edo Rakugo the developed in Edo (present day Tokyo) and Kamigata Rakugo that developed in Kyoto and Osaka. Edo Rakugo is performed in Edo kotoba (Japanese in the Edo dialect, while Kamigata Rakugo is performed in Kamigata kotoba (Kansai dialect). Edo Rakugo is usually performed indoors in entertainment halls, etc., and it developed with a repertory of stories that are intended to be spoken in a calm and measured style. Since Kamigata Rakugo developed as a street performance art in which performers told the stories to people gathered on the street, it was traditionally characterized by performances that used louder sounds and flashier costumes and gestures to attract attention. The stage set-up includes only a small, low book table called a Kendai and partition screen called a Tsuitate (Hiza-kakushi), and the small props used to keep a rhythm to the storytelling include small wooden clappers called Kobyoshi and a paper-covered folded fan called a Harisen.
*Encho Sanyutei (1839 – 1900)
Active from the late Edo Period into the Meiji Period, Encho is known as an artist who rejuvenated Rakugo. He was also an influential leader in the literati movement to unify the written and spoken language of Japan in the Meiji Period, making him one of the fathers of modern Japanese. Encho was popular for his Shibai-banashi, including ghost stories using stage sets and props and for his self-written and performed emotional Ninjo-banashi stories. Such was their popularity that transcriptions of his performances were published as sequels in newspapers.
*Koten (Classic) Rakugo
These are classic Rakugo stories written in the Edo and Meiji Periods, mostly by unknown authors. They are timeless classics with universal comic appeal based of subjects reflecting the lives of the people the events and the customs of Japan’s Edo Period.
*Shinsaku (Newly Written) Rakugo
Rakugo stories written since the Taisho Period (1912 – 1926). They are mostly stories written and performed by Rakugo artists, so their appeal lies in the individuality and creativity of the artist.
This Ninjo-banashi tells the story of a fish shop owner who loves his drink to excess. One day when his wife mistakenly wakes him up too early in the morning, he passes his time before the fish market opens strolling on the beach of Shiba and happens to find a wallet full of big money. Delighted at his good fortune the husband goes off on a spree and drinks and frolics until he falls asleep. When he wakes the next day, his wife tells him that finding the wallet had just been a dream …. It is a story about how a wife’s love helps the husband mend his ways and build a happy life. It is a favorite told in the Year End/New Year’s season.
*Zenza, Futatsume, Shinuchi
These are the ranks given to the Edo Rakugo performers. Zenza is the initial trainee apprentice rank, Futatsume is the second (middle) level the apprentices advance to and Shinuchi is the top rank where the performers are now able to take on apprentices of their own.
*The Rakugo Associations
Currently there are four associations in Tokyo, the Rakugo Association, the Rakugo Arts Association, the 5th Generation Enraku Ichimonkai association and the Rakugo Tatekawa Ryu association. In Osaka there is one association, the Kamigata Rakugo Association.
*Danshi Tatekawa (1936 – 2011)
After apprenticing under Kosan Yanagiya, advanced to the Shinuchi rank in 1963 and was given the artist name of Danshi Tatekawa. In 1983, he left the Rakugo Association and founded the Rakugo Tatekawa Ryu association. As one of the representative Rakugo artists of the Showa and Heisei eras, Danshi was known for the artistry of his performances of the classic Rakugo repertory, and for his unique ideas on current events and his perceptive theories about Rakugo and artistry that have continued to win a large following of fans even after his death.
The introductory talk given before the actual Rakugo storytelling begins. The performers talk about subjects close to them or timely events in the news to attract the interest of the audience.
performance of master Baseki Sumidagawa
(Live streaming on Jul 12, 2020)
Photo: Naomi Muto
performance of master Koihachi Takigawa
(Live streaming on Jul 14, 2020)
Photo: Naomi Muto
Traditionally, this story was performed separately in three parts (beginning / middle / end), but it is most often performed now as one story starting from the end of the middle part and continuing to the end part. The beginning part is called “Kowameshi no Jorokai” and the last part is also called “Ko ha Kasugai.” This is a story about the love between a man and wife, the husband, Kumagoro is a skilled carpenter but with a weakness for drink and carousing. And it also goes on to be a story of the cuteness of their precocious son.
*Unagi no Taiko
This Kokkei-Banashi (comic story) is about a professional banquet jester (Taiko) who is out looking for a rich man to bum a meal off. He sees a man in a nice kimono that he vaguely recognizes, and as he is trying to remember the gentleman’s name, it is actually the gentleman himself who invites him to the free lunch he had been hoping for. In an almost slapstick sequence of events, the gentleman finds in the end that he has fallen victim to the Taiko’s trickery, at considerable price.
|While serving as an instructor in Japanese linguistics and other subjects, Sankyu Tatsuo (sankyu being Japanese pronunciation of “thank you”) is also active as a researcher of comedy known in Japan as “o-warai.” In addition, he performs as a standup comedian (manzai-shi) in a two-man pair named Kometsubu Shakyo. In 2014, he was commissioned by the live-performance theater EUROLIVE in the Shibuya entertainment district of Tokyo to organize regular productions of Rakugo (a Japanese tradition of [primarily comic] storytelling) titled “Shibuya Rakugo” (commonly abbreviated as Shiburaku). With it, Tatsuo has won attention by using mostly young performers in well-planned programs to introduce the enjoyable appeal of traditional Rakugo while creating a new style of performances in the process. In this interview, Sankyu Tatsuo talks about his approach as curator in communicating the appeal of Rakugo as a performance art characterized by its positive “Acceptance of human nature.” He also talks about things like the his new for-pay streaming of programs to accommodate the new needs amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Interviewer: Fumiko Kawazoe
“The Acceptance of Human Nature” as the essence of Rakugo
Could we begin by asking you to explain what Rakugo is to people who have never seen it or to a foreigner audience?
Rakugo is an art that is very difficult to explain. For example, when we explain “sushi” to foreigners, we can use simple terms like “a type of Japanese food” or “its seafood,” because there are no unique cooking methods or cultural elements involved. In the same way, you can describe Rakugo as “story telling” or “Japanese traditional comedy,” but there are in fact a number of elements to Rakugo that can’t be covered by such words. I give classes for foreign students at Hitotsubashi University, and I find that among the arts I talk about such as Noh, Kyogen, Rakugo and Kabuki, the one that I have the most difficulty explaining is Rakugo. First of all, the performance style in which the performer is sitting the whole time and just delivering a continuous verbal performance is in itself a style that has too many unique characteristics, and the contents of the of the stories also ranges broadly from funny parts aimed at making the listeners laugh to really scary story parts. And I believe that in itself is an important reason why it is an art that so many people can enjoy.
It is certainly true that if you translated Rakugo simply as “Japanese traditional comedy,” it would limit it to what we call Kokkei-banashi (Rakugo classics characterized by comical content) and not include many of the other important elements of Rakugo such as Ninjo-banashi (non-comic stories about human nature and emotions).
Still, I’m sure that many people will be content to give it a textbook translation like Japanese traditional comedy (laughs). But, for example, it is hard to take the important Tori
performer who performs the final closing Rakugo story of a program that also includes many Ninjo-banashi
(ghost stories) with content that is far from comedy, and just dismiss that content as merely peripheral. (Rakugo artist) Danshi Tatekawa said that “Rakugo is an acceptance of human nature,” and I think that is a pretty good description of the essence of the art of Rakugo. Rakugo doesn’t say human nature is either bad or good. It is simply an art that makes us feel, “Yes, I know that feeling.” It gives us insights that make us accept feeling like, “Yes there are times when I want to be lazy,” or, “There are times like that when I want to drink,” or “There are feeling of jealousy like that,” or, “There are people like that that I feel like killing,” etc. Since glorifying the type of human nature or avarice that borders on the vulgar or extremism can only lead to spiritual bankruptcy, my view of Rakugo is an art that accepts human nature and offers stories to sooth and thus quiet the emotions of the populace at a point one step short of that kind of extremism. Comedy for the sake of laughter is not the aim, laughter is simply one element in the art.
One theory has it that the father of Rakugo was the Buddhist priest of the Azuchi Momoyama Period (1558 – 1600 CE) who preached Buddhist teachings in a humorous way. Entering the Edo Period (from 1603) professional Rakugo storytellers emerged in Kyoto, Osaka and Edo (Tokyo) who became the predecessors of the verbal art as we know it today.
There are several historical theories about how the art of Rakugo began, one of which is that of its Buddhist roots. Since there wasn’t much for the common people to find interest in when a priest just spoke seriously about Buddhist scripture, the theory is that they started to add humorous elements. It is said that the priests caught the people’s interest by speaking in a style like, “Once there was a person who got into such-and-such a situation….” In that sense, I think it was an effective kind of indirect educational style.
When you want to communicate something to someone, I think it is usual to face that person and speak to them while looking at their eyes, but the interesting thing about Rakugo is that the performer (speaker) doesn’t speak to the audience in that direct way. A single Rakugo artist creates a conversation as if between two persons, A and B—in a style of solo performance that might be compared with today’s video recordings shown on TV recreating a conversation between two parties. In some cases, three or four characters may be portrayed in a story performed by a single Rakugo artist, and the more characters there are appearing in a story the more complex the performance becomes for the artist. This Rakugo style is not one where the storyteller tries to grab the audience by the collar and say, “Now listen to me!” however, and although it may depend to some degree on the message to be conveyed in the story, it is never a style that tries to force the audience to listen. It is rather a style that presents the story in a way that it is left up to the listener make the discoveries.
It is indeed true that Rakugo is not performed in style like that of standup comedy where the comedian is talking directly to the audience. As for the performance style, while we Japanese are used to seeing it, it probably seems strange to foreigners that the Rakugo performer wears a kimono and sits the whole time on a floor cushion without moving from it and uses a fan and hand cloth (tenugui) to represent a number of props.
The present form of “su-banashi
” where the Rakugo performer sits on a floor cushion in an open space with nothing around it came into being as a result of an important figure in the history of Rakugo, namely Encho Sanyutei (1839 – 1900). Until then, Rakugo had elements of parody based on Kabuki, so often at times it would be staged with sets and props used. I can be said that the style that uses limited elements to create a limitless range of expressive content is one that is characteristic of Japanese traditional performance arts originating from Noh and Kyogen, and it is true of the Rakugo style of su-banashi
in which no lower body movement is used and set and prop elements are also not used and every possible use is made of empty spaces to allow the audience to use their imagination to fill in the spaces. The only two props used are the hand cloth (tenugui
) and the fan, and they are used to represent different things such as tobacco or chopsticks depending on the story.
As for the kimono worn by the performer, it is believed that in extremes periods some performers tried using Western clothes as costume, but that meant they could only perform Rakugo repertory works from the Meiji Period (late 19th to early 20th century) and after. And since styles of Western clothing changed with the times, the image they projected would become fixed. So, I believe the final conclusion was that the kimono was the best choice as a form of wear that carried the least preconceived image and thus offered the least disturbance in terms of leaving the audience free to imagine different character roles. Since the Kamigata Rakugo of Osaka historically developed as a form of street performance, there was a Rakugo culture of using musical instruments to attract crowds and brightly colored kimonos to catch the eyes of potential audience, but in the Edo Rakugo that developed in what is today the Tokyo area used only black kimonos. Unlike Osaka, Rakugo in Edo was performed in the closed spaces of storyteller theaters or higher-class banquet rooms where it was considered vulgar to wear gaudy colors to attract people’s attention. So, the Rakugo masters of old in Edo wore a formal black kimono [haori] bearing a family crest and avoided colorful kimonos.
Since in Rakugo a single performer does both male and female roles and a variety of different characters in a story, it is certainly beneficial to wear a kimono that doesn’t carry any set role image. This is similar to the su-odori (no costume) style of traditional Japanese dance (Nihon buyo), isn’t it? By the way, was there also a difference in the nature and the style of stories told between Osaka’s Kamigata Rakugo and Edo Rakugo?
Indeed, there was. It was in part a reflection of the different aesthetics of the two cities, namely the “Iki
” aesthetic of Edo and the “Sui
” aesthetic of Osaka’s Kamigata, and basically the preference in Kamigata Rakugo was for a style that is more showy and glorious and stories that are lively and bright. In contrast, most prominent in Edo was an aesthetic that idealized characters that lived cool-looking lives true to themselves. That difference was perhaps seen most clearly in the way people used their money. For example, the Edo Rakugo “Bunshichi Mottoi” tells the story of a man who meets a stranger who has lost all his money and is about to throw himself into a river to die. To keep the stranger from dying, he gives him a large sum of money he had gotten from selling one of his daughters to an establishment in the Yoshiwara pleasure district. In short, he is a man who lives a life not bound to money. But, since the citizens of the Kamigata city of Osaka are known as consummate business people, they cannot grasp the idea of giving a stranger such a large amount of money without collateral, let alone money that came from selling one’s own daughter, so this Rakugo story never took root in Osaka.
In the Rakugo repertory there are “classic Rakugo” stories that have been passed down from the Edo Period (1603 – 1868) and “newly composed Rakugo” that continue to be written until today.
I believe that the number of classic Rakugo stories that continue to be performed at high frequency on top stages is anywhere from 250 to 300 pieces. You might say that the way these classic Rakugo pieces are enjoyed is similar to the way that Shakespeare’s plays continue to be enjoyed by audiences. The audiences share a knowledge of the plots and its highlights to some degree, so naturally the measure of each new production becomes a question of how they perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream
or who will star in a new production of Hamlet
If we take the case of the Rakugo story “Shibahama” as an example, it has been said that when the Rakugo master Mikisuke Katsura III (1902 – 1961) performed this classic piece he used a very realistic description of the road that the main character walks to the sea, using vivid descriptions of how bright the morning light was and the feeling of and the feeling of washing his face with the cold water in winter. And in that way he filled the story with long lost scenery. In response to that, after seeing a contemporary Rakugo artist’s performance of the same piece, another person might say, “In so-and-so’s Shibahama, he gives a rather dry and straight description of the road to the sea, put I thought his presentation was also viable and interesting overall.” In other words, rather than the contents of the story itself, classic Rakugo pieces provide the opportunity for audiences to enjoy differences in the way they are performed and individual performer’s interpretation. Because we have the yardstick of classic pieces, we are able to compare the different skills of each performer.
How have those classic Rakugo pieces actually been passed down over the years to the present?
Before Rakugo performers can perform a classic Rakugo story on stage, they must go through what is known as the “Rite of receiving a story” from a master (being taught the story by word of mouth). When they “receive” a story in this way, it doesn’t have to be from their own direct master. If there is a different master of a story they want to learn, they can go to that master and ask if they can study under that master. Then, if accepted, they can take lessons in it that way. When they learn it sufficiently, they perform it in front of that master and if the master gives approval, the performer is then allowed to perform it on stage from that point. In the past, masters were very strict in their teaching and in maintaining the quality of the classics, but today there are some, but not many cases where performers are studying pieces by means of recorded performances, which is evidence that the traditional habits are becoming less strict. Still, I believe that the standard is still one of being taught by a master and receiving that master’s official approval before being able to perform. Another rule is that the masters must teach without receiving any direct compensation for their teaching. This is how the tradition of passing on the classic stories from one generation of performers to the next has been maintained to this day.
What is the situation regarding the traditions of so-called Shinsaku Rakugo (literally: newly composed Rakugo pieces) and Sosaku Rakugo (literally: creative Rakugo pieces)?
There are many Rakugo performers whose main purpose and desire is to make people laugh, but there are also others who want to use newly composed pieces to convey contemporary messages of the times. And there are also ones who want to express human actions and mentalities that aren’t found in the classic repertory. What’s more, there are people who want to write stories that anyone can perform, and others who, conversely, want pieces that they feel only they can perform, so I think that today there are as many standards for judging what makes a good Rakugo story as there are Rakugo performers. Since they all share the same small number of classic stories in the Rakugo repertory, some performers concentrate on performing the classics in new ways, while others compete to perform pieces that other performers don’t do in order to gain the unique aspect necessary to survive as a unique artist. In that sense, I think the number of Rakugo artists performing new pieces will be on the rise.
The system supporting Rakugo artists and the art as a business
Originally, becoming a Rakugo performer begins with the person choosing a master and becoming their apprentice. The system is different with Kamigata Rakugo (Osaka) and Edo Rokugo (Tokyo), and in the case of Tokyo, an aspiring performer must first train as a Zenza (opening act) trainee. Once the zenza trainees receive the approval of their master, they can become members of a professional Rakugo organization and have access to the backstage work area. From there the trainee advances upward through the positions of Futatsume (literally a “second” rank apprentice) and Shinuchi (top rank apprentice).
It depends on the organization an apprentice belongs to, but currently they have to wait about one year before being given access to the backstage in a Rakugo performance theater (yose
) and then they go through three or four years of training as a Zenza after receiving access to the backstage. In other words, it takes about four years before trainees can advance to the rank of a Futatsume apprentice. In the past, there was a time when apprentices had to pass a test before advancing to the top rank of Shinuchi apprentice, but since there are now so many people who want to become Rakugo artists, to prevent a backup of apprentices in the lower ranks, basically most apprentices are advanced systematically to the Shinuchi rank after about 13 to 15 years of training.
The home ground for Rakugo performers are the small theaters known as yose. In the Tenpo era (1830 – 1844) there were said to be some 700 yose theaters in the city of Edo (today’s Tokyo). In Tokyo today there are four theaters known as joseki (regular performance theaters where Rakugo is performed 365 days a year), namely the Shinjuku Suehiro-Tei, Suzumoto Engeijo, the Asakusa Engei Hall and the Ikebukuro Engeijo, and the National Engei Hall is also used for Rakugo performances. These regular performance theaters operate with two Rakugo sessions a day in the afternoon and evening, and the performers for the first second and third performances in each session are rotated three times a month. The daily programs begin with Zenza rank performers’ Rakugo storytelling and, with interim Mandan (comic chats) and Kijutsu (magic acts), it proceeds to Futatsume rank performers and finally Shinuchi rank performers’ Rakugo. This means that audiences can enjoy a full range of entertainment in the daily sessions.
A yose theater is like an entertainment convenience store, there is always something to see anytime you go, so in the days before radio and television they were a most accessible form of media. The Yose theaters were only in the cosmopolitan cities like Edo (Tokyo), Kyoto and Osaka, and when people from other regions of the country went there it was an opportunity to learn “standard” Japanese (as opposed to regional dialects), and it seems that, because the Rakugo performers spoke in the standard “Edo dialect,” people would go there to hear real Edo-dialect so they could learn to speak without [an embarrassing] regional accent.
At today’s joseki theaters, the program for each of the two daily sessions (afternoon and evening) is four hours long, with the time allotted for each performer being about 15 minutes. The final performance of each session is given by the appointed Tori
performer, whose performance is about 30 to 40 minutes. It is an honor to be designated as a Tori performer, and it is a status all performers strive for. Many beginners think that they have to sit through the entire (4 hr.) program, but actually you can enter and leave the theater any time you wish. And to ensure that there is something to enjoy whenever you enter, there are a variety of sub-acts and performances we call Iromono
worked in to the programs.
Rakugo is an art in which the audience’s imagination is always an important element, so it can be said that a “work” of Rakugo storytelling succeeds only as a joint creation by the storyteller and the audience. After each of the Rakugo storytellers finish their performance, their job is done, but the audience stays on for the next performance. So they get more tired than the performers. The purpose of the Iromono acts, I believe, is to give the audience a break to enjoy something else without having to think so much.
And by the way, Rakugo programs including a variety of contents and concepts are also being held today at general-use performance halls. The conventional Rakugo yose theater can be considered a place where audience can enjoy programs composed of a variety of different “side dishes,” which makes them places where people can find things that they like. If they find [Rakugo performers] who fit their taste there, so that after that they can pick the choice programs where their favorite performers are performing.
The different yose theaters are operated by producers who are well versed in Rakugo called Sekitei, and these producers from the four yose halls in Tokyo gather to chose Rakugo performers from the different organizations to fill their monthly programs with performers for the first ten days of the month, called Kamiseki, the second ten days, Nakaseki, and the last ten days of the month, Shimoseki.
One of the things I would like to mention about the role of the yose theaters is that they are organized to serve as a system for nurturing the Rakugo performers. They function as what might be called a long-term educational system that doesn’t simply cater to the existing audience but nurtures the Rakugo performers to gain the endurance to perform the necessary number of performances and polish their own individuality as performers by their 40s so that by their 50s and 60s they are the kinds of performers who can attract audiences with their own strength and appeal. The programs of the yose theaters have that kind of long-term investment for the performers’ future built into them.
Today there are said to be a total of more than 800 Rakugo performers in Western and Eastern Japan combined, which is the largest number since the Edo Period (17th to Mid-19th centuries). Why do you think the number has grown so large?
There are several reasons, but firstly I think it is simply that Rakugo doesn’t have a bad image today. When I started listening to Rakugo in the 1990s, its image in society at large was mainly one of an art enjoyed by the elderly, and I was mainly interested in watching the end of a traditional art. Considering the fact that there were so many other interesting forms of entertainment, people asked why I liked Rakugo, so I was constantly having to explain what I liked about it. But, entering the 2000s there were a number of movies and TV dramas with Rakugo artists as their main characters, and lately we have seen the appearance of a manga comic series titled “Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju.” So the media mix treating the subject of Rakugo has grown significantly. This has brought not only portrayals of Rakugo itself but also human dramas about the people/artists living in the Rakugo world, which has helped in shedding the negative image it once had an increasing recognition of the art of Rakugo in society at large, and that makes it more accessible to people gaining a new interest in it.
There have been several booms in Rakugo popularity since entering the 2000s. Compared to other traditional Japanese arts, it also appears that Rakugo is more adept at working in contemporary elements, isn’t it.
It is an art with both aesthetic and popular aspects, and I think it will continue to be an “art for the masses.” Despite being a traditional art, it also has the room for free interpretations that don’t hold strictly to the stories word-for-word. There are many performers who refer to Rakugo stories as “road directions,” but what is most important is the destination that it leads to, and in that sense it is little more than, “Go left at the first corner and then right at the second corner ….” So, it is the kind of art that has the freedom to say you are part of the traditional if you just follow those basic directions. I said at the beginning, I think Rakugo is an art that accepts human nature and offers stories to sooth the emotions of the populace, and I think that people’s emotions change with the times. When the people change, Rakugo changes too. Since Rakugo has a history of reacting with sensitivity to the changing times and evolving, I predict that it will probably survive the longest within our traditional arts.
There is a lot in the other traditional arts where things have to be done in a very specific way, isn’t there?
The more conservative they become, the more restricted the selection of performers becomes and the more stoic their practice becomes, which makes the range of freedom in expression narrower. There may be some traditions where that brings greater depth to the art, but Rakugo is not one of them. Performers have rules that they stick to, and some performer may say for example, “Take 15 steps and then turn to the right.” But, I think that Rakugo is a [traditional] art that has relatively more freedom for diversity than others.
It is a case where you have both some Rakugo performers who are very sensitive to contemporary-ness and others who hold more strictly to tradition, and in the end you have as many choices as you have performers?
Well, I would say that the path individual Rakugo performers choose depends on their career development and the way they view the market. I think that today’s Rakugo artists are influenced to some degree by the ideas of the master Danshi Tatekawa that “Rakugo is an art based on themes” and “Use the Makura
(introductory talk before entering the actual Rakugo story) to connect to the present,” and because of that I think that there has been a big change in Rakugo after Danshi as compared to what it was before him. For example, back in the 1990s, there were not many performers who made active use of the introductory Makura
talk to set a theme for their performance, and instead most of the performers used the same introduction they had learned from their master word-for-word. Even in the last few years, I think we have seen a change in the atmosphere of Rakugo that has made the idea that performers should exert their individuality more prominent, and that has brought greater diversity. I feel that it is as if the previous set of twelve colored pencils they used to color their performances has become a set of 48 colors.
The encounter with Rakugo and creation of “Shibuya Rakugo” aimed at new audience
What was the process that led to your first encounter with Rakugo in the first place?
In my first year at university I happened to join the university’s Rakugo Research Club, where I first encountered real live Rakugo. I had entered the Literature Department of Waseda University with the intention of studying the literature of Hyakken Uchida, and that led to get the idea that I might join the Rakugo Research Club in order to get a firsthand look at the Rakugo that appeared frequently in the writing of Hyakken and Soseki Natsume. And when I saw performances by masters Shincho Kokintei and Shinosuke Tatekawa, I thought they were so fascinating. I was just 18 and had never received any special education in that area, but nonetheless I understood and enjoyed it immediately and thought it was a great art that others of my generation could definitely enjoy. But when I told them that they should see it, they said, “What? Rakugo? And they looked at me with obvious discrimination and preconceptions, as if I was crazy (laughs). So I immediately stopped telling people that I liked Rakugo.
You are now active as the standup comedian (manzai-shi) Kometsubu Shakyo (literally Rice grain Sutra calligrapher). It also seems that you could have chosen to become Rakugo performer, so why did you choose standup comedy?
At the Rakugo Research Club I said, “It’s not as interesting to do only Rakugo, so let’s do Iromono, too.” So I started doing standup comedy with an upperclassman in the club who is now my comedy partner. And since it wouldn’t be interesting to perform just within the school, I wanted to test my abilities as a comedian by performing live in front of a general audience, and it happened that that at the time Asakusa Kid was auditioning young comedians to perform in their monthly live shows, so I applied. And kept telling me to back and perform again in the next month’s show, so I gradually became a performer before I had a chance to say I’m going to quit (laughs). If you become a professional Rakugo storyteller you can no longer watch the stage performances from the audience, and I didn’t really want to become one, as well as things like the fact that I couldn’t stand sitting seiza
(formal sitting on the calves) that long, so really, there were just too many reasons not to become a Rakugo pro. In the end I preferred to be part of the audience and able to watch the performances of others.
2014 saw the start of the regularly held Rakugo program “Shibuya Rakugo,” which targets new audiences unfamiliar with Rakugo with yourself serving as curator. This is part of the EUROLIVE program that started in 2014 when the small movie theater EUROSPACE that had led the mini-theater boom in the 1980s moved from Shibuya’s Sakuragaoka-cho to Maruyama-cho in 2006 and then started business under new management in 2014 as EUROLIVE.
My involvement in this program was the result of a request from the president of EUROSPACE, Kenzo Horikoshi, who is also a movie producer. In Shibuya, there used to be things like the small theater “jan-jan” that had a creative Rakugo program and the Toyoko Rakugo-kai, a group with a long tradition. Because he feared that Shibuya was no longer a place that created new culture and had become simply a place where people gathered [for entertainment], as a final project of his career, Horikoshi-san started the theater in 2014. Horikoshi-san is a great lover of Rakugo, so he started the program to hold Rakugo performances on a regular basis, but the problem was he was not knowledgeable about today’s younger Rakugo performers. Then someone told him about me, and I suddenly found myself in a position where I couldn’t say no to the offer (laughs).
To have a performer selecting other performers for a program is something that, traditionally, is not usually allowed. It will often lead to conflicts of interest, and in general it is a very troublesome job. So, with regard to the Shibuya Rakugo program my stance is that I don’t think of myself as a performer but strictly as a member of the organizing staff. I think there might have been a choice of commissioning the program’s management to an event organizer that is experience in organizing Rakugo performances, but that would lead to the possibility that they would only choose performers affiliated with one or two favored Rakugo organizations. I think Horikoshi-san is a man who knows well about the undesirable obligations that kind of a situation could result in. So, I think I was chosen as someone who could maintain a neutral position with regards to the selection of performers. On the other hand, I think this arrangement may make some Rakugo performers uneasy about how they deal with me. And, I haven’t told them anything specific about what I expect from them.
The word “curation” can be a difficult one to interpret, but I interpret it as a request for me to recommend Rakugo performers who are performing well today and being well received. As a general rule, the Shibuya Rakugo program presents 34 stage performances a month, and if I was the only one contacting the Rakugo performers for each performance, that would not be a system that enables the training of new staff members. At the beginning, the new staff members couldn’t even read the names of the Rakugo performers, so I began by providing the necessary education for everyone on the staff. And, because I feel it would be improper if I was not there to meet the performers I was recommending for the program, I always make a point to be there on hand as the person responsible for the program.
In the Shibuya Rakugo program you feature mainly younger Futatsume rank Rakugo performers and the target is audiences that are new to Rakugo. Was this program concept your idea?
The Rakugo market is always in a state of saturation and there are many programs aimed at the various market needs. What’s more, EUROLIVE is located in Maruyama-cho on the outskirts of the Shibuya district, so accessed is rather poor from the main Shibuya Station. Especially since Shibuya isn’t a place frequented by people like the traditional arts, and among the more conservative class there are even a good number of people who say that they want to go to Rakugo performances, but not in Shibuya. Considering these circumstances, there were not going be very substantial returns if we made efforts to attract existing Rakugo fans. So, I thought we would need to find a significant new factor that other Rakugo programs didn’t have.
That is what led me to focus on young Futatsume rank performers who have talent and perform well but are not yet able to perform often on the yose stages and are not famous enough yet to be invited to perform in the Rakugo performances held at other theaters. Also, there were no programs at the time that said they were specifically aimed at beginner audiences not experienced in watching Rakugo. As the number of Rakugo performers has increased, the art has become more widely known, there are an increasing number of potential Rakugo fans, but there hasn’t been a place where they could take that first step to get into it. It also goes without saying, however, that if you say you are a program for beginning audience existing Rakugo fans will not come at all, so all that remains is risk. Still,, I felt that all I had to do was to put together programs of the type I would have liked seeing when I was a college student. At first, I had a hard time, but now the students from the various university Rakugo research clubs come to our Shibuya Rakugo performances. So, I am glad that a meaningful new Rakugo program has taken root in this form.
Usually, a Rakugo artist’s stage performance is 15 minutes long, but in Shibuya Rakugo the performers are given 30 minutes, and it would seem that this is a big experience for young Rakugo performers. Is this motivated by the fact that it is Shibuya Rakugo and you want to do things differently, or by the fact that your audiences are new to Rakugo?
Well, I think the fact that our audience is basically beginners means that it is a testing ground for Rakugo to some degree. At first, looking at the performers in the dressing room and backstage, I got the impression that they were being very careful, even nervous, about the stories and material they chose and the way they spoke. For example, even a veteran like the master Kitahachi Yanagiya was reading the results of the questionnaires taken each time to find new meaning in what it meant to perform Rakugo in front of first-time audiences. Having a master with an attitude like that in the backstage area clearly communicated something important to the younger performers. In that sense, regardless of how many in the audience were actually beginners, I believe that the fact that this program was officially one for new audience clearly had a big influence on the stories and material the performers chose. I myself have told them, even if 99 people in the audience already know Rakugo, please place priority on the one person in the audience that is a first-timer. Even if it is a story that is well known to the experienced 99 people and will thus be one they compare with past performances, I tell the performers that I want them to choose an interesting story they are used to performing so that it definitely be enjoyable for that one beginner in the audience. Of course, even if they don’t follow my suggestion, I leave everything up to the performers themselves.
As a researcher, are there any new discoveries that Shibuya Rakugo has brought you, or things that have reconfirmed your existing beliefs?
I guess it would be two things. First, with Rakugo, “It is OK if you sleep through part of it,” and second, “You don’t have to know all of it.” (Laughs) “It is OK if you sleep” means that, although it is not OK to snore, in stage performance of the traditional arts it is OK to enter or leave at any time, and if you dose off, the stories are designed so that when you wake up you will immediately know what point in the story you are listening to. For example, if the story is “Ko Wakare,” you immediately know that what you are hearing is the scene where the son meets the father after some time and asks how he is living now. Or, in the story “Unagi no Taiko,” you immediately know it is the point where it has entered the Unagi (roasted eel) shop. You are able to log in quickly to point that the story has progressed to. So, if you know the traditional Rakugo stories to the point where you can enter or leave the theater at will during the performance it is also OK to nap during the performance.
Having said that, some people will say, “If you know it that well, why do you go to see it again?” In answer to that, master Shinosuke Tatekawa offered a clear answer, “Rakugo is a sport of the mind, and if you took tennis as an example, would anyone ask, “Why do you hit the ball back when it comes to you?” When the ball comes to you, you hit it back. That is the rule of the game. In the same way, Rakugo is like at walk that has a determined destination and you know the road and the process that you know and have to follow to reach it: “This is where you have to turn right,” or, “At the second corner there is a tobacco shop where you turn left.” So, Rakugo is a sport of the mind, like soccer or tennis or basketball are sports, but do you ever hear people asking the players of those sports, “Don’t you get tired of playing the game knowing that the rules are always the same?”
Next, what do you mean by, “You don’t have to know all of it”?
When people encounter something they don’t know, they naturally start studying about it, and when there are little things they don’t know they tend to blame themselves for the lack of knowledge. But you don’t have to know everything from the beginning. When you are thinking about what something means, I feel that in itself is a precious experience and time well spent. The time when you don’t know leave a stronger impression on you, and the Rakugo performer will tell the story in a way that you can still understand even if you don’t know everything that is happening. But when you study a story, you want to learn all the details of it. That isn’t really a very interesting way to enjoy a story, it is more interesting if at first you just have a vague recollection that there was a story like that, and then a year or so later you encounter it again and say, “Yes, I think I heard this story a year ago,” as you listen to it again. And then, by about the third year since the first encounter you say, “Yes, I know this story. But the performer who told it last time was more interesting. Why is it?” I think that in this way you enjoy the stories changes. So, if you learn a story to thoroughly from the beginning you won’t be able to enjoy it as long.
The traditional arts exist in the context of the Japan’s four seasons, spring summer autumn and winter, and they are made in a way that you can relax and enjoy them all year round and for your whole life. I have come to believe strongly that there is not a single stage (story) that is superfluous, they all have a valuable place in the whole.
In response to the coronavirus (COVIC-19) pandemic, Japan issued a state of emergency declaration on April 7th, and it wasn’t until May 25th the emergency declaration was lifted. In Tokyo, the Rakugo stage performances were cancelled from the middle of the third (Shimoseki) period of March, and it wasn’t until the first (Kamiseki) period of June that performances were finally begun again. Also, in the third period of March the performances celebrating the advancement of new Shinuchi apprentices were held, so this break must have been hard on everyone. Under these circumstances, the Rakugo performers have turned to uploading live performances on media like YouTube more than ever before, and the Suzumoto Engeijo theater has established its Suzumoto Engeijo Channel in June and begun free broadcasts of performances on the Internet. And Shibuya Rakugo cancelled its performances due to the COVID-19 pandemic for a period, and since beginning them again you have both reduced the audience size for your live performances and begun the new challenge of presenting for-pay live-streaming broadcasts of performances on the Internet.
We had been holding performances as usual through the second week of March, but from about the third week it was beginning to look like things [the pandemic] were getting serious and it wouldn’t be good for us to continue [live stage] performances as usual. When the state of emergency was declared, we decided to cancel the programs we had already scheduled for April. Then we did just one no-audience program and broadcast it for pay on the Internet. It was live stage performances (without audience) by master Bunzo Tachibanaya, master Kosen Yanagiya and master Sentatsu Irifunetei and also the “San K Shinbunsha” Rakugo with a live band performance. This was our first live streaming broadcast, so we had to get the necessary online broadcast environment in place and find out how to apply for music broadcast rights for a live performance and video streaming that didn’t include Karaoke, and check things like how long it takes to get consent, etc. We also looked into what site would be best for broadcasting and what ticket sales site would be good. Since Vimeo had the best video reproduction definition and audio quality, we decided to try it this time. Even though it was for pay, we got more viewers that at our normal stage performances. YouTube is free and the infrastructure is convenient to use, but it is hard to get any financial returns from it. We also thought that it would be hard to concentrate the billing on Rakugo with it. With Shibuya Rakugo, rather than advertising ourselves, our focus is on providing Rakugo performances for the audience that wants them an also on providing opportunities for the Rakugo artists to perform on stage in the safest way possible.
In May all of the Shibuya Rakugo programs were conducted without audiences, but you presented them all online with for-pay steaming.
We began by contacting all of the performers to find out if they could travel around the city. And in fact, some of them did say that it would be hard for them to come to Shibuya to perform because they lived far from the city center, or that they couldn’t come out to perform because they were living with elderly parents who would then be put in danger [of infection]. For those who said they wanted to come to perform but didn’t have the means, we asked if we could send a car to pick them up. In those ways we consulted with each and every one of them.
When we broadcast all of the performances online in May, we found that there were issues on both the our sending side and the audience’s receiving side in terms of lack of or problems with the Internet environments. So we set up a call service to answer the issues, and from the outset the phone was ringing constantly with questions about how to connect to the Internet or what the URL was, and even inquiries from people who didn’t know how to receive email, etc. It became like a company’s Customer Service center, and we had trouble getting sufficient staff to work the phone lines, and it was mentally a very draining operation. The amount of Internet access peaked between 6:00 and 7:00 in the evening, and we found out that in order to provide online streaming of broadcasts in those hours would require us to undertake some large-scale improvements in our own internet environment. So there was a good amount of loss during that month, but we also gained a lot of knowledge about what was needed.
In June, Japan’s state of emergency was lifted, so you resumed live stage performances with reduced audience number [to maintain social distance] and at the same time continued online broadcasting it what was effectively a hybrid system.
We built on the hard lessons we had learned in May, and two days before the start of performances we were able to get large-scale overhaul of our Internet environment that we had found to be necessary done in time, so we had solved the problems that existed on our broadcasting side. For just one day we did a free broadcast on YouTube, and after that we began our for-pay online streaming of performances. We made our archive of performances available for just 24 hours. The archive material was the same as our recorded broadcasts or what people can view on DVD. Since I believe that the real appeal of Rakugo is the shared time that audiences get at live performances, I personally am one who is reluctant about making a Rakugo archive available to access over a long period of time.
By June, the world was overflowing with Internet broadcasts. As a result, free broadcasts were getting more views than for-pay broadcasts. But if you do free streaming, next you will be asked to make the archive free too. If you do as the customers ask like that, it would eventually lead them to say they want to leave all the performances free all the time. If that happens then you can’t give anything back to the performers and you eventually won’t be able to even pay them for their performances. Free broadcasts would enable a very large number of people to see the Rakugo performances and praise them, and if they are archived you would get a lot of satisfaction for a while. That may be OK for individual performers, but if everyone did it that would hurt the industry as a whole, so I want to stick to for-pay distribution. I am completely in favor of free distribution of performances by iconic figures in the industry like master Ichinosuke Shunputei, master Kikunojo Kokintei and [Kodanshi] Hakuzan Kanda, or iconic theaters like the Suzumoto Engeijou, but I didn’t think it is good for a place like ours (Shibuya Rakugo) to do it. So, given the situation, I thought about what to do. The performances celebrating the advancement of apprentices scheduled for this spring all had to be cancelled. So, amidst this [coronavirus] confusion, a “Program for Displaying the New Faces” was held in June to bring all the newly advanced apprentices together in one place.
During the period of the COVID-19 state of emergency shut-down, we saw a lot of streaming online broadcasts [of non-Rakugo theater works] from various theaters, but many of them included shots where the actors were moving around or the audience was moving as it liked, so the final edited videos were disappointing compared to the live stages. Compared to those, it seems that Rakugo, with the performer sitting in one spot on the stage in front of an audience whose positions are also relatively fixed, is actually quite compatible to the streaming online media when taken from on fixed camera.
Yes, it is. This is really something that I think we should be grateful to Encho (the father of the present seated Rakugo stage format) for styling Rakugo as an art in which, by limiting the movement of the lower body and leaving the stage bare, it is left up to the audience’s imagination to fill in the setting and the world of the characters of the story. The Rakugo performer uses the device of facing left and then switching to face the right when playing the roles of two different characters in a story, but if the camera cut was shifted for each change in character lines like that, the viewer would get image dizzy from the constant switches. Also, having a set behind the Rakugo performer would only be unnecessary visual distraction from the standpoint of encouraging the viewers to use their imagination [to fill in the story setting in their minds]. So, for Internet broadcasts of Rakugo, it helps the storytelling to use a single fixed camera position and a black background for the stage. From June, we began admitting audience to the performances again, so the online viewers are now able to see video images including the actual audience and the performer in the usual storytelling atmosphere. In that sense, I believe this kind of hybrid approach [limited audience stage performance and for-pay online streaming broadcasts] is a viable answer that we can continue to use if this pandemic-induced limited audience] situation should continue for another year or even two.
Considering the issue of translation into foreign languages, it appears that this online broadcasting can be a useful medium for getting overseas audiences to know about Rakugo [in translation with subtitles].
I believe that Rakugo is an art that offers a rich abundance of expressive methods and devices from the standpoint of foreign audiences. For example, some will ask, “For a show that people pay to see, why does the performer just sit in the same place the whole time?” (Laughs) Or, There are also many stories in the Rakugo repertory for which the lessons to be learned are not immediately obvious. And there are some stories where a bunch of people who can’t read or write are gathered and asking, “How do you read this?” and that goes on for the whole 15 minutes. (Laughs) Because of these kinds of mysterious originalities in Rakugo, I believe it is an art that foreign audiences can find unique and enjoyable.