Rakugo (落語) are short humorous, often satirical stories told by professional storytellers (落語家 rakugoka), often adopted by popular writers. Even today, descendants of rakugoka families still perform in a handful of specialised theatres in large cities.

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The lone performers sit in seiza (正座, lit. “proper sitting”) position on the stage (高座 kōza), holding a paper fan (扇子 sensu) and a small cloth (手拭 tenugui). The classical repertoire is nowadays quite reduced and often transformed. Performers improvise according to the news of the day, criticising society, politics and people in high places. In the era of silent movies, rakugoka called benshi (弁士) were employed to narrate the movie being shown. The most famous rakugoka was Enchō San-yūtei (三遊亭圓朝/円朝, 1838-1900) whose notable works include Japanese horror classics.

Rakugo were sometimes called tsujibanashi (辻噺, “stories of the crossroads”, in particular war stories, or lectures told by someone near a road or temple while begging for money), zashikibanashi (座敷噺, “stories of the anterooms”), otoshibanashi (落し噺, “funny stories”), and in the area of Ōsaka and Kyōto karukuchibanashi (軽口噺, “stories of great talkers”). Other subgenres include shibaibanashi (芝居噺, theatre discourses), ongyokubanashi (音曲噺, musical discourses), the kaidanbanashi (怪談噺, ghost discourses), and ninjōbanashi (人情噺, sentimental discourses).

Theatres used for rakugo are called yose (寄席, vaudeville). They used to be numerous once (with over 392 in Edo at the end of the Tokugawa shogunate), but very few remain.

References:

  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005
  • Cover image: Rakugoka Karoku Yanagiya (柳家花緑師匠)