Rakugo theatre is introduced to Belgraders and CorD magazine’s readers by artist Sanyutei Rakumaro, who is very dedicated to spreading this form of Japanese art worldwide.
What’s rakugo? It is best illustrated by saying that rakugo resembles a sitcom in which one person plays all the roles, although the show is not a series of jokes, rather a single story. Rakugo is a traditional Japanese art of comedic stories in which rakugo is the storyteller, dressed in traditional Japanese costume, sitting in front of the audience and telling a story through dialogue, adapting voices and mimicking the way characters in the story speak.
Sanyutei Rakumaro presented rakugo theatre to the Belgrade public at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts and the Faculty of Philology. He was dressed in a Japanese kimono, spoke without moving from the cushions where he was sitting in a traditional way, and as for equipment he only had a fan and a scarf. That’s enough in terms of props for this play, he explained, because fans and scarves can be converted into many other things and, above all, because the story is the basic element of the show.
With the example of a dozen short stories, Rakumaro evoked the humour and character of rakugo art. Judging by the applause and laughter during his narration, the audience most enjoyed the story about fears, which Rakumaro said are among the most popular. In that story, a group of friends talk about their fears: one is so terrified of snakes that he thinks every stick is a snake, while another is afraid of horses, especially their big heads, a third fears spiders, a fourth is scared of ants because he has the impression that they gossip about him… Only one of them said nothing. They asked him if he is not afraid of anything. He said – no, I’m not afraid of anything, and began ridiculing them. A snake can be cooked and eaten, the horse too, and you can use ants instead of pepper – he said. His friends did not like his criticism. And, not believing his claim that he is really not afraid of anything, they insisted that he admit his fear. And he said – Manjū (rice cake). Everyone wondered how anyone could be afraid of Manjū, as Manjū is a wonderful cake. However, he claimed this is not true. When he fell asleep, his friends came up with a way of teasing him. They broke up a pile of Manjū cake and placed it beside his bed, with the intent of frightening him. And so it was: he was afraid, and his friends left the room, pleased that he had managed to take their revenge. However, they soon heard munching. They returned and they had a lot to see: their friend was enjoying eating the cakes. They realised they had been deceived, and asked – tell us what you are really afraid of? He answered them: of good tea.
The appearance of the rakugo artist in front of the audience is announced by the music of a band. The artist pays homage to the audience, and sits on a pillow. On stage there is no set design. A rakugo story always implies dialogue between two or more persons, which is determined by the change of tone of voice, facial expressions and gestures, and mild changes in the angle of the head. The story has three parts: makura – an introduction, hondai – the main part of the story, and Ochi – the outcome, the end of the story, which must surprise the audience and therefore cannot be predictable. Within this outcome is the biggest comic part of the story. A rakugo artist must be able to apply the information gained from the reaction of the audience, and must adjust his interpretation to their mood. The atmosphere and success of the performance depends on this skill of his.
Rakugo began in the Edo period, meaning between 1603 and 1867, although it is believed to have been started much earlier by Buddhist monks, with the intention of parodying allegorical stories and making their sermons interesting
Experts consider that the specificity of rakugo performances is in their adaptability to the situation and the space. However, regardless of this universality, the public has never ranked rakugo as a high art, nor has the state considered that those who preserve and relay this traditional art should be rewarded.
What did the roots of rakugo theatre look like?
– Rakugo began in the Edo period, meaning between 1603 and 1867, although it is believed to have been started much earlier by Buddhist monks, with the intention of parodying allegorical stories and making their sermons interesting. The rakugo tradition was begun by people who entertained passers-by on the street or restaurant guests by spontaneously starting to tell funny stories in order to attract the attention of all others. Over time, these people became professionals and an entrance fee was paid to listen to their stories, and then they transferred their skills to others. Thus rakugo has been passed down from generation to generation to this day.
Where is rakugo performed in Japan?
– It can be any place where you can place your pillow and where there are people who want to listen to you. Generally, rakugo is now performed in the theatre. In rakugo theatre numerous artists perform: when one has told his story, the next performs. Every performance is announced by a musical arrangement and each artist has their own music that is performed live as they recount their story. Rakugo theatre has no programme, because each master looks at the audience when coming on the stage and then decides which story to tell them. The people who greet the audience at the entrance can be seen by everyone, so if you notice that, for example, someone has a crutch, then they notify the masters how that night no one should tell any story about diseases. Each story lasts about twenty minutes, but it all depends on the audience.
How does one become a rakugo master?
– It takes 15 years to become a rakugo master. When someone first decides they want to deal with rakugo, they must choose a master. As you learn, you live with the master and with other students. For the first few years you mainly observe the daily life of the master and the students who came before you, during that time you do not learn rakugo, but rather playing musical instruments. Everyone must know how to play the drums, while they can choose other instruments. After that you learn rakugo. In Japan, rakugo is taught in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. It can also be learned by woman, but given that rakugo stories are based on the male principle, it is difficult for them to imitate the masculine tone of voice. A man can easily imitate a woman. As far as I know, among all rakugo artists less than ten per cent are women.
It takes 15 years to become a rakugo master. When someone first decides they want to deal with rakugo, they must choose a master. As you learn, you live with the master and with other students
How are rakugo stories learned?
– They are learned through listening. During learning, the master tells the story to the pupil three times. The student is not allowed to write anything down; they must just listen. In this way we learn about the specific type of conversing, how to create characters, how to use language, and to reveal the essence of the story. Precise rules exist. One of the basic ones concerns the way the dialogue is conducted, how the artist – meaning one man – presents two characters talking, such that while speaking they turn their face to the right side to represent one character, and then turn to the left in order to represent the other character. All of this is learned merely by listening to how the master speaks. So, you only have three chances to notice, understand and remember everything. The fourth time the story is told to the master by the student. The master points out their mistakes and that’s all. He then moves on to the next story, and the next…
What are their themes and characters?
– Every rakugo story is special. They mention the same names, typically Japanese, with each name determining the character of the man and not referring to a specific figure. We do not denounce anyone, rather we just talk about some funny life phenomena. The most common theme of the story is knowledge; they give lessons about how to live – for example, there are plenty of stories about the way to discover wealth in poverty, or how a person behaves in certain situations, towards other generations … Rakugo stories teach their audience about that which is not taught in school.
Are these stories written down or can they be devised by the artist?
– Rakugo stories are learned and transmitted from generation to generation. There is no writer of rakugo stories. This is a folk art. The artist changes them as they tell them, and thus over the eons they have modernised. There are a few stories that are not Japanese, but which have been adapted to our culture. There are some stories that have been taken from Buddhist monks and then adapted to the new era. My show 90 per cent consists of what I have learned, while the rest is adjusted to those who are listening to me.
What attracted you to the rakugo theatre? Is this a call that is inherited?
– No, in my family no one has ever learned rakugo. I am the first and only. I heard a recording from a collection of rakugo stories and immediately felt that I would do that in life. From an early age I was attracted to the tradition. And here, now, during my stay in Belgrade, I prefer the old part of the city to the new part. My parents were against my decision to study rakugo, they even threw me out of the house because of it, so it was not hard to have for me to move in with the master. Once upon a time learning began in childhood, but now it only starts after students have finished their college studies. This means that you become a master of rakugo when you turn 40 years old. Wisdom is needed for rakugo.
Given the popularity of film and television, is rakugo still popular in Japan today?
– Until World War II rakugo was not known. It was only performed for a narrow circle of people in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. However, when television appeared, and when rakugo masters began to participate in television broadcasting programmes and thus became recognisable to a wide audience, so the popularity of rakugo began to spread. In these programmes they did not tell rakugo, as rakugo is rarely performed in front of cameras, but the very fact that they are rakugo masters help to ensure that people became interested in rakugo. I don’t know is rakugo theatre influenced contemporary Japanese theatre, though it probably did in some way, but I know that kabuki theatre impacted on the rakugo way of thinking and some principles of performance.
Thanks to you, rakugo theatre is now performed in China, India and Russia. What kind of reception did you receive?
– The most memorable reception was in India, where I performed rakugo before Japanese language students. They reacted better than Japanese students, probably as they are good students.
Belgrade and Tokyo are in different parts of the world and we have different cultures, customs and habits. In your opinion, are those differences felt in daily contact?
– What is certainly different in our two cities is that in Tokyo people hurry a lot, while in Belgrade they walk slowly. The walking speed differs. On the escalator in Tokyo everyone stands to one side so that those who are in a rush can hurry by unhindered. Generally, whenever I come to another city I always consider what is good in that city and what I could apply and improve in Tokyo. After a visit to Belgrade, I know that this is the content of life. You have a richer life here. You socialise more and spend more time together. And that is very positive.
Do you think Western stand-up comedians have been inspired by rakugo performances?
I don’t know. But if rakugo was their source that is an honour for me!
EXHIBITION “DOLLS OF JAPAN”
Puppets From Powdered Seashells
A travelling exhibition of the Japanese Foundation “Dolls of Japan” is appearing in the Belgrade Museum of Applied Arts until 4th July.
Milica Cukić, curator of the exhibition, recalls that “Japan cherishes the unique culture of puppets and has a long tradition of their production. Each doll has its own meaning and purpose, which is deeply connected with everyday life. This centuries’ old valuing of dolls has resulted in the conviction that they are not just toys, but also works of art worthy of admiration.”
The exhibition features fifty dolls, with the aim of presenting to the public the variety and diversity of their types in the Japanese tradition. For example: Hina dolls talk about the Day of Little Girls on 3rd March, when for thousands of years families have presented their set of Hina dolls, praying for the good fortune of their daughter; Gogac dolls, miniature representations of warriors in costumes and armour, which families with male children present on the Day of Boys on 5th May. Also exhibited are dolls representing the best known scenes from the No, Bunraku and Kabuki theatres – all traditional Japanese theatre forms. There are also dolls of Kyoto, city of great traditions, and its speciality consists of sophisticated shapes and luxurious embroidery on costumes. There are also Ojama dolls, which present the fashion styles of Japanese women, especially their hairstyles and costumes. Kimekomi wooden dolls that wear kimono, derived from the kimekomi technique, when pasting coloured dolls draped in fabric. Hakata dolls date from the eponymous work area of Kyushu, made of clay, and are known for their particularly rich colours. Ichimatsu dolls realistically present Japanese children, while there are Kokeshi wooden dolls and many others.
Cukić points out that all of these dolls are characterised by expressive colours that evoke the grandeur of ancient bones, but also the serenity of their faces, which is achieved through careful application of powder from seashells covering the doll’s face. “In Japan dolls are highly prized forms of artistic crafts. Exhibitions of dolls represent the kind of competition where craftsmen demonstrate the finest production techniques using old tried and tested methods. Thus, apart from the beauty of traditional puppets, this exhibition also shows the skill of their masters.”