- Rakugo: Performing Comedy and Cultural Heritage in Contemporary Tokyo
Japan scholars, students, and those interested in traditional performing and narrative arts, early modern and modern history, popular culture, media, humor, and heritage—all these will surely want to have Rakugo: Performing Comedy and Cultural Heritage by Lorie Brau on their shelves, for both research and enjoyment. Rakugo is imperative to consider in gaining a fuller understanding of early modern Japan’s comic literature (gesaku), the origins of modern Japanese literature, and contemporary Japanese humor, so this reviewer welcomes Brau’s book.
Rakugo is a one-man/woman narrative art that requires little more for props, costume, or setting than a paper folding fan, a hand towel, a kimono, and a cushion to kneel. Partly because of this minimalism, rakugo is not discussed with the more dramatically “exciting” Japanese performing arts such as nō, kyōgen, bunraku, and kabuki. Because these four Japanese theater genres showcase much for our visual and aural senses, they have drawn more academic attention in both the West and Japan. Rakugo may also have been over-looked by the West until recently since the primary mode of communication is language. Indeed, in classical stories (those composed in the Edo and Meiji periods) old words and subject matter challenge today’s listeners—Japanese included. Listeners must both come to shows ready to set the stage with their imaginations and having done a bit of research before walking into a yose (variety hall) to listen to rakugo.
One day at lunch, Murakami Haruki translator Jay Rubin asked me, “Sure, rakugo is funny, but can you write about it and still make it funny?” Fear not, Professor Rubin, Lorie Brau has indeed made rakugo “funny,” and still remained objective. Brau’s opening is much like the makura (introduction) to a rakugo story. She efficiently lays out her study on rakugo and offers empathy for her readers, who are new to or perplexed by rakugo. She drolly confesses that she did not understand rakugo at first. “During their recitations, waves of laughter crashed around me, an island of silence” (1). [End Page 191]
Chapter 1, “Ethnographer as Mummy-Hunter,” is an accurate and enjoyable portrayal of rakugo storytellers (hanashika or rakugoka) as kind-spirited people despite being traditional artists. Of special interest is Brau’s personal account of seeking out contacts and teachers. She tells of trying to fit in as a hanashika herself—opening a world that most Japanese (much less Westerners) never see.
Chapter 2, “A Night at the Yose,” is an entertaining “blow-by-blow account” of a telling of Nagaya no hanami (Cherry Blossom Viewing of the Row House Tenants) by the late master hanashika Katsura Bunchō (1942–2005). Brau describes the yose in great detail and makes her readers feel as if they are experiencing the show. This is the most extensive treatment of a single rakugo story published in English to date.
Chapter 3, “What Makes Rakugo Rakugo? ” details the history, functions, themes, characteristics, and traditions of rakugo. Also discussed are rakugo research societies and the classic canon. These final two features make the art important for Japanese cultural knowledge, heritage, and identity.
Chapter 4, “Wits, Outlaws, Flatterers, and Antiquarians: Hanashika Heritage,” elaborates the nature and traditions of hanashika. Brau notes storytellers’ humble spirit and individuality and the fact that more weight is placed on the conference of legitimacy to pupils than actual instruction of their art (i.e., it is initially more important to be able to say, “I am master so-and-so’s pupil,” than be a capable storyteller [though the latter could not hurt]).
Chapter 5, “Rehearsing Tradition: Zenza Apprenticeship and the Hanashika Career,” details the author’s personal experiences and interviews. Brau outlines the busy daily life of zenza (apprentice hanashika) and the trainee’s important role in the yose and gakuya (dressing rooms). Brau also discusses the implication and politics of the more advanced hanashika levels: futatsume...