There was originally no classical rakugo, but all the stories were newly written.『やさしい落語』柳家花緑 (“Easy Rakugo” by Yanagiya Karoku)
Today, rakugo stories are divided into two groups: “classical rakugo” (古典落語) and “new rakugo” (新作落語＝newly written rakugo).
But I just learned today that this classification hadn’t existed until the beginning of the Showa period (1926-1989).
Throughout the three previous periods i.e. Edo, Meiji, and Taisho periods, rakugo performers simply talked about the now. *
As you may know, a rakugo performer (落語家) is also known as a “hanashika” (噺家) or a storyteller. The kanji “噺” used in this expression, in fact, means “saying something new”.
Rakugo performers, then, were NOT some defenders of a traditional art but trendy entertainers and social commentators who were ahead of the time and dealt with the current events.
At the beginning of the Showa period, it is said that they performed stories from the Edo period (1603-1868) by replacing the old expressions and contexts to the new.
They told them as new stories.
It is fascinating that since the term “classical rakugo” was invented, those “old” stories were suddenly put on a pedestal and became something that had to be protected dearly.
Of course, I love classical rakugo and would like to learn and perform it as authentically as possible. However, I have to also remember that rakugo performers must stay ahead of the time and speak of the now.
* During these eras, people were either born during the Edo period themselves or had family members who had been born in Edo. Edo was still very much a part of people’s lives, so Edo rakugo still belonged to the now. Early Showa was the time when the remnants of Edo started disappearing.