Rakugo Q&A No.1

As I am one of the few people in the world who runs a rakugo website in English, I sometimes receive enquiries about rakugo from all over the world.

Here are some questions I have received recently. I’ll attempt answering them though they are very broad questions to be answered in a single post. Please note that these are not THE answers 🙂

It is going to be a little technical today, but hope it will help you understand and enjoy rakugo better!

Q1: What are some key points or important points that are vital in practising rakugo? Are there any specific rules?

To me, what makes the rakugo format unique is the concept of “kamishimo” (上下). It is the technique to distinguish multiple characters clearly without confusing the audience. This is crucial as rakugo is performed by a single performer.

It is a very complex technique, but you only need to understand the two rules below to enjoy rakugo:

Rule 1: “Shimote” (下手: Stage Right; from the performer’s perspective) is outside the house, and “kamite” (上手: Stage Left) is inside the house.

For example, when a character faces “shimote”, s/he is talking from inside the house (facing toward outside). On the other hand, if a character is talking to someone inside the house or knocking on the door, s/he always faces “kamite” (Stage Left). This rule developed because in traditional Japanese theatre, the entrance is always located on Stage Right.

Rule 2: If the situation does not involve a house (i.e. everyone is inside/ outside the house), a character in a lower social status faces “kamite” and vice versa.

For example, if a samurai and a farmer are having a conversation outside, the farmer faces to “kamite” and the samurai to “shimote”. However, if a samurai is talking to a farmer inside his/ her house, Rule 1 applies… Confusing enough?

Refer to my master Eiraku’s youtube clip for more details (skip to 4’35”).

Q2: What are the basic skills you need to know in order to perform rakugo?

Some of the basic skills (I think) you need to know are:

  • “Kamishimo”: Refer to Q1 above.
  • Shigusa”: Specific movements to describe certain objects or actions, including the use of a fan (“sensu” or “kaze”- wind) and a towel (“tenugui” or “mandara”- mandala).
    • Fan is often used as: pipe, calligraphy pen, chopsticks, oar, sword, letter, microphone (in modern rakugo), etc.
    • Towel is often used as: wallet, paper, book, cigarette case, etc.
  • Characters: There are specific ways to act out characters (e.g. child, woman, animal, etc.)
  • Voice: Just like any other theatre format, you need to develop a strong voice with good diction, pronunciation, and projection that reaches to the back of the audience.
  • Eye level(s): As rakugo is performed by one person, the eye level(s) (where you look) defines the height of the character. For example, you would look down if an adult character is talking to a child. A child would look up if s/he is talking to an adult. Also, in my personal opinion, eyes can carry a lot of emotions.
  • Hand position: A subtle change in where and how you place your hands on your lap changes the character and his/ her emotions and personalities. You need to minimise hand movements as they can be distracting (which I struggle very much as someone who has lived in the west for more than half his life).

Q3. Could you give me any more information about practising rakugo and how to ensure that the performance is as traditional as possible?

The best way, of course, is to become an apprentice of a rakugo master, but this requires a (more than) full-time commitment and you also have to be able to speak Japanese very fluently. There have been a few non-Japanese performers who went through/ are currently going through the traditional pathway, but this is definitely not for everybody.

I would say finding someone with rakugo experience and learning it directly from him/ her is the only way to ensure its authenticity.

Fortunately, a shin’uchi (master) rakugo performer, Yanagiya Tozaburo, has just moved to New York to spread rakugo, so you can possibly learn the skills directly from him if you are based in US.

My master, Kanariya Eiraku, offers a correspondence course, so you could also contact him. He is considered one of the experts in English Rakugo.

Though I am still learning the art myself, you can join my rakugo club if you are based in New Zealand. We currently have around 7 people in the club. It is free to join though financial support is always appreciated!

To begin with, I recommend you to watch rakugo in Japanese, which is available all over the internet. Even if you don’t understand Japanese, you can see how the techniques mentioned above are actually used.

For English Rakugo, Canary English Rakugo Company and Katsura Sushine‘s Youtube channels are the best available online.

Hope this article will help you enjoy rakugo better!

If you liked this article, please do share it with your family and friends!

“Karakusa” Pattern and the Art of Stealing Your Heart

Here is a pop quiz.

The design above, the white squiggles with the green background, is called the “karakusa pattern” (唐草模様 からくさもよう).

Q: What is the first thing that comes to a Japanese person’s mind when s/he sees this pattern?

If a “furoshiki” (風呂敷 ふろしき) or a Japanese traditional wrapping cloth came to your mind, you know a lot about the Japanese culture.

It was the most common patterns used for furoshiki.

Furoshiki, Japanese traditional wrapping cloth

However, many Japanese people would also think of burglars.

In the olden days, furoshiki with this pattern was so common that most families owned at least one at home.

When a burglar broke into a house, s/he just grabbed a furoshiki sitting around in the room, wrapped his/ her new acquisitions, and ran away. They didn’t even have to take their own furoshiki as they were literally everywhere.

So the answer to the question is a furoshiki or a burglar.

But did you know that stories about burglars are considered auspicious in the rakugo world?

This is because burglars are good at stealing.

Rakugo performers also wish to be good at stealing audience’s hearts just like burglars.

Recently, an anonymous person sent me a generous donation for my rakugo work (by the way, here is the link if you have a burning desire to support me).

As I was very moved by his/ her kindness, I decided to use a small portion of the donation to buy something to remember him/ her.

This is what I bought.

It’s a pouch for my rakugo fan.

A fan to a rakugo performer is like a sword to a samurai. It is something that encapsulates the essence of what we do. So a pouch for my rakugo fan is a very significant item for me.

You know why I chose the one with the “karakusa” pattern.

I will keep polishing my skills so I can be better at stealing people’s hearts with my stories.

My 15 Years in Comedy!

About a week ago, I randomly realised that I had been performing comedy in New Zealand for almost 15 years.

Time flies, indeed…

Though I have changed the forms of my comedic expression, I have been pretty consistently involved in comedy until today. It’s nothing to do with my suitability or will power, but it’s like a bad addiction that I can’t get rid of.

I started my comedy career as a stand-up comedian.

I don’t remember the exact date I did my first open mic, but it was in the first week of November in 2004. The MC of the night was my favourite comedian, Mark Scott.

I was pretty average as a stand-up comedian (just good enough to make tens and tens of dollars), but stand-up taught me the basic of the western comedy like its timing, delivery, and the Kiwi sense of humour, which was the hardest for me to pick up.

There were some highlights and lowlights just like in any old career.

I disappeared from the stand-up scene when my wife and I decided to start a family. It was my attempt to become a responsible adult… but it wasn’t quite successful.

Remember? I’m an addict.

As the lure of comedy was too strong, I soon started getting involved in improv comedy with a hope that I wouldn’t have to spend hours writing materials anymore.

I was wrong.

I still had to practice quite a bit. There were heaps of workshops to attend.

I did some awesome scenes and devastatingly awful scenes along the way.

Again, I was quite an average improviser. I still have so much respect for good improvisers. If you master improv, you can pretty much accomplish most things in your life.

In 2016, when I was just about to turn 40, I questioned myself what I really wanted to do with my life. It was clear that I wanted to do rakugo, the Japanese traditional comedy I learned when I was a teenager.

Rakugo has been a big part of my life since I was around 10. When I was at university, I loved rakugo so much that I attempted to become an official apprentice of a rakugo performer.

I chickened out at the last minute because I didn’t have confidence to survive the traditional, feudalistic training. I gave up the traditional pathway to learn the art and instead decided to study theatre in America where I spent the next 5 years of my life.

I was very lucky to meet my English rakugo master Kanariya Eiraku, who was willing to teach the art to me in a long distance relationship. I am very delighted and proud that his art has been receiving international recognition in recent years. I am very excited that I will possibly perform with him next year both in New Zealand and Australia!!!

After all these years of performing comedy (4 years in Japan, 5 years in US, and 15 years in NZ), I eventually went back to rakugo where I started.

This reminds me of the parable in Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist”.

I already had the treasure when I started out.

Many years later, I finally realised that I had been carrying the treasure all along!!!

Now I know what my real treasure is.

If you are reading this paragraph, you must be either my family, close friend, hardcore fan, or stalker. Thank you very much for your continued support!!! I still do what I do because of the people like you!!!

Doumo arigatou gozaimasu!!!

Enough reminiscing.

Now get back to work!