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!

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